Ethics in a Vacuum by Phillip E. Johnson

Ethics in a Vacuum

The Watergate scandals of the early 1970s involved so many lawyers that the law schools and bar associations felt compelled to placate the public by requiring students and lawyers to take courses in legal ethics.

Whether this development benefited the public would be hard to say, but it certainly benefited some law professors such as myself. I taught professional responsibility (legal ethics) at two prominent law schools and even earned some nice fees testifying as an expert in the subject.

Once a gentleman’s way of behaving towards other gentlemen, professional responsibility has become merely another economic regulatory system—the regulation of the behavior of lawyers. Like all other officially recognized forms of knowledge, it deals with means rather than ends. In accomplishing whatever they want or need to do, lawyers must stay within certain limits or they may get into trouble. The same is true of insurance salesmen. In both cases, you might teach economic actors to be careful by teaching them the rules and the danger of getting caught, but you will not teach them to be virtuous that way.

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Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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