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49 Ohio St. L.J. 703 (1988-1989)


Socrates went around Athens telling law teachers and law students that their highest concern should be to be good people. And, he said, the next and consequent concern of the profession should be to show the citizens of Athens how to be good people. For Socrates, as for virtually all of classical moral philosophy and much of Jewish and Christian moral theology, ethical discussion is discussion about the good person. When we talk about Aristotle's man of practical wisdom, or when we talk about heroes, saints, role models, paragons, or professional examplars, it is the good person we are talking about. The ethics that supports such moral talk is founded in disciplined curiosity about the good person. In this way, traditional ethics informed those who taught the young. It showed teachers how to hold up the good person as a coherent object of admiration and a coherent source of moral standards.

There is a difference between the good person, as a source of moral standards, and ethical reflection on right and wrong actions. The difference is of considerable importance to modern professional ethics—to legal ethics, I think. Our little corner of the modern academic enterprise hardly knows what to say about good people. It hardly knows, and so it says nothing about goodness but a lot about freedom and autonomy.

What I want to try to do in these lectures is to revive the relevance in legal ethics of the good person. I hope then to be able to consider, in your company, both of us then being in the company of the revived good person, two questions that modem American legal ethics seems almost unable to contemplate. One of these questions is the primacy of human relationships, the fact that we people are connected to one another, and connected radically (at the roots). We belong. It is not that we belong—that we are connected—because of our choices, but that we make the choices we do because we are connected. We belong before we make choices; we make the choices we make because we belong.

The second question I hope to be able to consider with you, after trying to revive the good person, is whether our moral choices are like the "cases" in our legal-ethics casebooks. Are our moral choices decisions we make after some neutral mental agency within each of us establishes the facts and states the considerations? The common way of "doing" professional ethics poses sets of facts and arguments that are gathered out of observation and experience and then presented to the will, so that the will can reach a moral choice on them. I want to suggest to you that our moral quality is more pervasive than that and that it functions in what we see and remember and know more radically than it functions in what we choose.


Reprinted with permission of Ohio State Law Journal.



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