Deontological Ethics: What??
Deontological ethics plays a huge role determining my actions, in life and in the court. (Of course, the Alabama Bar’s opinions on Ethical Conduct are also major factors in my decision making process.)
Deontological ethics or more commonly known as deontology is derived from the Greek words, obligation, duty. It is a type of ethics that deduces if an action is moral based on the action’s adherence to a rule or duty. Deontology can be contrasted with Consequialist ethical theories. Consequentialism is basically the belief that the rightness of action is determined by its consequences. These two theories boil down to this: Did you do the right thing because it was the right thing to do (deontological)? Or did you do the right thing because the outcome was good (consequialist)?
Immanuel Kant argued that the good thing will be determined by the good will of the person or the motive of that person. So, if a person decides to lie then it is wrong; never mind that some good may have come from it. In contrast, W.D.Ross argues that if the consequences of, say lying, turns out good that would make lying the right thing to do.
This seems like a difference without a distinction, but it’s not. We should never lie, not as people, not as clients and not as attorneys. So, I guess I’m a deontological. But then again, I did just tell someone I liked their painting (my office is next to an Art Gallery) and it wasn’t true. It was a hideous painting, one that I would never hang on a wall – not even the garage.
So, my lie – or what is more affectionately referred to as a “white lie” – had good consequences, as the proud owner of that art smiled. Wait, because he called it art – was that a lie?…Nevermind, this could go on and on. The truth is I lied.
But to really get to the point of all this, as an attorney, I have a job to do. My job is to be honest with my clients despite the outcome. My honesty with the court is my job. My actions should be of pure motive. I never intend to be hurtful nor do I ever intend to cause harm. However, I am a firm believer in a little harm is better than a lot. By that I mean, I’d rather shoot it straight – watch my client squirm but know my infliction of short lived pain will save them chronic pain down the road.
I have an obligation to myself, to my clients and to the Court to be honest. I strive to fulfill that obligation daily. However, I find that my actions produce results which bring me harm. People get mad at me, they think I’m stirring. Attorneys, lawyers, sharks – whatever people call us, took an oath to protect the Constitution which brings with it a duty to zealously represent my clients. And, if the other side doesn’t like it…then they can’t handle the truth. I have been on the other side at times too! Don’t get me wrong.
Going back to the ethics debate above, I think one could find a balance between the two schools of thought: white lie = good – nobody gets hurt, thus the motive is pure. Bad lie which produces a desirable result in Court or in a settlement = not good. What about evasiveness? That’s for another time.
My husband recently presented me with a plaque: Lawyer on Duty…the truth nothing but the truth cleverly delivered. I wonder under what theory that little gem travels?!