In America, law is a cultural practice. Americans are dedicated to living as a community under “the rule of law.” This commitment to a legal way of life cannot be reduced to an equally strong devotion to a moral form of being. That is, the two dimensions of experience are incommensurable (which does not mean that they are wholly insulated or separate from one another). One consequence of this normative condition is that the demands arising from a commitment to law are not always reconcilable with those stemming from moral beliefs. At the same time, neither obligation has priority over the other. For the individual in his or her role as a lawyer, this indicates that he or she may be required to act in a manner that is not defensible on any moral ground, but is still capable of justification. As an analysis of the character of the lawyer’s life, these facts reveal a basic truth: the life of the lawyer is an inherently conflicted, and an absolutely meaningful, one.
This argument presents a direct challenge to contemporary legal ethics discourse, in its most essential aspects. In this Article, this argument takes the form of a defense of a new orientation toward our thinking about the practice of law, which is the cultural study of the lawyer (cultural study understood as a type of philosophical anthropology). An in-depth introduction to this line of reasoning is presented, an explanation that appeals to a variety of fields of knowledge, including jurisprudence, epistemology, political theory, and moral philosophy. The goal is to convince the reader of the propriety, and the power, of this form of inquiry into a lawyer’s professional responsibility. The benefit is an understanding of lawyer ethics that is both realistic and hopeful.