Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Moral Mazes of Legal Practice

One of the best books you could ever read (and I'm not kidding here) is Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. The core of the book is his demonstration of how the institutional structure and practice within which individuals work sets their moral boundaries and leads them into what would otherwise be very questionable moral behavior (to put it politely). I immediately thought of that book as I read the very tardy third part of the series The Situationist has been running on the moral world of lawyers. They're focusing on how the "moral mazes" concept works on corporate attorneys as well, how the attorneys come to tie their own behavior and moral outlook to the perspectives of the corporate managers, losing both the welfare of the actual organization and of themselves in the process.

However, it doesn't take much imagination (as demonstrated by my doing it) to translate the post into language more common to criminal justice and corrections sentencing. As I've lamented ad nauseum, too many practitioners in our criminal justice [sic] process have let the structures and process bound their sense of morality and decency to the detriment of both the larger society they're supposed to be serving and to themselves as well. Prosecutors who forget the wide range of needs of the community they're serving that must all be met and balanced as they overidentify with "good guys and bad guys" (and forget that "good guys" frequently are or can become bad guys, too, in their zeal); defense counsel who claim it doesn't matter if bad guys are let back out on the street to do more bad; judges who may play either game or just abdicate their responsibility to sort it all out--they all contribute mightily to the world of illegitimate law and cultural cheating and corruption that highlight 21st century America.

What Moral Mazes and The Situationist's post tell us is that it's usually all unintentional and virtually inevitable given the institutional structures and processes that we've arterioschlerosized (!!) over the decades and centuries. They also tell us that to expect change internally is likely a fool's game. Too many sunk costs, too many people who'll deny they're even under water so deep. The necessary change will have to come from outside, from those not immersed. But first a viable alternative has to be available to make change attractive, and the costs of doing nothing have to become so high that they can't be denied. The latter is storming over the horizon at full speed. But we have to do more work on the former, don't we.

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