Law students with a background in philosophy are sure to notice the strong influence of moral philosophy on legal thinking. Theories like Kant's moral philosophy have had a profound influence on the idea of fairness and on the conception of rights that is at the heart of deontological legal theory. Utilitarianism and the law reform agenda of Jeremy Bentham provide an important inspiration for the normative version of law and economics. But if you recently studied moral philosophy as an undergraduate or in graduate school, you might notice that something is missing. The moral philosophy pie can be cut in many ways, but the conventional slicing divides normative moral theory into three kinds: (1) deontological moral theories (e.g. Kant and contractualism), (2) consequentialist moral theory (e.g. utilitarianism and welfarism), and (3) aretaic moral theories (e.g. virtue ethics). Recently, however, a variety of legal theorists have begun to consider the implications of aretaic (virtue-centered) moral theory for the law.
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon series provides an introduction to "virtue jurisprudence." As always, the discussion is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory.
Modern Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Legal Theory
The Legal Theory Lexicon already includes entries on Utilitarianism and Deontology, two of the most influential approaches for moral philosophy. In an essay titled Modern Moral Philosophy, Elizabeth Anscombe famously noted persistent problems with the deontological and utilitarian approaches that dominated normative ethics when she wrote in 1958. Anscombe's suggestion was for moral philosophers to return to Aristotle, and that is just what happened. Starting in the 1960s and accelerating through the 1980s and 1990s, there was a trickle and then an avalanche of philosophical work on virtue ethics--an approach to moral theory that emphasizes character and the virtues--as opposed to right action (deontology) or good consequences (utilitarianism). A prior entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon provided an introduction to virtue ethics and you might want to review that before you continue with this post.
Modern legal theory has strong connections with modern moral philosophy. Historically, the connection is evident in the work of Jeremy Bentham: his work combined a conceptual separation of law and morality with a utilitarian program of legal reform. Contemporary legal scholarship frequently invokes general moral theories, including preference-satisfaction utilitarianism and deontological theories like Kant’s, to make arguments about what the law should be. Such normative legal theories are addressed to lawmakers (in the broad sense), including legislators and adjudicators. Developments in political philosophy, sparked by John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and its libertarian and communitarian critics, have met with avid attention from the legal academy.
Virtue Ethics and Legal Theory
There is, however, an exception to general reflection of developments in moral philosophy in legal theory. Legal philosophy (as practiced by philosophers or academic lawyers) has only recently paid attention to one of the most significant developments in moral theory in the second half of the twentieth century, the emergence of virtue ethics.
An outpouring of articles and monographs attests to the interest of philosophers in virtue ethics. In the law, the situation has been different. The hegemony of deontological and utilitarian theories prevails, at least among legal theorists working in the common-law tradition. There are, however, a growing number of exceptions to this hegemony. A growing number of legal scholars have discussed virtue ethics in their work.
Towards a Virtue Jurisprudence
A full account of the implications of virtue ethics and epistemology for legal theory is a very large topic. Among the issues raised by virtue jurisprudence are the following:
- Virtue ethics has implications for an account of the proper ends of legislation. If the aim of law is to make citizens virtuous (as opposed to maximizing utility or realizing a set of moral rights), what are the implications for the content of the laws?
- Virtue ethics has implications for legal ethics. Current approaches to ethical lawyering emphasize deontological moral theory, i.e. duties to clients and respect for client autonomy, and these deontological approaches are reflected in the various codes of professional conduct that have been devised for lawyers, judges, and legislators. How can we reconceive legal ethics from a virtue-centered perspective?
- Accounts of the virtue of justice (in particular, Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s theories of natural justice) have implications for debates between natural lawyers and legal positivists over the nature of law.
Much recent work on virtue jurisprudence has focused on the relationship between virtue and particular areas of substantive law. In the bibliography for this entry, you will find articles that discuss virtue and contract law and aretaic approaches to property law.
In this Legal Theory Lexicon post, however, I will discuss only one aspect of virtue jurisprudence--a virtue-centered theory of judging in general and the virtue of justice in particular. Virtue-centered theories of judging answer the question: How should judges decide the controversies that are presented to them? A virtue-centered theory of judging provides an answer along the following lines: Judges should decide cases in accord with the virtues, or judges should render the decisions that would be made by a virtuous judge.
A Virtue-Centered Theory of Judging
How would a virtue-centered theory of judging go? Let’s begin with the uncontroversial idea that good judging is inconsistent with the worst judicial vices and that it requires some minimal set of judicial virtues.
The Thin Theory of Judicial Vice--Begin with the assumption that humans have characters. More particularly, let’s assume that humans have dispositional traits that incline them to behave in more or less predictable ways. Our vocabulary is rich with words to describe such traits. We use terms like “coward,” “procrastinator,” “reliable,” “hard-working,” “studious,” “curious,” “sensitive,” and so forth. Following Aristotle, let’s sort the traits, picking out those which we count as human excellences, “virtues,” and those which we count as defects, “vices.” Let’s set the virtues and any traits that are neutral to the side, and focus on the defects—traits like cowardice, gluttony, avariciousness, foolishness, and so forth.
Are there judicial vices that are inconsistent with excellence in judging? Once asked, the question answers itself. Hardly anyone thinks that corruption and incompetence are consistent with excellence in judging.
We can systematize the worst judicial vices, borrowing Aristotle’s distinction between intellectual and moral character traits. There are two important intellectual vices that are inconsistent with excellent judging. The first of these is judicial stupidity. Judges who suffer from this vice in its worst form lack the intelligence (and hence also the knowledge) necessary to do the complex intellectual work required of judges. They do not know what the rules of law are, and they are unable to see how they could be applied in particular fact situations. The second intellectual vice is judicial foolishness. Even a very smart judge can have terrible practical judgment. A foolish judge may know the law, but he cannot discern the difference between the rules that are important to the case and those that are only marginally relevant. Foolish judges are likely to make impractical demands are the lawyers and parties who appear before them.
There are also moral vices that should are inconsistent with excellent adjudication. The most obvious of these is corruption. Judges should not accept bribes. Although judges are only infrequently in physical danger, they are more frequently faced with situations in which rendering the legally correct decision might injure their popularity, social standing, or opportunities for promotion or nonjudicial work. Hence we should not select civil cowards for judicial office. Judges are often placed in anger-inducing situations. A judge who is prone to fly off the handle at small provocations is not likely to be effective in the courtroom, and hence we ought not to select the hot-tempered for judicial office.
What I have offered is a thin theory of judicial vice. This is a thin theory, because it rests on very weak assumptions about what counts as bad character. So far as I can see, no sensible normative account of judicial selection provides good reasons to reject the normative implications of the thin theory of judicial vice. No one wants stupid, foolish, corrupt, cowardly, or hot-tempered judges. Of course, these vices are not always apparent when candidates are nominated and confirmed for judicial office. There are, I am afraid, some judges on the bench today who possess the full range of these vices.
The Thin Theory of Judicial Virtue--The next step in our investigation of the judicial virtues is simple. If you accept the thin theory of judicial vice, you should also accept a thin theory of judicial virtues. Why? The basic reason is conceptual: virtue is required for the absence of vice. To select a judge who lacks the intellectual defect of judicial stupidity, you must select a candidate who has the corresponding virtue of judicial intelligence. To avoid, civic cowardice, you must select a judge with the virtue of civic courage. To avoid corruption, you must select a judge with the virtue of temperance. To avoid, ill temper, you must look for candidates who have judicial temperaments. A fully-developed virtue jurisprudence would flesh out this list of judicial virtues--specifying the character traits and mental abilities that make for good judging.
A Preliminary List of the Judicial Virtues So let's make a tentative list of judicial virtues:
Judicial Sobriety--Sober as a judge" is the say that expresses the idea that judges should have what was classically called the virtue of temperance. Good judging requires that one’s desires be in order. This is clear when the temperate judge is contrasted to the judge who lacks the ability to control her appetites. Judges who care too much for their own pleasures are prone to temptation; they are likely to be swayed from the course of reason and justice by the temptations of pleasure. A libertine judge may indulge in pleasures that interfere with the heavy deliberative demands of the office. Hence, the saying “sober as a judge,” reflects the popular understanding that excessive indulgence in hedonist pleasures would interfere with excellence in the judicial role.
Judicial Courage--A second virtue, judicial courage is a form of “civic courage.” The courageous judge is willing to risk career and reputation for the ends of justice.
Judicial Temperament--A third virtue, judicial temperament, corresponds to the vice of bad temper. The traditional concern in judicial selection with judicial temperament is illuminated by Aristotle's account of the virtue of good temper or proates: the disposition to anger that is proportionate to the provocation and the situation. The virtue of good temper requires that judges feel outrage on the right occasions for the right reasons and that they demonstrate their anger in an appropriate manner.
Judicial Intelligence--The corrective for the vices of judicial stupidity and ignorance is a form of sophia or theoretical wisdom. I shall use the phrase “judicial intelligence” to refer to excellence in understanding and theorizing about the law. A good judge must be learned in the law; she must have the ability to engage in sophisticated legal reasoning. Moreover, judges need the ability to grasp the facts of disputes that may involve particular disciplines such as accounting, finance, engineering, or chemistry. Of course, judicial intelligence is related to theoretical wisdom in general, but the two are not necessarily identical. The talents that produce theoretical wisdom in the law may be different from those that produce the analogous intellectual virtue in physics, philosophy, or microbiology. Or it may be that theoretical wisdom is the same for all these disciplines. If this is the case, then judicial intelligence may simply be general theoretical wisdom supplemented by the skills or knacks that produce fine legal thought combined with deep knowledge of the law.
Judicial Wisdom--The final virtue on my short list is the corrective for bad judgment or foolishness. I shall use the phrase “judicial wisdom” to refer to a judge’s possession of the virtue of phronesis or practical wisdom: the good judge must possess practical wisdom in her selection of the proper legal ends and means. Practical wisdom is the virtue that enables one to make good choices in particular circumstances. The person of practical wisdom knows which particular ends are worth pursuing and knows which means are best suited to achieve those ends. Judicial wisdom is simply the virtue of practical wisdom as applied to the choices that must be made by judges. The practically wise judge has developed excellence in knowing what goals to pursue in the particular case and excellence in choosing the means to accomplish those goals. In the literature of legal theory, Karl Llewellyn’s notion of “situation sense” captures much of the content of the notion that judicial wisdom corresponds to the intellectual virtue of phronesis.
This abstract account of judicial wisdom can be made more concrete by considering the contrast between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom in the judicial context. The judge who possesses theoretical wisdom is the master of legal theory, with the ability to engage in sophisticated legal reasoning and insight into subtle connections in legal doctrine. But even a judge who possesses judicial intelligence is not necessarily a reliably good judge, even if she employs the correct decision procedure in her judicial decision-making. Why not? An answer to this question begins by clarifying the distinction between judicial intelligence and judicial wisdom.
Beyond a Thin Theory of Judicial Virtue
A thin theory of judicial virtue should prove uncontroversial because it avoids the tough questions about judging. Formalists and realists, conservatives and liberals—all can endorse a thin theory of judicial virtue, because thin theories don’t answer hard questions. We can distinguish thin theories of judicial virtue from theories that are “thick.” A thick theory of judicial virtue expands the list of judicial excellences to include characteristics of mind and will that are controversial. Corresponding to any particular normative theory of judging we can postulate a thick theory of judicial virtue that specifies those dispositions and capacities that are required for excellent judging according to the criteria provided by the particular theory.
An example may help. Consider Dworkin’s imaginary judge, Hercules, who decides cases by constructing the theory that fits and justifies the law as a whole; this task can only be accomplished by someone who is able to appreciate legal complexity and to see the subtle interconnections between various legal doctrines summarized in the slogan, “the law is a seamless web.” Moreover, Dworkin’s theory requires judges to have a special concern for the coherence of the law, a virtue we might call “judicial integrity.” But other normative theories of judging may not value this characteristic. For example, “judicial integrity” might not be important to an act-utilitarian theory of judging. Perhaps, the act-utilitarian would consider Hercules to be obsessed with consistency—the hobgoblin of a foolish mind.
Instrumental and Virtue-Centered Theories
Thick theories of judicial virtue may be divided in two kinds, instrumental and virtue-centered. Instrumental theories of judicial virtue are those which begin with some independent criteria for what constitutes a good judicial decision and then selects a list of judicial virtues based on those criteria. For example, many normative theories of judging are decision (or outcome) centered. A decision-centered theory offers criteria for what should count as a good, right, just, or legally valid decision. For a decision-centered theory of virtue, the notion of a correct decision is primary and the judicial virtues are derived from it. Thus, Dworkin’s description of Hercules begins with the criteria for good decisions and then constructs the ideal judge who is able to render such decisions. By way of contrast, a virtue-centered theory does not proceed in this way. Rather, a virtue-centered theory begins with the an account of the virtuous judges as primary and then proceed to derive the notion of a virtuous decision from it.
A Virtue-Centered Theory
So what would a virtue-centered theory look like? This is just a blog post, so I can only give you a brief outline. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, we can formulate a virtue-centered theory of judging in the form of five definitions:
- A judicial virtue is a naturally possible disposition of mind or will that when present with the other judicial virtues reliably disposes its possessor to make correct decisions. The judicial virtues include but are not limited to temperance, courage, good temper, intelligence, wisdom, and justice.
- A virtuous judge is a judge who possesses the judicial virtues.
- A virtuous decision is a decision made by a virtuous judge acting from the judicial virtues in the circumstances that are relevant to the decision.
- A lawful decision is a decision that would be characteristically made by a virtuous judge in the circumstances that are relevant to the decision. The phrase “legally correct” is synonymous with the phrase “lawful” in this context.
The central normative thesis of a virtue-centered theory of judging is that judges ought to be virtuous and to make virtuous decisions. Judges who lack the virtues should aim to make lawful or legally correct decisions, although they may not be able to do this reliably given that they lack the virtues. Judges who lack the judicial virtues ought to develop them. Judges ought to be selected on the basis of their possession of (or potential for the acquisition of) the judicial virtues.
Of course, this very short introduction raises many more questions than it answers. But I hope that even this very sketchy account of one aspect of virtue jurisprudence has sparked your interest. Some of the most interesting applications of virtue ethics to legal theory can be found in torts and criminal law, and we haven't even touched on those. Another very interesting set of questions arises from the notion that the aim of the law is to inculcate virtue--an idea that may be at odds with pluralist idea that morals is a matter of individual choice.
For a short introduction to my own work, check out Virtue Jurisprudence: An Aretaic Theory of Judging and Natural Justice.
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 008: Utilitarianism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 010: Deontology
- Legal Theory Lexicon 012: Virtue Ethics
- Virtue Jurisprudence (edited by Colin Farrelly & Lawrence B. Solum, Palgrave-Macmillan 2008).
- Chapin Cimino, Virtue and Contract Law (2010).
- Chapin Cimino, Public Law, Public Consequences, and Virtue Jurisprudence (2010).
- Eric Claeys, Virtue and Rights in American Property Law (2009).
- Sherman J. Clark, Neoclassical Public Virtues: Towards an Aretaic Theory of Law-Making (and Law Teaching) (2010).
- Colin Farrely & Lawrence B. Solum, eds., Virtue Jurisprudence (Palgrave 2008).
- Kyron Huigens, Nietzsche and Aretaic Legal Theory (2003).
- Eduardo M. Penlaver, Land Virtues (2008).
- Frederick Schauer, Must Virtue Be Particular? (2010).
- Lawrence B. Solum Virtue Jurisprudence: An Aretaic Theory of Judging (2003).
- Lawrence B. Solum, Natural Justice (2006).
- Ekow N. Yankah, Virtue's Domain (2008).
- Ekow N. Yankah, The Law of Duty and the Virtue of Justice (2008).
- Law, Virtue and Justice (Edited by Amalia Amaya and Ho Hock Lai, Hart Publishing 2012).
- Aristotle and The Philosophy of Law: Theory, Practice and Justice (Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice) (Edited by Liesbeth Huppes-Cluysenaer & Nuno M.M.S. Coelho, Springer 2013.
Resources on the Web
(This entry last revised on January 27, 2018.)