Spotlight’s ethical question about lawyers

A profession that is known for its intersection with ethics is the practice of law. In this country, as well as many others, the cornerstone of being a lawyer involves client confidentiality. This issue was brought to my attention the other day while watching the Oscar winner for best picture “Spotlight”. This film chronicles the Boston Globe investigation that eventually uncovered proof that the Catholic Church was allowing hundreds of rapist priests to go virtually unpunished and to keep their jobs. I’m not trying to spoil anything here if you haven’t seen the film , so I think you can read on. Essentially, it was discovered that there was systematic failure that allowed this to go on for a long time. At the center of this were the lawyers who were hired by the Catholic Church to work on these cases. Long story short, they were profiting by defending these priests over and over again. They all knew what was going on and they never said a word because the church trusted them and continued to dish out the cash. These deals were all settled privately and the victims signed confidentiality agreements. So, the lawyers got their payday, the victims kept their mouths shut and the Catholic Church kept their clean image. I highly recommend you watch the film.


So this brings up probably hundreds of ethical questions. The question of client confidentiality is at the center of this. The lawyers knew exactly what was happening. They were allowing the priests to get off essentially scot-free or with a small fine and the story was kept quiet. As a lawyer, you are required to keep your cases confidential, but at some point would it be ethical to expose a systematic issue? I’m sure there would have been ways for the lawyers to expose this story without breaking their duty. In terms of virtue ethics this would be a bit tricky because in virtue ethics, context is pretty important. Included in the context of this situation is the fact that lawyers are required to uphold client confidentiality. But, virtue ethics also begs the question, what would a virtuous person do in this situation. A virtuous “lawyer” would be ethical to maintain confidentiality, but a virtuous person would be appalled by this and find a way to stop it. To be honest I think this school of ethics is tough to apply to this situation but my guess would be to say that the lawyers acted ethically by the views of this theory. Mainly I say this because the moral community in this situation is immoral, which was one of the weaknesses we listed for this theory.


It is also worth noting that deontology places high value on ones professional duty. So, at first glance it would seem that deontology would agree that the lawyers in this situation would be ethical to keep quiet and allow this to continue on as it is their duty as lawyers to maintain confidentiality about their cases. But the idea of universality needs to come into play here. If everyone did this, what would the world be like? Asking this question is the best way for me to determine if something is ethical within deontology. Thus, I would say that it is unethical because if this were universal, criminals would get away with things all the time, even beyond the realm of law. Finally, the most clear cut way to approach this issue would be from the perspective of utilitarian ethics, that aims to create a net benefit to society and reduce bad outcomes. Clearly utilitarian ethics would not condone the actions of these lawyers.


I want to step back for a moment from the schools of ethics and look at this from a neutral view. This is a really tough situation to judge in some ways. Of course, nobody would want this to continue to happen, as it is wildly unethical to allow children to be abused by people in power. The only issue here is that, although a lawyer may agree that what is happening is unethical, what can they do if they must maintain confidentiality? My guess would be that there must be a way to stop the madness, but it is probably tricky business. As a lawyer it would be hard to toe this line because if you go too far you could lose your license to practice law. It is sort of like what happened in Nazi Germany. People felt pressured to keep with the nom because they feared they would be killed or prisoned for going against the grain. Confidentiality serves many key roles in good law and I won’t talk about that now. Feel free to take a stab at this in the comment section below because that was the one thing that puzzled me from the movie and it was the ethical issue that I thought was most intriguing.


4 thoughts on “Spotlight’s ethical question about lawyers

  1. This is an interesting topic. Nice post…Ive heard of this greater issue before, but not of the movie. Ill have to take a look at it. Regardless, its cases like these that I wouldnt want to be a lawyer. Its difficult to judge the ethical considerations since lawyers are supposed to maintain a fiduciary responsible to their clients who hire and pay them. As you mention, my initial thought too is that deontology might suggest this is, dare i say, “ethical” because the lawyers are just performing their professional duty. But in considering virtue ethics, you have to look at the morality and values of the agent–the lawyer. Nobody would argue that this is ethical, so any rational and ethical lawyer would not accept the case. But, it seems to be more an issue of the system, as this is certainly not an isolated example of lawyers acting in unethical ways.


  2. Interesting post! I think its ironic that lawyers, whose profession is essentially to be the gatekeeper of ethics, are faced with the problem of being unethical. As you mentioned with client confidentiality, it is hard to separate duty within the field and universal ethics. If a lawyer is defending a client to whom they know is guilty, is it considered a breach of ethics when they win the trial and their defendant escapes free of charge? Technically, they simply preformed their job and preformed it well, but simultaneously created a danger to society by releasing a criminal. As Brady mentioned, I think that this may be more of an issue in regards to the legal system as a whole than on the individual level.


  3. I, too, was impacted by the gravity of this film when I watched it, Spencer. Just from an observational point of view, I think you’re on target with the ethics argument. From what I gathered from the film, yeah, the priests were utilitarian, the lawyers deontological, and the reporters virtue. However, I started wondering if the journalists were sort of a combination of all three ethics: big story means big bucks (utilitarian), society expects the media to be the fact checkers of society (deontological), and the motivation to pursue the case further than what was comfortably feasible (virtue). I’m sure a different combination can be said for the lawyers – but a combination nonetheless.


  4. Loved this movie and glad it won best picture at the Oscars. In terms of the ethical dilemma with the lawyers, it seems like they are stuck. This same question can be applied to just about every case involving a seriously heinous crime. This leads me to look outside the sphere of the law to potential preventative measures or incentives for creating whistleblowers. This is one of the hardest topics to tackle though considering it is the catholic church. Scary stuff.


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