Lessons from Thomas More's Dilemma of Conscience: Reconciling the Clash between a Lawyer's Beliefs and Professional Expectations
Morant, Blake D., St. John's Law Review
The story of Sir Thomas More, the former Lord Chancellor of England1 who refused to endorse King Henry VIII's ecclesiastical proclamations, has become legendary fodder for historians2 and playwrights.3 The resulting plethora of literature is no doubt due to More's extraordinary adherence to the theological principles that fueled his refusal to capitulate to power-a stance which ultimately led to his demise by decapitation.4
Thomas More's legacy takes center stage each summer at St. Dunstan's Church, Canterbury, England,5 where the martyr's head is buried.6 This historical and physical connection to More has inspired St. Dunstan's to sponsor an annual lecture devoted to More's teachings, philosophies, and life.
The gracious invitation to deliver the 2003 St. Thomas More memorial lecture at St. Dunstan's Church compelled me to study More's life7 with particular emphasis on the impact of his moral convictions on his professional decision-making. My research revealed the degree to which his historic confrontations with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell have continuing relevance to legal scholars and practitioners.8 This legacy, and the honor to deliver the St. Thomas More lecture, inspired this admittedly modest Article.
In my view, Thomas More's professional life, which is characterized most often by his refusal to endorse the objectives of King Henry VIII, exemplifies the recurrent conflict between a lawyer's personal beliefs or convictions and the professional expectations of the sovereign.9 I contend that these two value systems are in periodic conflict for many who practice law. Like More, most lawyers bring into their decision-making processes personal beliefs that are moralistic in character and endemic to their sense of personhood. These beliefs, which I also refer to as moral codes, often have their genesis in a higher, even Divine authority. This certainly was true for Thomas More, whose personal beliefs were grounded in ecclesiastical and theological principles.10
Personal beliefs are often tested in the legal profession. Adherence to these beliefs might prove difficult if professional expectations compel a counter-response.11 A lawyer caught in this dilemma must choose one of two alternatives: like Thomas More, she might adhere strictly to her beliefs and suffer the consequences from her failure to accommodate the sovereign's goals;12 alternatively, she might take a more pragmatic stance that accommodates professional expectations without the complete abandonment of personal beliefs. Of course, compromise, depending upon the extent to which beliefs are abandoned, may lead to cognitive dissonance,13 which many, including presumptively More, could not tolerate.14
The clash between personal beliefs and professional expectations has become a troublesome truism in the modern practice of law. For example, if a lawyer believes that certain acts contravene deeply held moral convictions, how could that lawyer in good conscience defend an individual who admittedly committed one of those acts?15 If asked to render a legal opinion that might stymie the will of the sovereign, would the reviewing lawyer's ultimate opinion reflect an objective interpretation of applicable rules, or will she manipulate those rules to ensure the fulfillment of the sovereign's expectations?16
Thomas More would have presumably advised attorneys facing these questions to remain true to their beliefs.17 This advice, however, may not be adequate in every contemporary context. Reconciliation of the clash between personally held beliefs and professional expectations largely depends upon the strength of the individual's conviction, the costs associated with adherence to those convictions, and the feasibility of forging a compromise that accommodates professional expectations without the abandonment of personal beliefs. Appreciation of this triad of contingencies, coupled with analysis of Thomas More's now legendary story, should lead to more prudent decision-making as practitioners confront, and possibly resolve this dilemma of conscience. …