Working as a lawyer in a multidisciplinary centre for research ethics and bioethics, as I do, often brings up to date questions regarding the relationship between law and ethics. What kind of ethical competence does academic lawyers need, and what kind of ethical challenges do we face? I will try to address some aspects of these challenges.
First, I must confess. I am a believer, a believer of law.
That does not mean that I automatically like all regulations, it is just that I cannot see a better way to run the world, but through a common system of legal norms. Believing in law means that I accept living in a different universe. I know the non-lawyers cannot always see my universe, but I see it clearly, and I believe in it. You’ll have to trust me – and all other lawyers – through training and education, we see this parallel universe and believe in it.
I do not always like what I see, but I do accept that it exists.
I think that understanding a lawyer’s understanding of what law is, is a necessary precondition for going deeper into the understanding of what I here refer to as the ethics of legal scholarship. So, what is law? This question has a thousand answers, stemming from different philosophical theories, but I choose to put it like this:
Law is an idea as well as a practical reality and a practice.
As a reality, law is the sum of all regulation, locally (e.g. Sweden), regionally (e.g. Europe) and internationally. For example, the statutes, the preparatory works, court decisions, the academic legal literature, the general legal principles and other legal sources where we find the answers to questions such as “Is it legal to do this or that?” or “Might I be responsible for this specific act in some way?”
The practice of law has to do with the application of general legal knowledge (whatever that means) to a specific case, and this application always involves interpretation. This means that law is contextual. The result of its application differs depending on situation, time and place.
Law as an idea is the illusion that there are legal answers out there somewhere, ready to be discovered, described and applied. Lawyers live in a universe where this illusion is accepted, although every lawyer knows that this is oversimplified. There is rarely an obvious answer to a posed question, and there are often several different interpretations that can be made.
The legal universe is a universe of planets and orbits: different legal sources and jurisdictions, different legal traditions and ideas on how to interpret legal sources. There are numerous legal theories, perspectives and ideologies: legal positivism, critical legal studies, law and economics and therapeutic jurisprudence to name a few. The way we, the lawyers, choose to look at the law – the lens of our telescope if you like – affects how we perceive and decipher what we see.
Law is sometimes described as codified ethics. The legal system of a state often provides structures and systems for new technologies and medical progress. Therefore, law plays an important role when analyzing a state’s political system or the organization of its welfare system.
Law, in short, is a significant piece of a puzzle in the world as we know it.
This means that the idea of law as something concrete, something we can discover and describe, creates our perception of reality. Yet, we must be aware of the fact that the law itself is intangible, and answers to legal questions might differ, depending on whom (which lawyer) is making the analysis and which lens is being used.
Sometimes the answer is clear and precise, but many times the answer is vague and blurry. When the law seems unclear, it is up to us, the lawyers, to heal it.
We cannot accept “legal gaps”.
The very idea that law is a system that provides all the answers means that we must try to find all the answers within the system. If we cannot find them, we have to create them. Therefore, proposing and creating legal answers is one of the tasks for legal scholars. With this task comes great power. If a lawyer states that something is a description of what law is, such a description may be used as an argument for a political development in that direction.
Therefore the descriptions of what law is and what is legal within a field – especially if the regulation in the field is new or under revision – must always be nuanced and clearly motivated. If the statement as to what law is emanates from certain starting points, this should be clarified in order to make the reasoning transparent.
This is what I would like to call the ethics of legal scholarship.
It is worth repeating: Research within legal scholarship always requires thoughtfulness. We, the scholars, have to be careful and ethically aware all the time. Our answers and statements as to legal answers are always normative, never just descriptive. Every time an academic lawyer answers a question, the answer or statement might itself become a legal source and be referred to as a part of the law.
Law is constantly reconstructing itself and is, to some extent, self-sufficient. But if law is law, does that mean that all you need is law?