Moral Icons: A Comment on Steven Lubet’s Reconstructing Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch’s conduct would have been justified by the bar’s conventional norms even if he had known Tom Robinson to be guilty. That fact, however, is not the source of the admiration for him that To Kill a Mockingbird has induced in so many readers. That admiration depends on the clear premise of the novel that Finch plausibly believes that Tom Robinson is innocent. Thus, the bar’s invocation of Finch as a sympathetic illustration of its norms is misleading. The ethics of the novel are quite different from those of the bar. Steven Lubet does a good job of showing that the novel’s ethics are somewhat out of step with contemporary liberal sentiment. In order to be confident of Robinson’s innocence, we have to take for granted aspects of Harper Lee’s portrayal of his accusers that today smack of gender and class bias. I differ somewhat with Lubet over the significance of this failing for ethical discussion in two respects.