Global Ethics Corner: "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Justice

Jun 24, 2011

In "To Kill a Mockingbird" an innocent man is wrongfully sentenced. The author argues that all we can do in the face of injustice is try, accept, and move on. Should we trust always trust institutions? When the system fails is it enough to have fought, or should we go on to fight again?

Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was described as "sugar-water served with humor," by an original reviewer.

The novel is light reading, and animated implausibly by an articulate six-year-old and her perfect, lawyer-father, Atticus.

However, the novel won a Pulitzer Prize, was the basis for one of the best movies of all time, and still sells a million copies every year.

Perhaps, Lee's novel became a classic because of its ethical core.

The setting is small town Alabama, 1932 to 35. The drama revolves around the trial of an innocent black man, Tom Robinson.

Atticus defends him with craft and integrity, yet he loses. Unable to face imprisonment, Tom runs and is killed. Surprisingly, the injustice of this tragedy is not the core of the book.

Rather, a person's response to injustice animates the novel.

Atticus summarizes for the jury: "Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers..." Because the jury takes so long to decide, another character concludes, "we're making a step—it's just a baby step, but it's a step."

Shouldn't wrongs be righted, regardless? Or, do we trust in institutions and process like Atticus? When the system fails is it enough to have fought, and go on to fight again?

Lee gives us a satisfying answer, that all we can do is try, accept, and move on. Others might say one has to go further and see each injustice rectified in order to truly live up to a code of values. What would you choose?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, HarperCollins: NY, 1960

Phoebe Lou Adams, " To Kill a Mockingbird: A Classic Review," The Atlantic, June 16, 2011, originally published August 1960 in Atlantic Magazine

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Maureenlafleche
Christina Ruvoldt
Universal Pictures
Tabor College
Walden Theater
Theatreworks Props
Keith Stewart
Z a r Photography

You may also like

CREDIT: <a href="https://flickr.com/photos/30478819@N08/48899821263/">Marco Verch</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(CC)</a>

APR 20, 2020 Podcast

Ethics, Surveillance, & the Coronavirus Pandemic, with Arthur Holland Michel

As U.S. states and European nations contemplate how to end the COVID-19 quarantine, Senior Fellow Arthur Holland Michel discusses all aspects of surveillance and ...

Tehran's Azadi Tower lights in support of China against coronavirus, February 2020. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Azadi_Tower_lights_in_support_of_China_against_coronavirus_2.jpg">Amin Yari (CC)</a>

MAR 18, 2020 Podcast

The Coronavirus Pandemic & International Relations, with Nikolas Gvosdev

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting all aspects of daily life around the world, what will be the effect on international relations? Will it increase cooperation ...

Palais des Nations, United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/unisgeneva/12537210603">UN Geneva/UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">(CC)</a>

OCT 21, 2019 Podcast

The Individual & the Collective, Politics, & the UN, with Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former head of United Nations peacekeeping operations, discusses the tensions between the individual and the collective in a ...