Legal Business Blogs

Guest post: What makes tax lawyers morally limited?

I find the psychology of professional ethics endlessly fascinating. Take this piece by Elaine Doyle, Jane Frecknall Hughes and Barbara Summers (2013) An Empirical Analysis of the Ethical Reasoning of Tax Practitioners, (access here), which I thank Iain Campbell for mentioning to me.

The researchers used Rest’s original Defining Issues Test (and a tax specific version) to compare the moral reasoning of Irish tax practitioners and a control group of non-tax specialists.

They find that:

  • tax practitioners generally reason at lower levels in tax contexts than in social scenarios (ie they can be moral, just not in tax situations)
  • that the professions do not appear to attract people who reason at lower levels (ie tax does not, on the evidence here, attract bad apples)
  • that practitioners appear to be affected by training/socialisation in their professional context (in particular tax practitioners in private practice demonstrate lower levels of moral reasoning than practitioners working for the Irish revenue service)

The research is based on Rest’s well known six stages of moral reasoning:

  • The morality of obedience: do what you are told
  • The morality of instrumental egoism and simple exchange: let’s make a deal
  • The morality of interpersonal concordance: be considerate, nice and kind: you’ll make friends
  • The morality of law and duty to the social order: everyone in society is obligated to and protected by the law
  • The morality of consensus-building procedures: you are obligated by the arrangements that are agreed to by due process procedures
  • The morality of non-arbitrary social cooperation: morality is defined by how rational and impartial people would ideally organize cooperation.

The higher up the scale, the higher the level of moral reasoning that is applied by the subject of the test. On a quick read of the paper the authors seem particularly concerned with accountants (who we are told to expect may already be prone to, ‘a lower level of moral reasoning than would be expected, given their age and education’ based on other research). Similarly, ‘auditors and accounting students… [appear to] apply a more principled level of reasoning to resolve social dilemmas than to resolve moral dilemmas in accounting or auditing.’ However, their study is on tax practitioners and this it seems may include lawyers, accountants and possibly others.

‘The research instrument was administered to 384 tax practitioners and 306 non-specialists in Ireland in 2009 using a combination of random, convenience, and snowball sampling techniques.’

What did they find?

‘The fact that tax practitioners do not reason significantly differently from non-specialists in the social context suggests that individuals whose reasoning is less principled than the norm (as measured by the non-specialist control group) are not self-selecting into the tax profession. … Once the context changed to tax, however, differences in moral reasoning were evident, with tax practitioners utilizing significantly lower level moral reasoning than non-specialists who remained consistent in their reasoning across both contexts. This difference was substantial in size, with the level of principled moral reasoning being 34 % higher in non-specialists.’

An interesting question is whether we (or they) should care. Are tax practitioners more prone to a kind of lazy positivism: a client-friendly, convenient, roolz is roolz approach may fit with the architecture of tax law:

‘This may be driven by the weight tax practitioners give to legal rules in the tax context, of which non-specialists are unaware, but further analysis is needed before any such conclusions could be reached.’

The interesting thing is that Revenue practitioners, who are operating in the same legal architecture after all, are rather different:

‘Revenue practitioners show a pattern of reasoning that is very similar to non-specialists and their reasoning is not at a significantly different level in either the social or tax contexts. On the basis that Revenue practitioners fulfil a public service role with an emphasis on collecting the maximum tax revenue in accordance with legislation, in order to fund government spending and support society as a whole, this finding is, perhaps, not surprising. The fact that Revenue practitioners reason dif­ferently from private sector practitioners, however, indicates that tax knowledge and experience are not what is driving the difference between reasoning in the social and tax contexts for practitioners, as Revenue practitioners also possess tax knowledge and years of experience working in tax. Equally, moving from a social context to a work-related context is not driving the difference, as tax is also the working domain for Revenue practitioners. The results suggest that the differences observed in the reasoning of tax practitioners in the tax domain arise only in a private practice environment. While the results do not identify the reasons for the differences in moral reasoning in a private tax practice domain, the differences found may be due to a socialization effect in private sector tax practice.’

A more pithy way of putting this might be that private practitioners in tax become morally inhibited because it pays or because their ethical rules demand that they prioritise the client’s interests over others (that’s not the case in this country but it may be the case in Ireland). The fascinating question posed by the study (but not answered) is what if anything might be done to redress the problem (if indeed, it is a problem). To boil it down unfairly: do tax practitioners need training to be more principled or should they be more tightly proscribed by rules?

Finally, if one likes a joke at accountants and tax practitioners’ expense (we’re only human after all), then there’s this little nugget on which I will conclude. You’ll remember accountants generally scored poorly on moral reasoning in work contexts, well tax practitioners it seems are worse:

‘The scores from this study are most comparable with those of average senior high students and are well below the level of adults in general and college students. These scores are also much lower than the average P scores of accountants found in other studies’

If the study is right, it seems it’s not the law, but the cultures and rules of private practice that might be dumbing down tax practitioners of Ireland. Couldn’t be happening here, could it?

Richard Moorhead is Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at UCL, you can read his blog here.