Justice For All?

I am in an ethical dilemma: What is the ethical thing to do in case of jury duty?

Clearly, according to most ethical systems, including the one that has influenced the laws in the US, it is my duty, so i must go. I do not subscribe to an ethical system that is based on right/wrong and duty, though. I subscribe to an ethics of care, as developed by Nel Noddings. Such a system looks at the totality of a situation, tries to understand what
went on when someone does something that hurts someone else, most importantly ethics of care brings empathy and compassion to decisions.

The judge also mentioned empathy. She said that the US court system tries to bring empathy to a case. Is that so? Well, what is empathy? According to Brené Brown, there are “four defining attributes of empathy: (a) to be able to see the world as others see it; (b) to be nonjudgmental; (c) to understand another person’s feelings; and (d) to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.” As a juror, i am supposed to decide the guilt or innocence of a person (i’ve been assigned to a criminal trial). That does not require that i empathize with them – understand why they did something. It requires the highest part of the human brain, as the video said, which was shown to us 45 minutes after our service began: Rational evaluation.

Aside from this, though, the primary issue i am struggling with is: What do i concretely do when i am asked to enforce a system that is purported as justice that i find deeply unjust. That system is enforcing order, not bringing justice. Maybe it would be most ethical for me to refuse to be on a jury?

Then i thought, though, well, if i were a defendant wouldn’t i want someone on the jury who thinks this order system sucks? So, maybe the most ethical thing for me to do is to say as little as possible during jury selection and hope i sneak through without having mentioned these ethical qualms. Would that be the most ethical?

What about my fellow jurors then? The jury deliberation would surely be slowed down by someone who questions the system rather than administering it. Would that be fair to them?

And, per the juror instructions, i am supposed to be unbiased (or as unbiased as i can be). If i question the system, i am biased for the defendant. Would that be an ethical problem?

Finally, what will i do when i am supposed to judge the guilt or innocence of the person when they clearly have done what they did and i can see how their circumstances lead to it? Is that innocence? Is that guilt? I cannot see myself calling anyone guilty. And yet what if they killed someone? That’s when i hit the brink wall: We need a new system, one that is truly just and this cannot happen if that system is imbedded in the
same injust system – supercapitalism
– that we currently live in. So, where does that leave me?

If i refuse to serve, i suspect i could face the dreaded fine or jail sentence. Then what? Well, i suppose i could muse on that bridge when i get there. Clearly, if i were to speak up and refuse – rather than hope that the attorneys ask me the questions to which my answers will very likely get me excused – this would be an act of civil disobedience. Am i ready for that? Would that be consistent with ethics of care?

I don’t have answers, so if you have ideas or would like to contribute by raising more questions, please share in the comments section below!

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Justice For All? — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: How History Shapes Us | Rachel's Musings

  2. This is amazing! i’m so moved by your blog! i’ve never even realized the many aspects of doing jury service that actually include deep and important ethical and truly real problems of many sorts! and it’s the first time i’ve ever come across this kind of discussion at all!

    to me it reflects so many of the overwhelming challenges that we all face as humans, particularly today and in the West. and truly, rachel, you posed them squarely and solidly on the table, showing the mountain of dilemmas you face, and we all do, though few of us would even be willing to look them ‘in the eye’.

    with humble sincerity i realize and confess i have no real answers to any of these serious moral questions……..and i tend to doubt that the answers even exist on the ground, in our ‘reality’. we live in a synthetic civilization which long ago has taken morals off the head of the priority list. morals require the flexibility and open-mindedness that is today a dangerous characteristic to reveal and use in society.

    i don’t envy your position, but i imagine you might experience satisfaction if you can be there and realistically look for some opening to express the essence of this to your fellow jurors, or some person there who might be inspired by your courage, to open up to some of the same, even if it doesn’t ‘save’ this criminal case. but, if only on the likely chance SOME of your thoughts here might pass on to others there, think of the ‘butterfly effect’ that this might have ………a precious pebble in the pool of humanity who wander this earth with us, together.

  3. Perhaps you may try to apply the ethical imperative of Heinz von Foerster: “act always so as to increase the number of choices”. (It is compatible with an ethics of care as well). If you do, you might prefer to attend the jury, because that should increase the number of choices both for you and the defendants the jury deals with.
    Wether capitalism is a closed system that leaves no choices whatsoever depend on your perspective. As far as I can see the juridical system leaves several options although the capitalist system that forms its basis is deeply (but not completely) unjust.

    • Thanks for your assistance in sorting this out, Manfred! I am very much enjoying how this seemingly simple question is putting ethical approaches to the test: How useful are they in real life?

      I am not quite sure if i fully understand von Foerster’s imperative, nor how it is compatible with an ethics of care, which does not have imperatives because they tend to prevent us from looking at the interconnections of things.

      How would attending the jury increase choices for me? Do mean it would increase choices for me because i wouldn’t end up in jail (the most dramatic consequence of refusing to serve)?

      I am completely unclear as to how it would increase the defendant’s choices. As far as i know, the way the system approaches this is to say that he/she has made their choice by the act of whatever they’re accused of. How can i increase the defendant’s choices by attending the jury when they don’t have a choice to begin with?

      • I do agree; looking at the “interconnections of things” is most important, and it is necessary if you aim to increase the number of choices. And one of the choices might be, as Shira points out, for you “to be there and realistically look for some opening to express the essence of this to your fellow jurors, or some person there who might be inspired by your courage, ….”.
        The point i consider to be more important was my argument on capitalism as a system. If you describe the system as indeed deeply but not entirely unjust it may help to find out where it allows for thoughts, communications or actions, that may launch some kind of “butterfly effect”, as Shira suggests.

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