March meeting – ethical jury
Member Michael Imison first tried out his ethical jury idea at a 2007 meeting in Colchester. Now we’re going to do the same in Ipswich.
It has long puzzled me that religions such as Christianity and Islam which were invented for the use of unsophisticated societies centuries ago have survived as strongly as they have into the post-Darwinian age. One possible explanation for their continued existence is that they are generally regarded as repositories of morality. Abolishing them would leave people in general with no firm means of distinguishing right from wrong. Religions are seen as setting standards of behaviour, without which communities would decline into anarchy.
In rejecting religion, Humanists claim that their behaviour towards their fellow men is guided by reason and experience. They however decline to issue commandments, regarding each individual as responsible for their own actions. The furthest they are likely to go in the way of moral pronouncements is to say that everyone should act towards others as they would wish others to act towards them. A consequence of this, to my mind, is that the moral basis of Humanism is generally felt to be quite vague. A stronger commitment to promoting â€œgoodâ€ behaviour, might, it seems to me, be a lever that would prise away from the religions those followers who do not see any alternative source of morality.
But what is â€œgood behaviourâ€ if it is not defined by the pronouncements of a supreme being? In an attempt to examine this question, and also, I must admit, to get Humanist bodies, such as the BHA more associated with the idea of morality, I have been experimenting with what I call â€œethical juriesâ€. I had attended a number of Socratic Dialogues held under the auspices of the Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy. These examine general questions such as â€œIs it ever right to tell a lie?â€ by assembling a dozen or so people who are each asked by a facilitator to recount an incident from their own lives which has a bearing on the question. A vote is then taken to select one of these examples, which is then discussed in great detail, sometimes over the course of several days, in the hope of formulating an answer. Often this is not successful but the emphasis on personal experience and the care taken by the facilitator to ensure that the debate is orderly and that the example giver is not exposed to unfair or embarrassing questions seemed to have potential.
I wanted to see what would happen if a similar size group were asked to bring examples of real moral dilemmas they had faced in their own lives so that the group could discuss one of them and reach a conclusion if necessary by voting.
The objective would be to look critically at the possible or actual consequences of the action contemplated to establish which would cause least harm. The participants would have to examine what moral principles they were using in making a decision, without assuming these would be applicable in every case. Humanist morality would therefore lie in examining each case on its merits, without attempting broad generalizations. It would be interesting to see how far these random groups would reach a consensus. I decided to call them ethical juries because of the parallels with the ethics committees operating in medical practice, who have to find practical answers to difficult issues, and with the juries in criminal cases who have to reach conclusions in the face of conflicting evidence.
My first attempt was with the Suffolk group, where a particularly personal dilemma was discussed. The verdict unanimously condemned the action of the example giver who expressed himself well satisfied in having his own doubts confirmed. Those who took part found it interesting and even enjoyable. Since then I have worked with several other Humanist groups and this year returned the compliment by conducting a jury at the international conference of the SFCP. What seems to be emerging is that generally there is a consensus about what is a right action though this may not be reached by relying on reason or experience.
I hope therefore that you’ll come prepared to offer your personal moral dilemmas though of course no-one should feel they have to offer an example or even to take part in the discussion if they simply prefer to watch. Depending on the examples offered it may be possible to discuss more than one in the evening. The final part of the meeting will be a brief discussion of the process to see how effective people thought it was.