Some Reflections on Jury Service

I’ve served my jury summons at the SF Superior Court this week. Jury selection has all but wrapped up with only the selection of the alternates remaining, and while I’m fairly sure I won’t be chosen the voir dire has been an interesting experience in several ways:

1. As a demonstration of sloppy thinking. Many prospective jurors tried to voice their broader concerns with the criminal justice system but constrained themselves with language like “the system isn’t fair” or “I have concerns about the system.” Nebulous, opaque terms like “the system” obscure clear thinking by evading the hard work of naming specific institutional features, procedures, or roles and proposing alternatives. Instead, the speaker can content herself to have uttered a vague bromide that shows her good intentions but nothing more. 

2. Occasions for excellence. Jury service is one of the few “summons” we as citizens receive that calls us to moral excellence. How rarely do we hear an ordinary person today swear that “I will do my duty” as a fair and impartial judge of the facts? If one component of a free society is a defendant’s right to be judged by their peers, their peers must have the virtues necessary to fairly judge the accused. The two concepts can’t come apart from each other.

Economists frequently argue that free societies must “economize on virtue.” But jury selection left me more skeptical of this adage–it challenges ordinary people honestly to reflect on their capacities as practical reasoners, and perhaps the experience itself stimulates rather than depletes our “reserve stores” of justice. 


3. Do your job, and yours alone. The jury system relies on a “division of moral responsibility”–it judges the facts of the case, and the facts alone. The jury does not deliberate on questions of social justice, or moral status of the defendants, or the justice of the law (the experience has tempered my enthusiasm for jury nullification). I wonder if this says something interesting about the nature of practical reasoning itself. Not only don’t we deliberate about ends, as Aristotle observed, but even our deliberations about means only make sense relative to some specific, local question. So maybe a constitutive feature of the good practical reasoner is someone who understands the nature and limits of the occasion for his practical reasoning. However, writing that sentence makes it sound like the most obvious thing in the world!!! There’s no harm in repeating truth, I suppose. 


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