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Waiving Jury Deliberation: The Humility Argument

This article argues that, given the current pervasive uncertainty about the reliability of jury deliberation, we ought to treat it with epistemic humility.

Andrei Poama
22 February 2020
Social Theory and Practice

Epistemic humility consists in an attitude whereby persons attens to the way in which their limited knowledge might affect people’s practical interests. The epistemically humble agent recognizes that acting on her knowledge and epistemic competences will have relevant effects on the interests of someone else. Humility demands that we treat our epistemic limitations and the practical interests of the relevant others as default considerations about what courses of action to take or avoid.

Being humble about jury deliberation starts with recognizing that, given its limitations, it is not the best available procedure we can readily resort to in the context of jury trials. Though jury deliberation is plausibly better than random, we know that, on the whole, it is not better than the aggregation of the jurors’ individual verdicts. Hiding the fact that deliberation and verdict aggregation are epistemically equivalent boils down to unjustifiably bolstering the merits of the first and downplaying the qualities of the second.

Today, defendants have no choice between a jury trial, in which their verdict is reached deliberatively, and a jury trial wherein this is not the case. Introducing a waivable right to jury deliberation means that, at the beginning of the trial proceedings, the defendant is presented with two options. Either her verdict will be decided through jurors’ voting separately on the verdict – that is, without any prior group deliberation – or it will be decided, as it is now, by means of jury deliberation. The choice formalized by such a waivable right is one between a deliberative and a non-deliberative verdict. 

Of course, one could imagine other more effective ways to reform jury deliberation – for example, by increasing the size and diversity of the jury or, more innovatively, by resorting to online virtual juries. These changes are not incompatible with my proposal, and they can be undertaken simultaneously. One of the comparative advantages of waivability lies in the fact that it does not need more resources than those already allocated to the jury system and it is more likely to be accepted than a technological innovation such as the virtual jury. My humility-based argument for the waivability of jury deliberation is not a blueprint for an ideal practice, but an attempt to marginally improve the status quo.

Andrei Poama

Andrei Poama's research focus is on normative theories of punishment, criminal justice ethics, the connection between principles of justice and the problem of (government) authority, the ethics of public policy, and democratic theory. One of his aims is to create an environment that explores the moral questions involved in criminal justice ethics from a philosophical angle, but in a way that welcomes the involvement of criminal justice officials and practitioners perspective.

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