West London Humanists and Secularists


Ethical Juries are meetings where a moral dilemma is chosen and discussed by a group (of about 12). The objective is to reach some agreement on how it should be resolved. The basic ethical jury was pioneered by Michael Imison of Suffolk Humanists following his experience of Socratic Dialogues held under the auspices of the "Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy". His initial method was to:

  1. Gather a jury - usually a humanist group.
  2. Ask those attending to describe moral dilemmas that they had personally experienced.
  3. Select one of these dilemmas.
  4. Discuss it while taking care to protect the example giver from embarrassment.
  5. Define possible resolutions and vote on which was thought most "moral".
Philip Veasey of WLHS recognised that they could be a means to achieving the main objective of the Secular Morality Project as illustrated in the diagram below.

If the juries were conducted in a way, that revealed how the moral decisions were made, then the principles that were being used could be identified, tested and refined by use. Principles could be thought of as a toolbox used by the ethical juries. Hopefully, their use by numerous juries would lead to them being widely accepted as effective tools. Once the contents of the toolbox stabilised, they could be published as the "set of moral principles that are brief, easy to understand and, although distinctively secular, have wide acceptability, even among the religious".

The diagram shows how, once a dilemma has been chosen, a suitable process for its resolution should be chosen and used. A library of processes that have been effective in the past will be available from the project but the jury may have to improvise. The project will also supply the latest version of the toolbox, containing those principles which people have found most helpful in making moral decisions. These can be added to by jury members who feel something new could be useful. Observations on the effectiveness of the tools and the process should be made throughout the event and these included in a report that is shared with the project. Jury facilitators should get together periodically and agree on improved versions of tools and processes.

This early version of guidance, on how to run an ethical jury, is based on observations of ethical juries held at WLHS in January 2011 and November 2011 . We look forward to developing it further in these webpages.

Overall process
An ethical jury needs someone to facilitate it who should, ideally, be assisted by someone who can make notes on flip charts as the event progresses.
  1. Gather a jury and explain the ethical jury process and the Secular Morality Project context
  2. Agree upon the choice of dilemma.
  3. Present the dilemma in detail. Clarify any points of fact
  4. Agree on a Dilemma Resolution Process
  5. Develop the solution
  6. Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the resolution process and the tools used
  7. Prepare a report on the event and share it with the Secular Morality Project
Toolbox Contents
The following moral principles are suggested as initial contents of the toolbox.
The Golden Rule
Do as you would be done by.

Principle of least harm
Choose the action that results in the least aggregate harm.

Kant's Categorical Imperatives
1st "Act only on that maxim which you could will to be universal law."
2nd "Always treat other people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end."

Utilitarianism - John Stuart Mill
Achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

The Triax - Philip Veasey
Kindness: Recognising that humans have evolved as social animals and that it is in our nature and to our advantage to look out for one another.
Courage: Managing your fears and not letting them stop you doing what you think is right.
Integrity: Defined as never lying to yourself (lying to others is not excluded and may sometimes be kind). You should not be surprised to see people forgetting this definition, as the ethical jury progresses, and assuming it is the same as not lying to others. It may need repeating a few times.

Decision Resolution Processes
Thousands of years of philosophising present many candidates for the toolbox but we are only just starting to collect the decision resolution processes. The one below was found to be helpful for a complex personal dilemma.
  1. Agree on some relevant objectives that any solution should satisfy. These may be more specific than the "principles" and equate more to "policies".
  2. Agree some actions that were or could have been part of the solution.
  3. Construct a flowchart if appropriate
  4. Assess the likely outcomes of the action choices and their fit to the objectives
  5. Decide which actions should have been followed
When a political dilemma was submitted to a jury, something simpler was found more appropriate as follows:
  1. Identify issues that a solution might be affected by
  2. Discuss the issues, identifying where possible, principles that might be relevant to them
  3. Strip away some of the detail to uncover the more generic dilemma that it is an instance of
  4. Come to a personal decision on the solution and declare it
These methods can be improved upon, and perhaps varied according to the type of dilemma, but does represent progress from early ethical juries.

Balancing objectives/principles: It is clear that part of the process requires us to make judgements about the relevant importance of different principles/objectives in a situation where they appear to conflict. It would be good if we can develop some "systematic" ways of doing this so that our decisions are less arbitrary.
Morals v. Tactics: Although principles are valuable guides to moral decision making, each situation will usually also present opportunities to employ tactics which appear to be morally neutral but which can greatly affect the value of the outcome. It will be found that many of a jury's suggestions are of this kind and the distinction needs to be recognised .
Flow Charts: Although the ethical jury sets out to arrive at a unique decision on what to do when faced with the dilemma, it may seem very unreasonable to expect anyone to make all the best decisions and have all the best ideas in a complex situation. Rather than one decision, the outcome may be more like a decision flow chart that could be used to guide anyone in such a situation in the future.
Emotions: It is helpful to warn the jury to be as self-aware as possible with regard to the way they are making decisions. Nothing wrong with emotions, but best to recognise the part they are playing. In some situations, jurors may attach very strong emotions to their prior opinions and care is required not to let this derail the process. One should also remember to protect a juror who has volunteered their dilemma from over- intrusive questioning.
Personal Dilemmas: One of the main advantages of sticking with personal dilemmas is that one avoids losing a lot of time arguing about what actually happened. The facts are only important in that they define a scenario that can be analysed. If there is dispute, agree on a version for the purposes of the exercise and move on.