West London Humanists and Secularists

Report on Ethical Jury - The London "Riots" of August 2011
Held at West London Humanists and Secularists, 24 November 2011

This event was held as part of the Secular Morality Project and was facilitated by Philip Veasey (Chairman of WLHS). It was an experiment to see what would happen when a shared political dilemma was analysed rather than a personal one.

Chosen dilemma
Out of a choice of three, the dilemma chosen was:
"Should we or should we not support the harsh sentences given to those involved in the recent riots in London?"

Choice of resolution process
After an introduction to the ethical jury process, brief attention was given to how we should go about looking for a solution. Nothing immediately suggested itself so we went into brainstorming mode to list the issues which we felt had to be considered. These were written on a flip chart as follows:

  • Fairness
  • Equality
  • Danger to society
  • Diminished responsibility - crowd or alcohol
  • Mad/bad
  • Justice seen to be done
Fairness and Equality: The inequality of the punishment for the same crime in the different situations, i.e. in a riot and as a solo criminal, seemed so huge that it was hard to see how this could be fair or just. The wrongness of this seemed all the more evident when one considered that prison sentences for crimes, such as stealing a bottle of water, were more likely to educate novices in how to be smarter criminals than to reform them.

Society's Right to Maintain Order: The dilemma was largely perceived as the balancing of the right of the individual, to what might seem fair, against the right of the society to order and freedom from fear of the mob. Perhaps this was a case where harsh justice should not only be done but be seen to be done if chaos was to be avoided.

Diminished Responsibility/Inhibition: Initially jurors were talking about the degree to which people might have diminished responsibility during a riot and perhaps deserve smaller rather than larger sentences. On this occasion, a majority of those involved in the riots already had criminal records and their actions might be seen as taking advantage of disorder. Their sentences perhaps should be greater. The thought was, however, that there were a number of people who were normally quite well behaved who got carried away with the anger/excitement released by the riot and behaved out of character. For many, this would be their first offence. Such considerations as "crime of passion" and "previous good character" are frequently used to justify lenient sentences.

The analogy was discussed of people who know that they get violent when they get drunk. Some of them still have no qualms about getting drunk and some of them even claim diminished responsibility. No one felt this was justified. It was then argued that perhaps we should be talking about situations of diminished inhibition, rather than diminished responsibility, and that the citizen's duty was to be aware of them and avoid them. The question then became whether we really had a right to expect certain youngsters to understand this. Should we expect them to just know it or does society have a duty to educate people about it. If they could be ignorant without much culpability, then their actions should not be regarded as very immoral. Clearly the right of society to have people punished, as warnings to others, has limits otherwise we could justify killing perfectly innocent people. It was generally agreed that the only way such sentences can be justified is if we regard the additional sentence as a punishment for not avoiding situations of diminished inhibition.

Punishing the Mad: It was suggested that some of the rioters might be regarded as mad rather than bad. Should they be punished? This could be extended to those who were suffering from alienation from society because of bad government or were damaged personalities through bad parenting. All agreed that this might affect how bad we considered the person. There was less agreement about how far the law could go in taking this into account.

There was no unanimity among the jury. A spectrum of feelings were expressed ranging from a definite rejection of the idea that sentences were too harsh to one that sentences should have been much lighter, especially for those with no previous criminal history. Such leniency should continue until a time when government was closer to fulfilling its duty towards society. A view was also expressed that even if the sentences were too harsh, it was a case where the law should be seen to be followed, even if it was faulty, so that law and order could be restored - changing the law was a different issue

Political v. Personal: This event was an experiment and the most important lessons were those related to the fact that this was not a personal dilemma. The main problem was recognised as soon as we started looking for suitable political dilemmas. In most specific cases, there is a great deal of dispute about what in fact happened so one has to quickly make assumptions and talk about generalised situations. The advantage of taking a personal dilemma is that one can assume that the person offering it is telling the truth (even if they aren't) and no time is wasted disputing the facts. A secondary problem was that jurors have usually already considered the political dilemma and are emotionally attached to the opinions they have developed. These emotions have to be calmed before any logical analysis can be done and can still continue to distort analysis.

Dilemma Resolution Process: In retrospect, we could see that a very simple process had been followed, namely:
  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
The event ended because we ran out of time, rather than because we felt that we could do no more, so it is possible that better reasoned decisions could have been made. However, it seemed that individuals' verdicts were heavily influenced by prior emotions and any change of personal decision might take a long time.

Toolbox: Interestingly, the Triax which can bring helpful insights for personal dilemmas, was not used except with regard to Kindness where it overlaps with other principles. This was probably because, at the level we reached, Integrity and Courage were seen as only applying to personal dilemmas. This is probably not true and, with more time, we might have learned something by considering them. The principles which seemed to be most relevant were "the greatest good of the many" and surprisingly, Kant's 2nd Categorical Imperative ("Always treat other people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end"). The former was used to justify society having laws which strongly discouraged mob-rule and the latter was used to discourage the abuse of individuals with little or no guilt for the purpose of creating a warning that might be said to benefit the rest of society.

Other: Nearly all the jury felt that, based on their moral sense, justice had been lacking. Just how the law could be adjusted to remedy this was not discussed. A good point was made that the statement of the dilemma was "loaded". The phrase "harsh sentences" should have been replaced by "extended sentences" to remove any prejudgement.