A TRIAL IS A MORALITY PLAY

The December 2016 issue of The Jury Expert  http://www.thejuryexpert.com/2016/12/making-it-moral-how-morality-can-harden-attitudes-and-make-them-more-influential/  features an article by Andrew Luttrell: “Making it Moral: How Morality can Harden Attitudes and Make Them More Influential.” The article brought to mind the writings of Professor George Lakoff.

Professor of cognitive science, George Lakoff at the University of California in Berkeley wrote the well-known book  The Political Mind. In it he argues that politics “is about moral values.” He notes that every successful political leader presents their ideas on the basis that they are “right,” that is that their idea or position is morally correct. He extends this belief to the idea that trials need to be about moral values, ethics and doing the right thing. The appeal must be to the unconscious value system of the jurors and not an approach relying  upon rational logic. He notes that people vote against their own self-interests when they believe they are voting in conformity with their strongly held moral values. This has direct application to how we  approach the trial of our cases to jurors.

This article  expands the professor’s ideas by addressing the significance of moral belief by jurors during trial. Mr. Luttrell  notes that people can have an opinion which in social psychology are known as “attitudes.” Attitude, of course, is a person’s positive or negative evaluation of something. We know from research that attitudes can generally predict a person’s decisions or behavior. For example, a person with a favorable attitude towards the police, would be more likely to vote in favor of law enforcement then someone with a negative attitude.

This article discusses the impact on conduct depending upon whether one’s attitude has a moral  basis. The author observes that an abundance of research indicates that the more a person thinks that his or her attitude has a moral foundation, the more likely it is that person’s behavior will follow the attitude and the less likely that person is to change even in the face of pressure to do so. A perceived basis of morality for the attitude therefore is a strong indicator of that person making decisions in conformity with the attitude.

One of the examples relevant to our recent election is a study done in 2008 which found that the more people thought that their choice for the president involved their moral beliefs, the more likely they were to vote in the election. We know that strongly held values and beliefs of morality will drive a decision even when it is not in the best personal interest of the individual. People will vote for a candidate who may not advocate policies in their best interest when they believe that the candidate positions reflect their moral beliefs. A person is much more likely to vote for a candidate whose position on abortion, same sex marriage or other strongly held moral beliefs conforms to their own even when they don’t like the candidate or when the candidate holds other positions which conflict with the voters personal interests.

The research further indicates that people are less likely to revise their opinion if they see their held opinion as a matter of morality. As the article points out, people are constantly faced with pressures to change their opinions by what they read, their experiences and the opinions of friends and others. In one study, contrived social pressure was brought on participants to rethink their opinion regarding torture to get information. The results showed that the more the participants thought that their initial opinions were a matter of morality, the less likely they were to change even in the face of group social pressure. Therefore the more people believe they have a moral basis for their attitude, the more their behavior will align with that attitude and the less likely they are to change it even under pressure or in the face of evidence.

Previous studies, according to the article, have established that people will act according to their attitudes more when they have taken considerable time to think about and form that attitude. The new evidence, according to the article, shows that when people merely believe that they have thought carefully about a topic – whether it’s true or not – the more likely they are to act in accordance with that attitude. In trial, learning how long the person has held an attitude or the way in which it was  formed would be helpful information.

These findings about moral beliefs have implications for us in trial for obvious reasons. We need to learn what we can about people’s strongly held beliefs and their  moral values  as it applies to the issues or people in your case. These factors will unconsciously drive the verdict irrespective of the evidence. They are strong predictors about how  people will vote. Research has indicated that one can learn about core moral principles, to some extent, by simply asking about it in jury selection. We can ask jurors whether their attitudes towards a particular person, group or issue are based upon their core moral beliefs and convictions. The strength of their belief in that regard will indicate how important it is to them.

We can also characterize the issue in our case or the persons or groups involved in the light of important moral principles. By telling a jury, for example, that their reactions in their verdict are a reflection of their core moral principles, would tend  to harden their beliefs and attitudes, hardening them against later information or arguments to the contrary.

We can ask indirect questions about what they believe are important characteristics to teach a child or persons they admire or similar questions that reflect a person’s moral beliefs. Knowing this can help us in our jury selection and trial presentation.

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