By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
As special counsel, Robert Mueller, files the first charges stemming from the investigation of events surrounding Russia’s involvement in our presidential election, the issue of corruption touching on the government looms large. In Chapman University’s 2017 “Survey of American Fears,” just released in time for Halloween, the results put “corruption of government officials” at the top with fully 74 percent of the population reporting that as one of their largest fears. There is probably a political explanation for that figure, as a distrust of officials is now uniquely shared by both the anti-Washington populists who swept Trump into power as well as those on the other side who doubt the honesty and ethics of Trump and those in his administration.
But corruption isn’t just a political concept. Thinking of the word “corruption,” it connotes something that has become impure or has begun to rot. The dichotomy of purity versus corruption is one of the universal values that academics have identified as forming the substrate of most of our political positions. Explained in Jonathon Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind (2012), the dichotomy between purity and degradation has deep roots in human civilization, likely originating as a reaction of disgust to unfamiliar foods or pathogens, and extending to perceived outsiders or to anyone who potentially threatens our symbolic order. “The psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities,” he writes, “When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive.” In a courtroom, an appeal to what is sacred could involve any of the symbols that relate to a process that society holds in high esteem. That includes the obvious symbols – the bench, flag, or oath – but also includes some of the practical ingredients that lend legitimacy to the system, like the idea that parties are acting aboveboard and are trying to give the fact finders what they need to reach a sound decision. All of the players need to be mindful of that and avoid any messages that corrupt that purpose.
Avoid the Appearance of Corruption in the Courtroom
While they don’t rise to the level of government corruption, or necessarily evoke the disgust response that Haidt writes about, breaches of the symbolic order in the courtroom can also detract from the sanctity of the setting, and more importantly, from your credibility. Here are a few situations to avoid.
Don’t Corrupt Your Credibility as an Advocate
Advocates before both judges and juries need to treat their credibility as sacred. The rock-bottom principle is to tell the truth and keep promises. Fact finders know that you’re an advocate and expect you to help your own side in the dispute, but if they perceive that you are misrepresenting a fact, or promising to show them something that you don’t end up showing them, then you are not keeping faith. Persuading means trying to influence, but keeping your credibility pure means never letting that goal seem to take center stage, and never letting attempted influence triumph over accuracy or aid to the fact finders.
Don’t Corrupt Your Credibility as a Witness
The witness, whether relating facts or expert options, needs to keep to the same expectations. Tell the truth, and if you promise to share, explain, or prove something, then do it. One additional expectation on witnesses, however, is that they not act like advocates. The attorney has the goal of making a case and winning for her side, but the witness has the more restricted goal of just sharing the facts or offering the opinions within their sphere of knowledge. If the witness comes off as selective, biased, or overly strategic in their communications, they risk contaminating their own credibility as a trusted source of information.
Don’t Corrupt Your Credibility as a Party
Prior to opening statements and evidence introduced in court, parties are building a record that could look relatively pure or somewhat corrupt. For an employer, keeping credibility means having and following clear and fair policies, and providing a reasonable path to success. For a party in a commercial deal, it means open and fair dealing and being aboveboard in advancing common interests. For a products company, it means being honest in testing, recommending, and labeling products, and at least meeting, but ideally exceeding, the applicable regulations. For all parties on the defense side, credibility means having a positive story to tell about what you did well and not just a ‘We didn’t do it’ defense.
Ultimately, the sanctity, purity, and credibility of a party, witness, or advocate comes down to aligning with goals of the process. Know your role, give the fact finders the information they need, and give them something to vote for, and not just against.
Other Posts on Universal Values:
- Find the “Universal Morality” in Your Case Story
- The Right Theme? Look It Up in the Moral Foundations Dictionary
- Use Moral Framing as an Argument Strategy
- Adapt to Moral Division (Not Just Political Division)
Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited.