The Night Of - Truth in the Adversarial System

The following exchange from HBO's limited series The Night Of (which I can't recommend highly enough) really sticks with me.

"I'm gonna tell you something and it's the most important thing you'll ever hear in your entire life, so don't not hear it: shut it. They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. Now the good news is: we get to hear their story is first, before we have to tell them ours. So we keep our mouth shut, until we know what they're doing."

"You keep saying story -- like I'm making it up. I want to tell you the truth." 

"You really don't. I don't want to be stuck with the truth. Not until I...have to be."

"But you need to know what happened."

"I be flexible."

Ever since reading Jon Krakauer's book detailing (among other things) the trial of a college football player for the drunken rape of a close friend, I've been troubled by the role that truth plays (or perhaps the role it doesn't play) in our justice system. I learned -- from reading that book -- that our justice system is "adversarial," and that the guiding principle behind such a system is the belief that justice is best served when the state attempts to make as strong a case against a defendant as possible, while the defendant's lawyer is supposed to do her best to make the case that she is innocent. While this all sounds fairly intuitive, the above exchange nicely captures what I think would a fairly common reaction to the way that this actually plays out: neither side, in such a case, is particularly committed to the truth -- to what actually happened.

Now, there are many problems with role that the adversarial system assigns truth. One particularly troubling issue is the way in which certain crimes (like rape) are almost impossible to prosecute. Given the standard of proof and the types of evidence that are admissible, only the a small percentage of rapes (with strange features, such as having occurred in the presence of witnesses) end up getting punished. Many equally heinous rapes go un-prosecuted because of contingent features (it happened when the two parties were alone, there are almost always grounds for reasonable doubt regarding the interpretation of uncontested data points). Additionally, many victims choose not to pursue legal action because of the nature of the process itself: being the plaintiff in an adversarial trial is a traumatic experience in itself. Frequently, the character of the victim is subject to as much scrutiny (and seemingly slanderous attacks) as the perpetrator. 

One question, though, that I keep coming back to, is how the epistemic norms that apply to characters in adversarial contexts differ from more ordinary contexts, and whether there are any other, similar contexts in which social (or even non-social) roles or identities have a similar effect on the epistemic norms that apply to an agent. Here's what I mean: John Turturro's character in the clip I posted above expresses the view that he can be a better lawyer (and Naz will be a better defendant) if they -- at least temporarily -- ignore the truth. Given that this role is required (he is, after all, an agent of the court -- with the duty to defend his client to the best of his ability), he is bound by a set of epistemic norms that actually require him to avoid learning what really happened, i.e. to avoid coming into contact with the truth.

Are there other roles (either social roles that we adopt or perhaps more fundamental identities, like being a parent, that are imposed on us externally) that similarly require us to abide by epistemic norms other than "always believe what the evidence rationalizes" or "believe only if you will then believe truly (or only if your belief will constitute knowledge)." 

If so, the ramifications for epistemology (and social epistemology) could be massive.

Now go binge watch all the episodes of The Night Of. It's insanely good television.