Tuesday 17 May 2011

Innocent until proven guilty? Rubbish!


People continuously parrot that X is, "of course, innocent until proven guilty".

But this is rubbish.

Dangerous rubbish. 


Insofar as it is true that people are innocent until proven guilty, it refers purely to the results of contingent, unreliable and continually-modified legal processes; and has nothing necessarily to do with real life guilt and innocence.

And as the law has drifted further and further away from 'natural law' morality and from common sense, to the point that people also say as if it were obvious - rather than what ought to be regarded as an oxymoron - that 'you cannot legislate morality' - then a person's guilt or innocence in a moral sense is most safely regarded as irrelevant to the outcome of the legal system.


(Of course, when saying that a person is 'innocent until proven guilty' it may be simply that this expression is not intended literally, but means that judgment is being reserved while awaiting further relevant knowledge - or perhaps this is expressing suspicion of the honesty or intentions of the source of information currently provided.)

Individual experience, common sense and natural law (the innate sense of right and wrong) and sufficient knowledge of what happened and to whom form the only sound basis for judgments about guilt and innocence.

Legal procedure itself needs to be judged by these criteria - and when this is done, the legal process is often found wanting.

Laws are themselves frequently immoral, wicked, harmful. 


In real life only a fool would imagine that people that have been acquitted as 'not guilty' (by the legal process) were truly (morally) innocent; or even to assume that they did not do what they were accused of doing.

What people are legally accused of does not capture precisely what they did, because offenses have to be fitted-into a finite set of legal provisions, and to optimize the chance of a conviction a lesser offense is often charged.

Someone may have done a lot more and a lot worse than the precise restricted definition of the crime of which they are legally accused.


It is common for guilty people to be released on a 'technicality' due to some procedural irregularity in the trial, and then to claim to be 'innocent' in the sense of not having done anything wrong.

It is common for somebody who has done something very wrong to be convicted of some minor, simple misdemeanour (for procedural reasons - as mentioned above, or because the offense does not fit an existing category, or due to plea-bargaining, or something like that) - but this does not mean they are 'innocent' of the more complex serious crime. They did it!


In the opposite direction, people sometimes accept some other punishment for an act which they did not commit, and are then regarded as legally-guilty, simply because, it is too expensive or time-consuming to contest the charge.  


Just as only a fool would imagine that those found 'guilty' by due legal process actually did something morally wrong.

With so many ill-defined crimes on the books (such as hate crimes, or libels, or illegal things that no normal person would imagine would or could be forbidden) this is obviously false. 


Of course, if we personally know nothing about the facts of a situation except what we have discovered from the mass media, then we may have no sound basis for knowing about another person's guilt or innocence.

(However, we may nonetheless have to make a judgment on this matter - for example in casting a vote in an election, or deciding whether or not to give a person money - e.g. by buying a book or a ticket for a show).


But the baseline for judgment of guilt or innocence should not be a presumption of innocence: that would be suicidal.

Socially competent people should all be engaged continuously in 'profiling' those around them, categorizing, who can be trusted and will steal, who is gentle and who is dangerous, who looks like a potential ally and who an enemy.

We should base judgment on what we know of the person, of their character, what we infer from their appearance, manner and behavior; we need to do the same about the character of the person accusing them; and to take note of the general nature of the situation.

That is how wise people live their lives: that is what we should aspire to in determining guilt or innocence.



Daniel said...

Though it is by no means infallible, the surest way I know of to judge the character of a person is to watch and listen to him speak, to look him in the eye, and to go with my gut feeling.

When we judge with the head, we are often misled. When we judge with the heart and the stomach, we get much closer to the real truth. All three (head, heart, and gut) working in concert is the ideal.

Incidentally, a person who makes one's heart feel good can be lovable but not to be trusted (gut) or listened to seriously (head). Or a smart person with excellent reasoning may be of use in making calculations, but not to be trusted (gut) nor be very loving (heart). Or a trustworthy person who passes the gut test may be stupid (head) and closed off from human loving (heart). The best people, the ones we should choose to emulate and associate with, give our heads electric thoughts, our hearts a warm glow, and our guts a deep and solid anchor. That they are rare is not discouraging, in the same way that it doesn't discourage me that gold is rare.

Alex said...

Absolute innocence is a transcendental condition. If human beings beings are tainted by original sin, then guilty until proved innocent seems a more truthful presumption than its opposite.

But justice based on that presumption would be even more capricious than what we have now.

The Crow said...

(You, Bruce, are guilty of introducing a writing technique into the language, never before seen, at least, not by me. This new technique I shall call a "Charltonism".)

(It is the act of writing a whole paragraph - not once, but twice - enclosed in brackets!)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - yes, it's become a bit of a habit - the forthcoming PC book is full of it!

Brett Stevens said...

Anonymity is the enemy of character assessment.

When someone grows up in a village his whole life, and is accused of a crime, people look first to their knowledge of him.

A history of good deeds? Unlikely he committed the crime.

A history of bad deeds? Likely he committed the crime.

No one remembers anything in particular? Possible if not likely he committed the crime, and we shouldn't worry too much if he is falsely accused, since clearly he's not very useful.

It's a saner way to "judge" (read: mete out punishment to) others.