Illiberal Belief #27: Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whomever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.
It is a commonly understood mark of an illiberal regime that it metes out punishment without trial, or with a show trial to rubber-stamp a predetermined verdict of guilt. We expect this kind of behaviour only from the tinpot dictators of backward nations. When a modern power like the United States holds people without conclusive evidence for years in a prison on foreign soil in the name of fighting terrorism, we rightly decry it as behaviour unbecoming a constitutional republic.
Yes, "innocent until proven guilty" is a well-established maxim of justice—except, it seems, when it comes to large corporations. For some people, calling a multinational "evil" is redundant. Often, the very same people who are most vocal in demanding impartial justice for suspected terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay are the first to pronounce large corporations guilty based on unproven allegations or mere hearsay. But to argue that a corporation has the means, and perhaps the short-term motive, to commit a criminal offense is like arguing that someone who fits a certain ethnic and religious profile has the means and potential motive to commit an act of terror. In both cases, justice requires proof before a determination of guilt.
What is not in question, though, is that many large corporations are in bed with governments. It is a matter of public record that many of them receive subsidies or quasi-monopoly privileges, or hold seats on the very regulatory committees intended to monitor their activities. Still, corporations should be judged on a case by case basis, just like individuals. It would be suicidal under current conditions for a large company not to employ lobbyists for self-defence, at least.
Some might maintain that it is only far-left radicals and far-right militarists who are too quick to assume guilt. I think the general tenor of political discourse in this day and age belies such an assessment. In the great health care debate, for example, those who want a universal insurance scheme think their opponents don't care about the uninsured, while those who want less government involvement think their opponents are power-hungry thieves. Those of us who believe the other side at least has good intentions seem to be in the minority. Or maybe we just can't be heard above the din.
Philosopher David Kelley of The Atlas Society (for whom I also write) addresses the issue of moral judgment in The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, a work that is both personal statement and philosophical treatise. In the first chapter, he enumerates all of the steps we must go through, and all of the evidence we must accumulate, before we can rightly condemn a person as evil. Even merely condemning an action requires evidence and context that are often not readily accessible; condemning the motive behind an action requires even more proof, and often some serious hypothesizing; condemning an entire character trait requires that we judge the motives underlying what a person repeatedly does, and so takes even more knowledge about a person's background and circumstances; and finally, condemning a person requires judging actions and motivations in all sorts of different situations.
It is not just a question of basic civility to assume innocence and require proof before determining guilt. There is a deeper reason, grounded in basic logical principle, why it does not work the other way around: quite simply, guilt can be proven, while innocence cannot. Proof of a single criminal offense is enough to assign at least some measure of guilt. It is impossible, however, to prove one's complete innocence conclusively, since this would require that one prove the absence of any crime at any point in time. An assertion of guilt is what logicians call an existential statement, which can be proven by the existence of a single case. An assertion of innocence is a universal statement, equivalent to the total absence of any cases of guilt. To require proof of innocence would place an infinite burden on defendants, at least in theory. In practice, it would give the politically powerful a blank check to harass and silence whoever displeases them.
If it is both illogical and uncivil, then why are many people so quick to judge? Maybe it's because people are uncomfortable with uncertainty. It's easier to fling angry accusations than confront one's own half-buried doubts. We prefer to profess that we know rather than admit we might not, even though we might learn something if we did. Maybe we all had a lot of bad teachers who led us to imagine that knowing things is more important than knowing how to know things. In fact, only the person who can be comfortable with uncertainty is able to approach the world with an open mind. As Barbara Branden has written, "We must wear our uncertainties as a badge of honor, for it is only through uncertainty that we will find the path to knowledge." If we don't even listen to one another, we have no reason to have any confidence whatsoever in our professed beliefs.
Presumed innocence is both logical and civil. It is also indispensable to the proper functioning of a free society. It is a bulwark against the abuse of political power, and any nasty habit of thought that undercuts the presumption of innocence undermines our freedom in the long run. Instead of feeling compelled to pronounce judgment based on suspicion alone, we might consider just admitting what we don't know.
Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings. Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.