Friday, March 16, 2007

Presumption of Innocence

This is something we've been talking about here quite a bit recently: the presumption of good faith.

That presumption, like the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" in our legal system, is terribly important for civil society and democracy. If we start, instead, with a presumption of bad faith, then we will be unable to discuss the things about which we disagree. If we can't talk, then we can only fight -- with bullets or ballots.

The presumption of good faith is sometimes referred to as the presumption of charity -- a reference to the cardinal virtue, love. But it's also an expression of a different virtue: justice. It is unjust, unfair to presume before-the-fact that those who disagree with you have evil intent. This, again, is why we have a similar principle -- innocent until proven guilty -- in our justice system. Justice demands a presumption of innocence.

But note that this presumption of innocence in our justice system does not mean that no one is ever convicted of a crime. The standard is innocent until proven guilty. Prosecutors do not violate the presumption of innocence when they produce evidence and testimony proving that a suspect is guilty of a crime. Such evidence can lead to a conviction, the conclusion, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the suspect is not innocent.

Convictions based on evidence do not violate the presumption of innocence....

Imagine there arises a health-craze for a new children's vitamin supplement containing large amounts of lead. Your friend has begun buying this supplement for his kids, and you have pleaded with him to stop. It's entirely possible, in this scenario, that you are both acting out of good faith, with the purest of motives. You both want what is best, and healthiest, for the children. Because you are friends, you are able to set aside bias and suspicion and the presumption of bad faith and you are able to discuss the evidence, the facts of the matter: lead is poisonous. In such a scenario, you would be able to persuade your friend not to poison the children with the lead supplements.

When talking to your next-door neighbor, however, you do not have this same basis of friendship and so your attempt at conversation quickly devolves into a shouting match in which each of you is presuming bad faith, bad motives. Your neighbor wants what is best for his children, so he insists that, as the ad says, they "Start the day the heavy, healthy way with new Pb for Kids!" He takes your disagreement with this practice to mean that you, for some twisted reason, don't want his kids to benefit from the best that medical science has to offer. This accusation leads you, unfortunately, to accuse him of wanting to poison his children, an approach that fails to persuade him. Eventually, you calm down and try to explain that lead is dangerous, but he's no longer listening. You may think lead is poisonous, but you also think he hates his children, and he knows you're wrong about that, so why should he listen to you?

The presumption of bad faith is a distraction from a consideration of the facts. And, because an invalid accusation of bad motive undermines your credibility, it prohibits the consideration of the facts.
[via slacktivist]

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