The Presumption of Innocence

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Connor Kianpøur, UC Davis

Actions have consequences, and so too do accusations. Just as a maleficent action engenders unimaginable repercussions for the victim of said action, a mere accusation of wrongdoing implicates a host of consequences that fundamentally alter the lives of the accused. Sometimes––perhaps even most of the time––this is rightly so, as the accusations are grounded in a corroborating body of evidence that gives people reason to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of flagrant criminality. But there are instances wherein individuals are accused of criminal misconduct emptily, and such accusations can prepossess society at large to spurn the accused unjustly depending upon the emotional content of the allegations. It is for this reason that our legal system affords every person the presumption of innocence in a court of law. This precept is taken to be understood as a manifestation of the priority which procedural justice takes to retributive justice. It will be the object of this article, however, to demonstrate through different philosophical avenues why the presumption of innocence should be rendered beyond just the scope of the legal institutions in liberal democratic society.

For the utilitarian, or an individual who believes in the moral primacy of consequences and in our moral imperative as human beings to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, the argument for adherence to the presumption of innocence in all facets of life is fairly straightforward (130). It is important first to acknowledge that there is a relevant distinction between hedonism (maximizing one’s own pleasure and minimizing one’s own pain) with utilitarianism (maximizing and minimizing pleasure and pain, respectively, for the good of society at large) (131). It is because somebody is concerned with maximizing the benefits reaped by society at large that they would endorse strict adherence to the presumption of innocence. The profound pain of every wrongfully presumed “criminal” in society would outweigh the comfort felt by those who believed they would benefit marginally from treating those individuals as criminals. In other words: the ruined job prospects, family lives, and reputations of the wrongly accused would far outweigh the immaterial comfort afforded to those who adhere to the presumption of guilt. So those who find themselves prioritizing “the common good” in their moral adjudications would be hard-pressed to justify not adhering strictly to the presumption of innocence.

Some, however, are more concerned with securing benefits for those least well-off members of society so this line of reasoning would be lost on them. Such individuals I shall refer to as Rawlsians, for the individual who popularized this moral conception was John Rawls. Rawlsians believe that every individual in political society is entitled to an arrangement of primary goods such that any social or economic inequalities are systematized to reasonably be expected to be to everyone’s advantage (8). It is self-evident that a presumption of guilt, or anything other than strict adherence to the presumption of innocence, would be incompatible with these moral commitments. The further we as members of a society (not just members of a body politic) stray from strict adherence to this principle, the less we are able to ensure that social inequalities are distributed such that they are to everyone’s advantage. When we allow our emotions to dictate our belief in the guilt of an alleged criminal rather than rigorous, deductive conclusions drawn from a corroborating body of evidence, we make life for the least well-off individuals in our society untenable. It is difficult to conceive of circumstances worse than being treated as and aggressed upon by individuals for a crime that you did not commit, so strict adherence to a presumption of innocence ensures that those least well-off in comparable circumstances are advantaged to the greatest degree in society at large.

You may look on both aforementioned strains of argumentation and be unconvinced by the force of these arguments because your primary ethical concern is not grounded in the well-being of the least well-off in society so much as it is in the well-being of individuals broadly construed, regardless of their stations in society. The argument I will put forth in favor of strict adherence to the presumption of innocence congruent with this principle will be a deontological argument. This is the most intuitive of the arguments I have formulated, as the inherent respect and dignity ascribed to rational, autonomous beings requires strict adherence to the presumption of innocence in order to avow reverence for the intrinsic worth of persons. To presume an individual’s guilt and to treat them in accordance to this presumption is to preemptively strip an individual of their ability to set their own ends. Treating an allegation that is not rigorously substantiated by a reliable body of evidence as truth effectively renders the wrongly accused as a means to the end of human capriciousness.

Now, it is important to acknowledge that there are some aspects of strict adherence to presumed innocence that are unsettling. For example, if an individual whom you have known, loved, and trusted for a long time has intimated to you an accusation that is not validated by evidence, it necessarily follows that you have a moral obligation not to treat the alleged assailant as a criminal, no matter how trustworthy the source of the allegation appears to be. This does not entail that we disbelieve victims of alleged crimes. All it entails is that we heed to justice as a byproduct of adherence to procedure rather than believing that we, as individuals, have the authority to exact justice on subjective terms. Some may find this troublesome, but it is far less troublesome than its alternative: a world where our fates are left to whims rather than procedures that have been principally endorsed for the common good of man, for the good of those individuals most adversely affected by the inequalities begotten of society, and for the good of individuals, period.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent argument. Very clear and well presented. I especially liked the appreciation that sometimes the allegations are from people we love and trust. And in those situations it is so necessary to adhere to process. The process in the rule of law.

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