Rush to Judgment?

Suppose you see a man with a gun chasing another man down the street. You are armed and decide to intervene. You yell at the pursuer to stop or you’ll shoot him. He pays you no heed and continues his pursuit. You shoot the pursuer in the back and he drops dead. The pursued man continues his flight and soon disappears from your view.

You call the police to report the incident, and an investigative team soon arrives on the scene. The crime-scene investigator turns the dead man over and sees that he is a fellow police officer. The investigator calls the officer’s unit to determine the officer’s assignment at the time of the shooting.

The investigator learns that the officer had been about to make an arrest in a drug sting. The man he was chasing was probably a mid-level drug dealer who was in charge of a drug-dealing operation that spanned one-fourth of the large city in which you live. On further investigation, these facts are confirmed. You are charged with manslaughter.

But if the person you shot had been a criminal intent on killing the fleeing man, you would have been hailed as a hero.

This hypothetical situation can be thought of as a metaphor for the possibility that a jury will convict an innocent person for a crime that carries the death penalty.

There is almost always some degree of uncertainty about the guilt of a person who is convicted of murder. Most murder convictions are based on “circumstantial” evidence, though it should be compelling evidence to secure a conviction. But a murderer is seldom caught at the scene of the crime in a manner that points unambiguously to (a) his culpability and (b) lack of mitigating circumstances (e.g., self-defense). Rock-solid, 100-percent certainty of guilt is hard to come by.

There are many who argue that such considerations — wrongful conviction, less-than-certainty — call for abolition of the death penalty.

There are two ancillary arguments against the death penalty. The first is that the execution of a person is an irrevocable act which can’t be reversed if evidence surfaces to prove the person’s innocence or, at least, cast reasonable doubt on his guilt. But imprisonment can’t be reversed, either. Awards of monetary damages in cases of wrongful conviction aren’t truly compensatory; time can’t be rewound.

Thus I am unpersuaded that  the death penalty is wrong because it is irreversible. All penalties except strictly monetary ones, repaid with interest, are irreversible. And even those have some costs attached to them (e.g., time lost, shame) that can’t be erased.

The second ancillary argument — which isn’t really an argument — is that the death penalty is barbaric. I am unpersuaded that the death penalty is barbaric. It is a penalty for the commission of a barbaric act. To call it barbaric is to stoop to the kind of emotionalism that typifies the left, whence flows most opposition to the death penalty. (If it’s not barbaric, it’s racist; if it’s not racist, it’s primitive; and on into the night.)

Lost in all the noise are the the essential purposes of punishment: vengeance, deterrence, and security. Restitution and rehabilitation are pipe dreams.

Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was swift, certain, and harsh. But the erosion of the capstone has led to the erosion the edifice beneath it. When the worst crimes merit less than death, the next worse crimes merit lesser punishments than before, and so on down the line. At the end of the line, there are increasing numbers of police officers who refrain from intervening in criminal activity lest they themselves be charged with brutality. It’s little wonder that the rate of violent crime has risen for the past two years.

There must be a hierarchy of penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished. When punishment is made less severe and less certain, crime flourishes and law-abiding citizens become less secure. (Some of the related posts listed below provide relevant statistical evidence.)

There are those who argue that the deterrent effect of capital punishment isn’t what it used to be. But that is because the death penalty is rarer and less certain than it used to be. The deterrent effect would be greater if there were a strict limit on the number of appeals and the time available for such appeals.

In any event, even if capital punishment had no deterrent effect, the execution of a murderer eliminates the possibility that he will murder again.

What about the possibility of a mistaken conviction? That possibility argues not for the abolition of the death penalty, but for strict scrutiny of the evidence against an accused to ensure that it is completely and timely divulged to the defense. It also calls for a special class of defense counsel: lawyers who specialize in and are knowledgeable of the kinds of evidence that are (and should be) presented and examined in capital cases (e.g., evidence about DNA, ballistics, poisons, etc.).

As a taxpayer, I would rather subsidize the training, testing, and monitoring of such lawyers than put up with the seemingly endless rounds of death-sentence appeals and the costs associated with them. The tradeoff would be enshrined in law: a definite limit as to the number of appeals and the length of time allowed for them, on the one hand, and a greater assurance of robust defense for the accused, on the other hand.

Justice delayed is justice denied.


Related reading: John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi, “What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why“, City Journal, Summer 2017

Related posts:
I’ll Never Understand the Insanity Defense
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
A Precedent for the Demise of the Insanity Defense?
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
In Defense of Capital Punishment
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government
Crime Revisited

What Is Truth?

There are four kinds of truth: physical, logical-mathematical, psychological-emotional, and judgmental. The first two are closely related, as are the last two. After considering each of the two closely related pairs, I will link all four kinds of truth.

PHYSICAL AND LOGICAL-MATHEMATICAL TRUTH

Physical truth is, seemingly, the most straightforward of the lot. Physical truth seems to consist of that which humans are able to apprehend with their senses, aided sometimes by instruments. And yet, widely accepted notions of physical truth have changed drastically over the eons, not only because of improvements in the instruments of observation but also because of changes in the interpretation of data obtained with the aid of those instruments.

The latter point brings me to logical-mathematical truth. It is logic and mathematics that translates specific physical truths — or what are taken to be truths — into constructs (theories) such as quantum mechanics, general relativity, the Big Bang, and evolution. Of the relationship between specific physical truth and logical-mathematical truth, G.K. Chesterton said:

Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs. On the assumption that a man has two ears, it is good logic that three men have six ears, but on the assumption that a man has four ears, it is equally good logic that three men have twelve. And the power of seeing how many ears the average man, as a fact, possesses, the power of counting a gentleman’s ears accurately and without mathematical confusion, is not a logical thing but a primary and direct experience, like a physical sense, like a religious vision. The power of counting ears may be limited by a blow on the head; it may be disturbed and even augmented by two bottles of champagne; but it cannot be affected by argument. Logic has again and again been expended, and expended most brilliantly and effectively, on things that do not exist at all. There is far more logic, more sustained consistency of the mind, in the science of heraldry than in the science of biology. There is more logic in Alice in Wonderland than in the Statute Book or the Blue Books. The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic. Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic—for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it. [Thanks to The Fourth Checkraise for making me aware of Chesterton’s aperçu.]

To put it another way, logical-mathematical truth is only as valid as the axioms (principles) from which it is derived. Given an axiom, or a set of them, one can deduce “true” statements (assuming that one’s logical-mathematical processes are sound). But axioms are not pre-existing truths with independent existence (like Platonic ideals). They are products, in one way or another, of observation and reckoning. The truth of statements derived from axioms depends, first and foremost, on the truth of the axioms, which is the thrust of Chesterton’s aperçu.

It is usual to divide reasoning into two types of logical process:

  • Induction is “The process of deriving general principles from particular facts or instances.” That is how scientific theories are developed, in principle. A scientist begins with observations and devises a theory from them. Or a scientist may begin with an existing theory, note that new observations do not comport with the theory, and devise a new theory to fit all the observations, old and new.
  • Deduction is “The process of reasoning in which a conclusion follows necessarily from the stated premises; inference by reasoning from the general to the specific.” That is how scientific theories are tested, in principle. A theory (a “stated premise”) should lead to certain conclusions (“observations”). If it does not, the theory is falsified. If it does, the theory lives for another day.

But the stated premises (axioms) of a scientific theory (or exercise in logic or mathematical operation) do not arise out of nothing. In one way or another, directly or indirectly, they are the result of observation and reckoning (induction). Get the observation and reckoning wrong, and what follows is wrong; get them right and what follows is right. Chesterton, again.

PSYCHOLOGICAL-EMOTIONAL AND JUDGMENTAL TRUTH

A psychological-emotional truth is one that depends on more than physical observations. A judgmental truth is one that arises from a psychological-emotional truth and results in a consequential judgment about its subject.

A common psychological-emotional truth, one that finds its way into judgmental truth, is an individual’s conception of beauty.  The emotional aspect of beauty is evident in the tendency, especially among young persons, to consider their lovers and spouses beautiful, even as persons outside the intimate relationship would find their judgments risible.

A more serious psychological-emotional truth — or one that has public-policy implications — has to do with race. There are persons who simply have negative views about races other than their own, for reasons that are irrelevant here. What is relevant is the close link between the psychological-emotional views about persons of other races — that they are untrustworthy, stupid, lazy, violent, etc. — and judgments that adversely affect those persons. Those judgments range from refusal to hire a person of a different race (still quite common, if well disguised to avoid legal problems) to the unjust convictions and executions because of prejudices held by victims, witnesses, police officers, prosecutors, judges, and jurors. (My examples point to anti-black prejudices on the part of whites, but there are plenty of others to go around: anti-white, anti-Latino, anti-Asian, etc. Nor do I mean to impugn prudential judgments that implicate race, as in the avoidance by whites of certain parts of a city.)

A close parallel is found in the linkage between the psychological-emotional truth that underlies a jury’s verdict and the legal truth of a judge’s sentence. There is an even tighter linkage between psychological-emotional truth and legal truth in the deliberations and rulings of higher courts, which operated without juries.

PUTTING TRUTH AND TRUTH TOGETHER

Psychological-emotional proclivities, and the judgmental truths that arise from them, impinge on physical and mathematical-logical truth. Because humans are limited (by time, ability, and inclination), they often accept as axiomatic statements about the world that are tenuous, if not downright false. Scientists, mathematicians, and logicians are not exempt from the tendency to credit dubious statements. And that tendency can arise not just from expediency and ignorance but also from psychological-emotional proclivities.

Albert Einstein, for example, refused to believe that very small particles of matter-energy (quanta) behave probabilistically, as described by the branch of physics known as quantum mechanics. Put simply, sub-atomic particles do not seem to behave according to the same physical laws that describe the actions of the visible universe; their behavior is discontinuous (“jumpy”) and described probabilistically, not by the kinds of continuous (“smooth”) mathematical formulae that apply to the macroscopic world.

Einstein refused to believe that different parts of the same universe could operate according to different physical laws. Thus he saw quantum mechanics as incomplete and in need of reconciliation with the rest of physics. At one point in his long-running debate with the defenders of quantum mechanics, Einstein wrote: “I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.” And yet, quantum mechanics — albeit refined and elaborated from the version Einstein knew — survives and continues to describe the sub-atomic world with accuracy.

Ironically, Einstein’s two greatest contributions to physics — special and general relativity — were met with initial skepticism by other physicists. Special relativity rejects absolute space-time; general relativity depicts a universe whose “shape” depends on the masses and motions of the bodies within it. These are not intuitive concepts, given man’s instinctive preference for certainty.

The point of the vignettes about Einstein is that science is not a sterile occupation; it can be (and often is) fraught with psychological-emotional visions of truth. What scientists believe to be true depends, to some degree, on what they want to believe is true. Scientists are simply human beings who happen to be more capable than the average person when it comes to the manipulation of abstract concepts. And yet, scientists are like most of their fellow beings in their need for acceptance and approval. They are fully capable of subscribing to a “truth” if to do otherwise would subject them to the scorn of their peers. Einstein was willing and able to question quantum mechanics because he had long since established himself as a premier physicist, and because he was among that rare breed of humans who are (visibly) unaffected by the opinions of their peers.

Such are the scientists who, today, question their peers’ psychological-emotional attachment to the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The questioners are not “deniers” or “skeptics”; they are scientists who are willing to look deeper than the facile hypothesis that, more than two decades ago, gave rise to the AGW craze.

It was then that a scientist noted the coincidence of an apparent rise in global temperatures since the late 1800s (or is it since 1975?) and an apparent increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. And thus a hypothesis was formed. It was embraced and elaborated by scientists (and others) eager to be au courant, to obtain government grants (conveniently aimed at research “proving” AGW), to be “right” by being in the majority, and — let it be said — to curtail or stamp out human activities which they find unaesthetic. Evidence to the contrary be damned.

Where else have we seen this kind of behavior, albeit in a more murderous guise? At the risk of invoking Hitler, I must answer with this link: Nazi Eugenics. Again, science is not a sterile occupation, exempt from human flaws and foibles.

CONCLUSION

What is truth? Is it an absolute reality that lies beyond human perception? Is it those “answers” that flow logically or mathematically from unproven assumptions? Is it the “answers” that, in some way, please us? Or is it the ways in which we reshape the world to conform it with those “answers”?

Truth, as we are able to know it, is like the human condition: fragile and prone to error.