Thursday, July 07, 2011

A Hard Pill to Swallow

Consider this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Three days ago I reaffirmed my belief in the historically radical idea that people have an innate, unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I ate some barbecue and ignited some small scale incendiary devices with good friends to commemorate this ideal. These banal means of celebration are actually more profound than I think we usually give thought to. They represent the culmination of society's progress. I mean that. Stay with me here.

If we are going to put an end to a person's life, we had better have airtight knowledge that the person committed an act of such unconscionable magnitude that society itself cannot tolerate that person's continued existence; i.e., that society's effective operation and possible existence is jeopardized by that person's continued existence. That's a tall criteria to satisfy.

Particularly, what I'm driving at is this: the death of Caylee Anthony is a tragedy. There is no doubt in my mind that the person responsible for her death or responsible for her wellbeing at the time of her death has evaded justice. That is a hard pill to swallow for a society that loves justice. But if we as a society, via the jury in this case, had convicted her mother, Casey Anthony, and sentenced her to death while a plausible doubt existed about her actual guilt, much less her actual involvement in the death, we would double the harm done to our society in this affair. That would be irrational, which means that it would be arbitrary. And if arbitrariness rules the day, then society actually poses a threat to itself. This is not just high minded idealism. It literally means no more barbecue in the comfort of sedate neighborhoods and shady cul-de-sacs. Really. The barbarians would gather their hordes again. I don't know how long it would take, but it would eventually happen. The arc of cultural progress over the last 2,500 years has converged on bringing at bay the irrational judgements of the hordes and the superstitious with judicial progress, a situation I suspect that we have mostly forgotten. Would we now jeopardize that progress to satisfy a need for emotional closure, even a justifiable one? Of course, it's more than barbecue and fireworks. Those are just symbols for something more important. They are a type of communion that commemorates a greater ideal. Not only would we now find ourselves threatening the life of another person, we would be threatening the lives of all of us, dishonoring the unalienable rights we hold dear.

Life is full of ambiguous situations, and we often make decisions facing a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity. We usually try to do the best we can given the information we possess at the moment of decision, and then we make corrections along the way. We even anticipate that corrections will be needed because we know that life is subject to ever evolving influences. In some cases, though, decisions produce totally irreversible consequences* - such as executing a person convicted of a crime. Yet we want and need justice to be served? How do we proceed?

Suppose you face making a decision that impacts someone else directly. Ask yourself: would you be willing to submit to the same information conditions and outcomes the recipient of your decision faces? Now, suppose you had a gun that could deliver that outcome to you. The gun is omniscient. It knows the absolute truth of the case in question. In the moment of decision, you pull the trigger. If your judgment is coherent with the knowledge of the gun, you walk away unharmed. But if you are wrong, the gun delivers the same consequence that you would dish out. If you believe your judgement is certainly correct, then pulling the trigger is no problem. But if there is any doubt in your mind that you are correct in your judgment, and, more importantly, that you cannot tolerate the outcome, you might delay pulling the trigger or just defer altogether. When doubt exists, when the stakes are irreversible, deferring our sense of satisfying justice may deliver a higher degree of actual justice.

I don't know whether Casey Anthony killed her daughter or not. While I may harbor suspicions, that's all I have. My suspicions have been wrong in the past, and sometimes with embarrassing consequences. Fortunately for me, the stakes associated with my judgements based on poorly formed suspicions have usually been relegated to some loss of face, property, or relationships. In this case, a jury held the LIFE of another person in their consideration. Given the emotional content of the case and the ambiguous evidence brought to trial, as best as I can tell, the jury behaved in a circumspect manner that is commensurate with a society that values reason and maximizing justice. The jury behaved in a manner that recognized that pulling the trigger on the truth gun possibly led to an intolerable outcome - another (potentially) innocent person losing her life.

Unserved justice is a hard pill to swallow. But mis-served justice is a bigger travesty. A rational justice system operates on this idea.

*Actually, all decisions involve irreversibility because all actual decisions occur in time. While a perturbed bearing or position might be eventually restored, the time required to regain it cannot be.