I’m just about finished with this book, and I’ve found it very interesting. Laudan approaches the legal process with strictly epistemological interests, asking whether it’s a good system if what we’re after is convicting bad guys and not convicting good guys. On the whole the answer is “no,” so he engages in some speculation about how we might make the process better at tracking the truth.
He knows, of course, that no system will be perfect. So one interesting question he raises is this: what degree of imperfection are we willing to tolerate? Clearly most of us would rather see some guilty people go free than see innocent people convicted — but how many? What’s the ratio? How many murderers or rapists are we willing to see go unpunished for every innocent person wrongly convicted? Let n represent this number. Previous legal theorists have suggested that n equals 5, 10, 100, and 1,000. Laudan seems to settle on 10, though probably just for the sake of making ensuing discussions a bit clearer and more definite. (I suppose experimental philosophy could try to settle this question.)
Laudan also explores what anyone could possibly mean by “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is an important matter, as judges have to say something to jurors about what this means, and if they get it wrong, a case can be overturned. So what does it mean? Laudan claims that it’s usually understood subjectively: it’s when you feel very, very strongly that that defendant is guilty. But he rightly notes that this is not the sort of standard we’d accept anywhere else. Do we tell our scientists to regard a theory as proven when they feel really very sure about it, or disproven when they don’t? Instead, Laudan writes,
The principal question is not whether the jurors, individually and collecively, are convinced by the prosecution. The issue is whether the evidence they have seen and heard should be convincing in terms of the level of support it offers to the prosecutor’s hypothesis that the defendant is guilty.
So it looks like jurors ought to have some schooling in philosophy of science. That’s the only objection I have to Laudan’s recommendation: if only a jury of my peers could be relied upon to make that assessment!
The second half of Laudan’s book argues that the rules of what evidence can be presented slant courts too steeply in favor of defendants. That is, defendants already begin with some sort of presumption that they are innocent (lengthy and intriguing discussion about what this could mean, too), and it’s up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. Laudan basically thinks this is enough of a presumption of innocence. But the rules of evidence preclude the prosecution from bringing in a lot of relevant evidence, relevant for finding the truth of the case, if there is any reasonable doubt (there it is again) about how the evidence has been obtained. Laudan thinks this grotesquely exaggerates the presumption of innocence and makes for far too many false acquittals (i.e., letting the guilty go free). Of course, he wouldn’t argue that the prosecution should be allowed to present anything, however gathered; his claim is only that the existent rules make it too hard to present evidence that really would help the courts to track truth better.
I’m certainly unlearned about all of this, but my first reaction is that I’m leery of relaxing rules of evidence, if only because I don’t see any reason to believe that the police and prosecutors have any interest in getting to the truth as opposed to getting a conviction. There’s no incentive for them to get to the truth. In that context, a defendant needs very strong protection indeed against a very capable and sometimes ruthless team working very hard to put him in jail. Hey, I just want a fair fight.
In any case, I’m finding this a very interesting read.
(Thanks to Kevin Doyle.)
Some readers may already know or have suspected that I have a new job (or rather one added on to the old one). Now I am an Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. It’s expected among academics that professors who move into administration have some explaining to do: Are they washed up? Have they turned to the Dark Side? Are they crazy? But with a straight face I believe I can say that I’ve made this move because there’s interesting work to be done and I think I’ll enjoy doing it. In a sense it’s a new college – we have a new dean and the Arts faculty have splintered off to form a new college of their own. I might be wrong, but it feels like the faculty as a whole is willing to have meaningful dialogue about reforming our curriculum with the aim of producing more liberally educated students. I get to be part of that dialogue, and I am frankly excited about applying philosophical thought to administrative decisions.
So yes, in short, I have drunk the Kool-Aid.
In the meetings I’ve been in, it’s become clear to me that “the philosophical approach” could be really beneficial to a wide swath of people in higher education and, well, everywhere. The approach I have in mind is the one established in Platonic dialogues, where, to the extent possible, egos are checked at the door, and the participants are pursuing an impartial and accurate view of matters. Philosophers ideally welcome arguments challenging their own beliefs, because one of the greatest benefits you can confer upon me is the gentle indication that I am being an idiot, and there’s a better way of viewing the matter. I was recently subjected to a talk which urged us all to “be humble,” “be open,” and “consider everything” when making decisions. I think maybe 2500 years of philosophy can offer a bit more than this. I guess I’ll find out.
This means putting the Spinoza book project on the back burner, which I was finding I would have to do anyway. I just wasn’t making headway. I think the problem was that originally I thought I would be able to pull together my unpublished writings I’ve accumulated over the years and fit them together into a book. But in the meantime my own approach to philosophy has changed considerably. This means I’ll have to toss the old stuff and start tabula rasa.
By Freddy Martin and his orchestra.
Probably only 80% of the 10,000 vintage phonograph records at the Vintage Music Company in Minneapolis have been meticulously organized by genre, group, condition, year, etc. The rest are in stacks in the floor. Still, we were able to find some records we couldn’t live without, including Jelly Roll Morton’s “Big Lip Blues” and Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition of “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”
I think the owner (armed with encyclopedic knowledge of recording history) was charmed by my son when he asked “if you have any Mozart,” because he kindly gave Ben a 4-record set of Toscanini’s recording of the Jupiter Symphony.
We had other reasons to enjoy our trip back east. We managed to see 70 or so relatives in 6 days, plus a visit to our high school Humanities teacher, who got me started in this Philosophy business in the first place. We’re still on friendly terms, though.
“One day it will be as if you’ve never been.” Wrap your head around that, Jack, and you’re well along the road to wisdom.
I just came across Dennis Des Chene’s webpage. It’s well worth exploring, mostly because of the entries along the right side of the page, ranging subject-wise from intelligent octopi to number theory. I read Des Chene’s Physiologia some years ago and was really fascinated by his account of late-medieval Aristotelianism. He seems to have a knack for finding interesting pockets of the universe and diving into them deeply enough to make you realize that, really, you don’t know very much, do you?