The cornerstone of the English common law on which the United States legal system is founded is the presumption that every single person is innocent until he or she can be proven guilty. You may “know” in your heart that someone is guilty of everything of which you accuse him or her, or of the vague rumors you thought you heard somewhere or other, but if you cannot prove that someone has done something, then (as Mortimer Adler pointed out in Ten Philosophical Mistakes) all you have is opinion.
Here’s the catch — and the reason that every single man, woman, and child on the face of the earth must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Not merely suspected. Not expedient. Not convenient. Proved as a matter of fact, either through empirical evidence or logical argument. No ifs, no ands, no buts.
Opinion, you see, no matter how strongly you hold it or how desperately you may need to believe it, is (obviously) a matter of opinion. It may be true, but it is not necessarily true.
In moral philosophy, spreading stories that you cannot prove are true is “calumny,” a form of “detraction of another.” The Catholic Church classes calumny as a “mortal sin,” meaning that if you die having spread unproved stories about others in a serious matter, you go straight to hell for all eternity. (Even telling the truth in a way that harms others when you have no right to do so or there is no need can get you into trouble. It’s called “backbiting.”)
Calumny is a sin that “cries to heaven for vengeance,” and for which reparation must be made. Paradoxically, it is also virtually impossible to make reparation for calumny. Ever try to convince your friends that the stories you spread about your unfriends were (my bad!) not exactly true? Oops.
If not worse, things tend to get a little more graphic when you get away from religion and into the law and everyday life. Ever read the book by Walter Van Tilburg Clark or see the film made from the novel, The Oxbow Incident? They knew those guys were guilty, so they hanged them. Only they weren’t guilty. Oops. My bad.
On the good side, the sheriff helped them cover it up, or the town would have looked really, really bad. And a couple of people committed suicide. No great loss. They were weak. These things happen.
We’ll stop the sarcasm now.
The absolute necessity of proof in determining guilt is why the issue of the “buffer zone” around abortion clinics is a bit more visceral than many appear to believe. Whether you’re Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, you’ve got to be a little queasy at the way the arguments are being framed. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg put it, the State,
“. . . doesn’t know in advance who are the well-behaved people and who are the people who won’t behave well . . . and after the disturbance occurs, it’s too late.”
Damn those inalienable rights! Why wait until something happens before taking away someone’s rights to property, liberty — or life? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, isn’t it?
Well, yes, many medicines are deadly poison if administered incorrectly or to someone who isn’t sick, but isn’t that a price we have to pay to prevent illness or maintain an orderly, well-behaved society? Better that a thousand innocent people should suffer rather than one might-be guilty person go free.
It’s even in the Bible: “Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50.) There. That proves it.
Some people must not be permitted to own capital because they might not know how to own, and they might misuse their ownership. Some people should not be permitted to voice their opinions or associate with others because they might do something wrong, or that others find offensive. Some people should not be permitted to live because they might not be good citizens or they might become a burden on society.
Can you — or should you — take away people’s rights just because you’re afraid of what someone might do by exercising them? Can we even be said to have rights if the State or anybody else can take them away when they feel like it?
No, Justice Ginzburg. You can’t take away someone’s rights because of what someone might do. In a just society (and as a judge you should understand this better than anyone), a person can only be guilty of something he or she has actually done, not something that you think he or she might do, however much that fact displeases you.
Anything less is tyranny.