The basic lesson was that there are situations where it is quite ethical to take an action that saves (or benefits) a number of people, even if that action has, as an inevitable side effect, the death (or detriment) of a smaller number of people.
This posting has to do with Criminal Recidivism, and how we might apply the lesson of the Runaway Trolley to the justice system.
POWERPOINT SHOW AVAILABLE
Click HERE to download a narrated PowerPoint Show that includes animated charts for the Runaway Trolley thought experiment. After the Runaway Trolley is explored, the charts continue and apply the ethical lesson to two real-world issues: 1) Criminal Recidivism and 2) End of Life Issues. This posting covers Criminal Recidivism only. A subsequent posting will cover End of Life Issues. The PowerPoint Show is based on a talk I gave to The Philosophy Club at The Villages, FL, on 04 February 2011. NOTE: The Powerpoint Show is Narrated and plays and advances automatically after download to your computer.
WAS MAIMONIDES RIGHT ABOUT CRIMINAL JUSTICE?
Moses Maimonides, the 11th Century Rabbi and medical doctor shown in the sketch above, is one of the most highly regarded ethical teachers in Jewish tradition. He famously wrote that it was better to let 1000 guilty go free rather than wrongly convict a single innocent. Do you agree with that ideal? Is an error rate of 1/1000 the correct standard for a criminal justice system?
Juries in criminal cases are charged with the responsibility to convict only if the evidence meets the standard of being beyond a reasonable doubt. The 1/1000 standard corresponds to a certainty of 99.9%. Is that a good working definition for beyond a reasonable doubt? Is that number too high? For example, in civil cases, the standard is the preponderance of the evidence, which means, if one side proves its case to a certainty of 51%, the other side loses. Is 51% a good working definition for beyond a reasonable doubt?
Well, Benjamin Franklin, US Founding Father, said the number of guilty released to save one innocent from being wrongly convicted was 100, which corresponds to 99%. William Blackstone, the 18th century jurist who codified British Common Law, said the correct value was 10, corresponding to 90% certainty. Benjamin Cardozo, 19th century US Supreme Court Justice, said the number was 5, corresponding to 80% certainty. And, Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher, said the number was 1, corresponding to 50% certainty.
How in the world can so many respected men have such different standards for criminal justice? How may we use the Runaway Trolley to arrive at a reasonable number?
CRIMINAL RECIDIVISM RATES
The graphic lists criminal recidivism rates for a number of crimes. Notice that nearly all violent crimes, including assault, murder, robbery, and sex crimes have recidivism rates above 50%. That means that, when a person has been convicted of a violent crime and has served his sentence and is released, there is a greater than 50% likelihood that he will commit another violent crime, be caught, and convicted again.
FUTURE VICTIMS CONDEMNED BY FAILURE OF JUSTICE
Criminal Recidivism rates for violent crimes teach us that, every time we release two convicts, we are, in essence, condemning at least one innocent to become the victim of a future crime. The number of innocents condemned is probably considerably larger than one because: 1) Many violent crimes have more than one victim, and 2) The released convict is likely to commit more than one violent crime before being caught and convicted again.
Extending this lesson to criminal trials, if, after weighing the evidence of a violent crime we the jury believe there is a greater than 50% likelihood the defendant is guilty, we should vote him guilty!
If there is only a 51% chance he is actually guilty, and we release him on a technicality or because we feel sympathy for him, and it turns out he was actually guilty, we are denying justice not only to his victims in the current case, but there is a high likelihood we are also condemning future victims to violence.
If we convict him on 51% certainty, and he turns out to have actually been innocent, we are doing a serious injustice to an innocent man. But, what is the likelihood he is totally innocent? Unless corrupt police have purposely framed him (in which case they would most likely have manufactured overwhelming evidence, which is not the case here), we are probably dealing with a person who has an extensive rap sheet and other indicators he has not lead a respectable life. He may not be guilty of this particular crime, but his incarceration will not be much of a loss to society - certainly not as much as the death or serious injury for one or more totally innocent victims if we make a mistake and release someone who is actually guilty.
The justice system is so dominated by lawyers and legal technicalities that rich people with clever lawyers can literally get away with murder, as many of us think happened to OJ Simpson.
1) Reform the Court System. Change the rules of evidence. Make it harder to get off on a technicality or with a clever lawyer.
2) Change the way we handle people convicted of violent crimes. DO NOT release them after their sentence is served. Keep them in some type of work camp.
3) Perhaps modern technology provides a humane and affordable solution for dealing with released convicts and others with extensive rap sheets. Stick a chip up their butt so they may be tracked for the rest of their lives. If there is certainty they will be caught and convicted if they commit any kind of infraction, they may learn to stay on the straight and narrow.
My free online novel, 2052 - The Hawking Plan, envisages a society, several decades from now, when everybody "voluntarily" carries an RFID device that effectively tracks their every move and activity.
Does that sound too drastic? Well how about your total lack of privacy right now? Those of us with homes and computers and cell phones and cars and jobs are effectively tracked by various computers and video cameras as we go on with our lives. We leave video and computer records dozens of times every day. The only people who have any privacy anymore are the drifters and criminal class, one of whom is likely to steal your car or credit card!
NOTE: Subsequent postings in this series will extend this lesson to the real-world situation of End of Life Issues.