Which is more important: protecting the innocent or punishing the guilty?

The current kerfuffle about voter registrations seems to be breaking along similar partisan lines as previous kerfuffles about things like the death penalty and terrorism.
On the one side are people who focus on protecting the innocent:

It’s better the guilty go free than that the innocent suffer.
On the other side are people who focus on punishing the guilty:

It’s better the innocent suffer than that the guilty go free.

First: Is this a fair assessment of a real split, or are there too many people who pick one or more from the “protecting the innocent” category and one or more from the “punishing the guilty”?

Second: Are there other big examples of the tension between these two ideals?

Third: The biggie. Which is better? Is it better to let a few bad apples through rather than risking the good will get caught? Or is it better to catch all the baddies even if a few innocent people get hurt? Which is the riskier strategy? Can the riskier strategy ever be the more moral or ethical, or do the dangers create their own ethics and morals? IOW, is it immoral to ignore the risk of terrorism in the name of freedom?
I’m on the side of protecting the innocent even when that allows the guilty to go free. I’d rather risk getting blown up in an airplane, or risk ineligible people will vote, or risk setting murderers free rather than risk someone innocent gets thrown into Gitmo, or is denied the right to vote, or is imprisoned for something he didn’t do.

Better 100 fraudulent votes cast than one eligible voter turned away.
Better 100 murderers freed than one innocent person imprisoned or executed.
Better 100 terrorists roaming the street than one innocent person thrown into Gitmo or tortured.

But is this a morally/ethically defensible position?

I don’t see anybody advocating killing every human being, or letting everybody kill each other*, so I would say it’s not a fair assessment.

As an aside, I don’t know what the real consequences of these fraudulent registrations are - I guess it depends on whether they could possibly translate into fraudulent votes. In any case, I think people who demonstratably messed with democratic elections should be punished in some way.

  • edit: pick something less severe, like ticketing everybody for DUI / letting everybody DUI if you like.

I think it is wrong to look at it from the perspective of an empirical proposition, like, “It is better for x to go free than y to be harassed.” Criminals have a right to freedom, too, just one that we intend to trample on for what I suppose are extremely good reasons, but then doesn’t this also depend on the crime in question? I’d rather let all drug dealers go than harass one innocent person over drugs; but when it comes to something like physical assault (rape, attempted homicide, etc) I can’t state numbers so confidently.

The problem is that it is not just that one unlucky innocent guy that pays the cost for this kind of encroachment on freedom. If we want to do a cost-benefit analysis, we have to include all the costs, not just this one (and it is a big one). People act differently when they think or know they are being watched. This is a very real cost to bear. Sure, the increase in the anxiety of any one person might be small, but there are well over 200 million adults walking around in public. This is a huge cost. But how would we even measure it?

No, I think cost-benefit is entirely wrong for this question. Besides, it introduces other problems into decision making. Do we tie a law to a particular analysis? This would only serve to make enforcement more difficult. Practically speaking, to discover, capture, and convict someone is a host of situations that are not as clear as even the wordiest of legislation, nevermind if its entire justification is chained to some kind of quicksand. Basing any of this on some transitory measure is ultimately, in my view, absurd. Justice is wearing a statistically sound blindfold? Umm…

It is a nice soundbite that we err on the side of caution, that it is better for ten guilty men to go free, and so on, but in practice there is never any serious intent to base all this on some kind of cost-benefit analysis in the strict sense, but rather on principles meant to broadly outline social interaction. Yes, ultimately it is a moral question about the role of free men and government, and how they interact, of which criminals are the exception, not the rule. If criminals are the exception, then we handle exceptional cases is exceptional ways. The end result of this may be that, after all, it is better to let ten guilty men free than punish one innocent man, because by the time we’ve punished even one innocent man, we’ve trampled on many more to get to him, and that changes the whole reason we have to live in a free society in the first place.

I’m not sure that you’re making a distinction apart from cost-benefit even so. Certainly more things have to be included as “costs” and more things have to be included as “benefits” than some cursory glance (or my cursory OP) reveals, but even if the cost is pushed off on “the whole reason we have to live in a free society,” that’s still a cost–and one that outweighs the benefit of punishing that guilty person–isn’t it?

Another problem with punishing the innocent in order to make sure you get all the guilty is that doing so makes YOU guilty of preying upon the innocent as well. And as you are guilty and aren’t being punished for it, your actions are self defeating.

And the people who hold this position tend to be hypocritical; they seldom think that THEY are one of the innocents who might be sacrificed. It’s those other people over there who are at risk. It’s easy to be “tough” when the people making the sacrifices aren’t you.

Excellent question, and you are absolutely right, it is still a cost. But I believe it is a cost/benefit question at a completely different level. It is one thing to say, “The en passant rule in chess has a cost,” and another to say, “losing a knight [in chess] has a cost.” Though we may use some kind of cost/benefit analysis to examine each of these questions, to me they are not the same kind of thing. Allowing or disallowing a rule will have certain costs and benefits associated with them, but these costs are measured and interpreted in entirely different ways than examining a pawn/knight trade from within the game. Boardwalk, in Monopoly, has very obvious and direct costs and benefits, anyone can see it by looking at the card. But are these the same kind of benefits and costs as agreeing on whether or not luxury tax should go to free parking before we play?

To me, these are not the same kind of analyses. One is from within a rule-system, another is about a rule-system. Conflating the two is asking the system to evaluate itself, which is something some find justifiable (unintentionally or not), but not me personally (I don’t mean to imply people are reasoning falliciously).

From within our justice system, people are guilty or innocent, which means, exactly, someone has been convicted in a court of law, or has not, respectively. You often see the cost/benefit approach described in cases where guilt or innocence could have been clearly established, “but for” something, e.g., the person would have been convicted but for the exclusionary rule, the cost here being that some “guilty” man went free. I feel this is a clouded interpretation which conflates legal guilt with matter-of-fact culpability. Of course, we desire that both go hand in hand, but as a practical matter they do not.

I will share my outside (and perhaps nerdy) viewpoint on this, because I recently had a very similar discussion to this one with one fellow doper Boozahol Squid P.I. who caused me to think about this very question.

The question for us dorks was- which is a better place to live: Gotham City or Metropolis?
I stated that Metropolis looked like a much nicer community, and by far, seems to be the safer one with Superman guarding it and all. **Boozy **however was against that idea, and said he preferred Gotham, which took me back, as Gotham is a gritty crime infested city- a dump if you will.
But here’s the point (and i’m paraphrasing here), the issue is not which place is a “nicer” place to live, as i had been thinking about the question- but rather a philosophical question- the one that you have asked.

Superman is a person who “protects the innocent” so to speak. In metropolis, the city is protected by an individual that tries to prevent crimes and stop them before they occur (now I know this isn’t always the case and all, but I don’t want to get into the superhero trivial details but rather focus on the gist of it all). But on the whole, Superman PREVENTS crime by protecting his citizens.

Batman on the other hand takes the 2nd stance: he punishes the guilty. He finds those who have committed the crimes (and using his detective skills), he tracks down the wrong doers and brings them to justice.

Thusly, it was an easy metaphor for me to better understand now. One is a city that seems like a Utopia- a place protected by a nearly omnipotent being that prevents all crimes from harming people. While the other city was a crime filled dangerous place to live- sure there were nice places in it, but there were still slums, and yes, it too had a protector that acted in the interests of its citizens, but for the most part, he was focused on the AFTERMATH of a heist or a crime- in bringing the murderer or criminals to justice.

I still felt Metropolis was a better place than Gotham, and couldn’t understand Boozy’s preference, That’s when he brought up the kicker: it all depends on what your stance is on personal FREEDOM. Gotham is a more democratic and “free-er” state than Metropolis. This can only be seen by pushing the examples of the superheros to extremes (Superman’s Red Son series did this marvelously).
Batman doesn’t punish those who speak out, he ONLY truly punishes those who ACT out, the truly “guilty”. He is a detective, who examines the evidence, finds those truly responsible and brings them to justice POST the crime.
Superman doesn’t act the same way, and in fact, would take measures to PREVENT crimes, this means stopping them before they occur. There have been many comics done of this idea- Superman decides that he is simply the best person to “protect” the people, and thusly begins to act as "Big Brother’ to his citizens, by stopping all forms of protest, rebelling or acting out. Basically, he would reduce metropolis to a totalitarian state, or a “benevolent dictatorship” of sorts- where the citizens are safer, but at the cost of their civil liberties and freedom of speech/press etc. This ensures that everyone is innocent, and everyone is protected by an omnipotent being.

I found that idea really interesting actually, and never really considered it that way. Yet, if you asked me which I would live in? I would probably pick Metropolis still- because I feel I am an “innocent” person, and I would tolerate the loss of my civil rights, if it meant I would be “safer” in the long run, as my health right now means more to me than my freedoms. But i can TOTALLY understand how someone could argue the complete opposite- that one’s civil liberties and freedom should mean more, and should not be given up in order to fully “protect the innocent”.

It’s a fun thing to talk about, and I never really understood or liked philosophy much, but it was neat to think about it in terms that I could easily understand- with the two views and endpoints making more sense to me.

So yeah- put me down for Protecting the innocent, even at the cost of freedoms and if the criminals get away to come back another day.
However, I realize this one thing- we as people are not superman. So in witnessing the state of affairs post 9-11, where I felt this way- that protecting the US was tantamount and that I would cheerfully lose my liberties if it meant we were all safer for it. I’m realize now how naive that sort of a choice really was (then again, I was like 15 when it happened, I’ve become more cynical and less likely to blindly trust authority since then by the course of the results of the next several years). So, though I’d pick the protecting the innocent, I’d watch that carefully, as I know how easily it can be twisted by a fallible person to go down a sliding slope towards “Big Brother” or a benevolent dictatorship, or invading a nation to protect us from WMD’s. It’s a very slippery slope.

So perhaps, neither extreme is best, but instead we need cooler heads from both sides willing to examine the issues.
Justice League, anyone?:slight_smile:
Thanks for listening to this drivel (as it’s a bit long- sorry), and you can get back to your more serious discussion.

Big picture, from a guy that has done some criminal defense work, yes. The State must be held to their burden of proof, and the Defendant’s rights must be protected.

Not sure that really fits with the allegedly fraudulent voter issue, though. My understanding is that at most polling places, if there is some reason to doubt a person’s eligibilty to vote, there is a procedure whereby they are allowed to cast a provisional ballot. These ballots are held separately, while eligibility is determined, sometimes days after the election. Qualifying ballots are then counted and included in official tallies.

That’s an interesting, and valid, distinction.

The way rule-systems come about is usually through the tension between the outcome and the desired outcome. Just as if you’re designing a game thread on the Dope, you want to ensure that it’s easy enough that people want to play, while hard enough that there’s a bit of challenge to make it fun. You propose the game and find that it’s too much one or too much the other, and then you make changes.

So, the individual rules are being put in for a reason that isn’t necessarily in line with the overarching reason for the game/society. “This needs to change so we can get to there even if it conflicts with our overarching theme.” The desired ends create the means?

Hmm. I dunno.

“Allowing” the crimes to be committed before cracking down goes along more with “allowing” the guilty to be free rather than cracking down and preemptively punishing everyone.

I’m going to make it simple. I’ll ignore all of your numbers and just say that I would rather the guilty go free, than the innocent be punished.

Protectig the innocent is more important, no doubt about it.

However, in debates we’ve had before about puinshment, thepoint has been made that a purpose of punishment—and, in not a few people’s view, the only legitimate purpose of punishment—is, in fact, to protect the innocent. We lock up the bad guys so that they can’t go around hurting more innocent people, and to deter others from committing crimes because they don’t want to be locked up.

I’m going to vote for “false dichotomy.”

There’s no law that you can’t achieve both items just perfectly, not to mention that they are inextricably linked.

This is the problem with partisanship, people split issues up randomly for no greater purpose than to get people on their side, and end up doing everything half-assed.

I think the OP had to do specifically with the horrible possibility of punishing the innocent vs letting the guilty go free.

At the risk of hijacking this post, I’ll say that most people who commit crimes do not think they will be caught, and even when caught, and punished, there is no guarantee that they won’t do the crime again, unless we kill them. I say we arm innocent people with everything possible to defend themselves.

Yup, there’s no law, but the truth still is that…; we as humans cannot achieve both items perfectly, and no sir, they are not inextricably linked.

So then you’re saying that we should only work on attempting one, rather than both?

Don’t think I said that.

I think civilized society can put in safeguards as best as we can to protect individual freedoms and assist everyone in protecting themselves as best they can. When all is said and done though, life still boils down to the strongest, toughest, smartest and those most able to adapt to change - survive.

We don’t achieve anything perfectly.

How are they inextricably linked?

The other two possibilities are punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty.

First, I’d like to just say that you offered an interesting OP. I’m disappointed that more posters won’t force themselves to answer, which is the point of the hypothetical. Though I think the answers for most anyone could be changed by merely altering the numbers you have below. That said. and based on the numbers you present, I’d say the answer for me on all three would be “no”.

Two reasons: 1) I think it important that society feel that the laws they have agreed upon serve them well and work. Knowingly (as per your hypothetical) letting 100 murderers go free fails the people based on the very foundation that laws against murder were crafted. We hold a certain thing to be “wrong” and pass laws against it. The expectation then is that IF one of us breaks that part of the social contract then punishment must follow. 2) The primary function of government is to protect us, to guarantee to us the most fundamental natural right: the right to life. It must be vigilant in protecting that. In order to do that, they are bound to also preserve the order of society so that we always have a system to a) enforce our laws and b) affect change when we feel it is needed.

Again, playing with the numbers you offered would change the cost-benefit analysis for me, and I’m sure, others.