Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Needs of the Many

There is a famous saying in legal circles that goes something like this “Better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

The idea is that, if the justice system is to make mistakes—as all things administered by imperfect human beings do—it is better to err on the side of protecting the innocent rather than punishing the guilty.

As with any time the concept of “better” is invoked, even in a hoary and oft-quoted legal maxim, the question must be asked: better for whom?

This morning, I was reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. In one scene, one of the main characters recounts a story of a hog farmer who was found grievously wounded behind a barn. With his last breaths, the dying man revealed that his murderers were three other hog farmers. The trouble was that there were four other hog farmers in the village.

Each of the four loudly protested that he was the innocent man, but there was no way to know for sure. What the villagers knew was that three of the four men were heinous murderers and one was innocent. What should the villagers do with the four hog farmers?

There seem to be two choices:

  • Let them all go. Better that the three murderers go free than that the innocent man suffer.

  • Punish all four. Better that the one innocent man suffer than that three murderers remain free to kill again.

Which is the right decision?

If you are the innocent person, it is a great injustice to be punished for a crime you did not commit.

If you are one of the future victims of the three killers, it is a great injustice to die at the hands of criminals that could have been stopped.

In some ways, this is a version of the famous Trolley Problem. Imagine you believe that each of the three killers will kill again. If you condemn the one innocent man, you save three people from murder at the hands of the killers. Is saving those three lives worth sacrificing an innocent person’s life? What if you would be saving 30 lives? 100?

In other words, do the needs of many, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?

I don’t think that there is a single answer to this question. There’s a reason the Trolley Problem is one of philosophy’s most famous conundrums. Fortunately, most of us will never have to make these decisions, but some people will. Whatever those few decide, we as a society will collectively have to live with the consequences—and with ourselves.