Burden of Proof and Anchoring

When we take the idea of “burden of proof” outside its legal context, in an attempt to apply it to some supposed property of argument as such (e.g. “the one who makes a positive statement has the burden of proof” etc.) it has the terrible consequence of making us forget that the reason presumption of innocence belongs in the legal context as a corrective to our bias to suppose that a guy must have done something when he is accused of a crime. We are biased to start with the first piece of information we get about someone and then adjust our opinion of his guilt up or down from that; and so if one makes an accusation ugly and serious enough (like treason against the king or molestation of a child by a priest or satanic daycare worker) then it’s all but inevitable that we’ll assume the accused did something horrible, though on no evidence beyond the accusation.

Presumption of innocence can also a corrective against our bias toward believing certain accusers, e.g. those in authority or those with accusations that we find easy to remember.

We give the presumption of innocence to the accused in an attempt to have a proceeding start from real equality. Giving this presumption to the accuser (out of the laudable attempt not to punish the victim or out of a desire to play it safe with the possibility of the accusation being true) makes it much harder to make a rational decision.

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1 Comment

  1. thenyssan said,

    May 20, 2015 at 6:59 am

    I think your addition there in the middle is probably more essential to why we use burden of proof in the American criminal justice system. In that sense, projecting “burden of proof” back out to philosophy is probably best taken as a corrective against appeals to authority or reducing philosophy to rhetoric. While that may be laudable, it’s not clear that the stakes are remotely comparable.


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