Why is it right?

And why is guilty until proven innocent wrong?

I think I have some kind of basic understanding but hopefully can learn more from your contributions.

  • Is this question about real courts or the “court of public opinion”?
    – viuser
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 12:16
  • In simple words, the normal behavior is to be innocent, as it is to be healthy. Only sick people is admitted on the hospital. Only guilty enter in jail. More strictly, law is based on proof (so, in the absence of proof, a criminal that killed 200 persons is legally innocent). So, in order to take legal actions, proof is required. Some legal systems take the opposite approach (consider someone guilty only with suspicion), but that is mostly for political reasons. With such approach, the government can put anyone in jail just with a simple accusation.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 10:25
  • "guilty until proven innocent" is absurd. Innocence is our default position, it doesn't have to be proven. Every criminal is born innocent until they commit a crime, but you have to prove that the suspect has lost his/her default position of innocence by doing something immoral.
    – urhen
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 16:01
  • I'm not sure why, but @GeoffreyThomas went through and deleted all of the answers to this question, with no explanation given. That is confusing, and irksome. Anyone know how to contact said person so we can discuss this outré behavior? Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 16:43
  • If the answers below is enough for you, please accept it and we can "close" the post. Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 13:50

6 Answers 6


Take the sentence, "Adam committed theft." If there is enough evidence to give this statement the truth value of 'True', we do so; if there is enough evidence to give this statement the truth value of 'False', we do so. The problem arises when there is not enough evidence to give the statement any truth value.

The philosopher can simply refuse to assign the statement a truth value, but a jury does not have that luxury. "Innocent until proven guilt" is a principle that says that a jury should give this statement the truth value of 'False' in this situation. The reason why modern societies accept this principle is practical, not epistemological.

The government is in charge of both prosecuting crimes and collecting evidence. If this principle were rejected and the government had desired this statement to be considered 'True' (e.g. Adam was peacefully protesting human rights violations by the government), than a government could charge Adam with a crime and then refuse to gather evidence, forcing the ambitious situation to occur, which in turn will cause the jury to return a truth value of 'True'.

  • 1
    Practical and not epistemological, well put. But perhaps it is more than just practical. For example, in logic, a statement is often vacuously true. This vacuous truth is very similar to the idea of innocent until proven guilty. Seems no one has brought it up.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:39
  • I do not see how vacuous truth relates to this. Can you explain in some more detail?
    – E Tam
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 16:46
  • For a statement to be true, it has to be true in its premise and also in its conclusion. For example, "if p then q". This statement is true only when p is true and q is also true. If p is true, and q is false, then the statement is false. However, the problem arise when p is false. In this case, regardless of q's truth value, the statement is always true. This is the vacuous truth -- when the premise is false, we always take the statement to be vacuously true. It is based on the principle of true unless proven false, just like innocent until proven guilty, isn't it?
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 15:23
  • I think you misunderstand what vacuously true means. The statement "If p, then q," is vacuously true if it is impossible for p to be true. If p is false, but it is theoretically possible for it to be true, then the statement is not vacuously true.
    – E Tam
    Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 18:28
  • Interesting. I didn't know that vacuous truth need to be that strong mathematically. Consider this: "If there is an elephant in this room its color would be blue" Since there is no elephant in the room. We say the statement is vacuously true. But theoretically there can be an elephant in the room. You are saying this isn't vacuously true? Then what is it?
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 29, 2020 at 11:43

The presumption of innocence in law serves the same purpose as the null hypothesis in science. The purpose is to produce an accurate outcome in relation to the facts at hand and the seriousness of the question to be settled.

Criminal trials begin at the null hypothesis: the defendant’s actions, whatever they might have been, were not within the range of prohibited behavior. In the absence of proof, the default assumption is that the crime is randomly related to anything the defendant might have done.

The null hypothesis is fair.

The null hypothesis is rather an ingenious creation.... The utility of the null hypothesis is that the case is not prejudged-- you are not caught defending a relationship specified beforehand.

Hoover and Donovan, The Elements of Social Scientific Thinking, 6th ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 81.

  • I don't feel that this answer gets to it. It basically says 'it is this way because it is". Isn't 'lack of innonence' an equally valid null hypothesis?
    – Kevin Ryan
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 16:27
  • It is not equally valid, for the reasons given in the Hoover and Donovan quote. Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 22:57
  • Repeating what you said before doesn't add anything. I think you're focusing on the desirability of living in a presumed guilt system. If instead of Innocence and Guilt you say that they are 'state A' and 'state B', why isn't the presumption of 'state B' at the beginning an equally valid null hypothesis ? why wouldn't it deliver an equally "accurate outcome in relation to the facts at hand" ?
    – Kevin Ryan
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 8:52
  • You are not answering the question.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:33
  • Are you referring to your question or to Kevin Ryan’s? Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 5:04

It does not have to be right or wrong in an absolute sense. It is a very practical disposition necessary to a prosperous society.

As a law abiding citizen that might one day get wrongly accused, it is your best interest that it is up to the cops to prove you are guilty rather than up to you to prove you did nothing wrong.

For example, if your neighbour is found dead at his home, it is clearly better for you that the cops have to prove you did it, rather than requiring you to prove you didn't. Especially if you just happen to have no alibi or witnesses.

"Guilty until proven innocent" on the other hand creates a society of perpetual insecurity where any law abiding citizen can be thrown behind bars on a struck of bad luck or the whim of an incompetent police officer. Why work hard or abide the law when you can get stripped of the fruit of your effort all the same ? As a result, authoritarian regimes are often economically backward in the long run.

  • Yes it is very practical. But the idea actually can be deeper than that. Isn't this a philosophy forum?
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:44

Guilty till innocent isn't right because if the person did not commit the crime, it would have had unfair difficulties finding a job for example, but if you take the person for innocent, its status in the society will remain unchanged. If somebody gives you an apple and tells you it is bad,you won't eat it,no matter what the reality is,so something gets lost,but if this person tells you that the apple is good, there is a chance for this to be reality, so something gets created, and this is kindness. If you want to get employed, you rather hope that your boss will be kind than suspicious,won't you?

  • You are only telling one side of the story. Guilty till proven innocent can have many perks, too.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:45
  • Considering if principles of law should find their bases onto practical considerations ("it works, so it must be right"), or be based on absolutes ("it is absolutely Good, so it is right") is a big part of philosophy of law and political philosophy in itself.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 22:41

In UK law, it is the expression of the moral sentiment that in a just but imperfect society "It is better that ninety-nine guilty people go free than that one innocent person be unjustly convicted."

At a practical level, as pointed out in other examples, it helps to preserve the freedom of the individual and prevent society falling into a totalitarian police state.

  • Haha, the UK sentiment is making it more troublesome than it already is.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:34
  • I have no idea what you mean. In what way is what troublesome and for whom? Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 19:46
  • For those who don't understand it. I am asking why innocent until proven guilty is better than guilty until proven innocent. But the UK sentiment you mentioned seems to say it is 99 times better. For that to be true, the reason has to be really strong. Very interesting.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 15:37
  • Yes, the British constitution and jurisprudence tend to value personal independence and freedom from oppression very highly. The historical origin of such institutional values goes off-topic. But I do wonder who you have in mind who might be troubled by it - or find it amusing. Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 18:54
  • I imagine anyone, who doesn't want a murderer go free just because lack of evidence for the proof of guilt, would find that troubling. There are so many movies and literature on it, aren't there? The classic, bad guy go free with victim crying for justice scenes---virtually all superhero stories, indicative of the actual social struggle and failure of legal system. Batman should be terribly out of business if proof for guilty is relaxed. But of course, in this philosophy forum, I am more interested philosophical justification of that sentiment.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 6:41

'Innocent until proven guilty' is a principle of rational law, meant to ensure that the proper person is convicted of a crime. Any system of rational law starts from the common-sense principle that a person who commits a crime should be held accountable in proportion to the nature and severity of the crime. This is true whatever model of justice one uses — punitive, correctional, reparative, retributive... — because the point of law in this sense is to remove any incentive to do crime by by undercutting or counterbalancing any successful commission of a crime with some social payment sufficient to make success unappealing. It's economic logic: the law anticipates that someone commits a crime in order to gain something of value, and creates a cost sufficiently severe to turn that gained value into ash.

One of the ramifications of this is that punishing the wrong person for a given crime allows the person who actually committed the crime to go free. That contradicts the economic logic: the person who committed the crime gains whatever value they were seeking, and shuffles the cost off to someone else. This would encourage people to commit more crimes of that type — because that crime is allowed to be profitable — and defeats the central purpose of rational law.

'Innocent until proven guilty' is only tangentially meant to protect the innocent. It's main purpose is to protect the integrity of the law itself; to ensure that there is a proper correspondence between 'guilt' and 'punishment' so that the economic logic of the law holds true. One might think that outcome would follow naturally — I mean, who doesn't appreciate the tit-for-tat logic that's the lowest interpretation of this principle — but in fact, people tend to rush to judgement on irrational grounds. Sometimes people insist that a person they already dislike must be the one who committed the crime, because that's cognitively easier; sometimes people get outraged and decide that a crime must be punished, and aren't too picky about who gets the short end of the stick so long as it eases their outrage; sometimes weird social and political pressures come into play that lead people away from the actual criminals towards 'suspicious' individuals or group. The law (ideally) would like to prevent these miscarriages — because miscarriages of justice undercut the logic of the law and delegitimize it — and so it insists on a standard of proof to ensure that:

  • a crime has been committed and...
  • the person in question is the one who committed it.

Therefore, it insists that everyone be treated as though they are innocent until that standard of proof is met. Yes, this means that some actual criminals are not held accountable for their crimes. That is unfortunate, but it preserves the intention and integrity of the law.

  • This was flagged, not by me, as 'not an answer'. I can see now that it does answer the question although I don't think the first para. is relevant. I deleted my own answer btw and it remains deleted. I regret the hurt caused by not giving an explanation. Yours - GLT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 18:35
  • I'll review the first para and see if it needs some editing. I'm curious why someone would run through and mark them all as 'not an answer'; was it the OP by any chance? If he's dissatisfied with the answer I'd love some feedback; that would help with revisions. Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 18:49
  • Yes, but you are only telling one side of the story. Guilty until proven innocent can also prevent the "miscarriages". Just that the burden of proof is on the other side.
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:42
  • @DerenLiu: Except that 'guilty until proven innocent' implies proof of a negative: literally, proof that one did not commit an act. For instance, how would you prove that you did not burn down your neighbor's house? Even if you were (say) locked away in prison when the house burned down, it's technically possible that you could have hired someone, set a timed explosive, or in some other way remotely caused the fire. There's no way to 'prove' you didn't do something like that, so if you are presumed guilty you're sunk. Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 15:50
  • So you're saying proof of negative is hard, so it is bad. For the sake of the argument, let's say you are right about it being more difficult than proof of positive. So? Why is it that giving a hard time to the prosecuted is bad? Also, why is it that giving an easier time to the prosecuted is good? Seems that you are assuming people always prefer to be nice and easy on the suspect rather than the alleged victim. See the problem? In the end, you are using the assumption to justify the stance. Also, isn't proof of positive equally hard? that's why it is all about proof beyond reasonable doub
    – Deren Liu
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 15:52

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