It is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This phrase is attributed to William Blackstone, an English jurist in the 18th century, and the principle has been used widely throughout history. In Genesis 18:23-32 of the Christian Bible, God assures Abraham that he will spare a city if there are but ten innocent people among its inhabitants. Most famously, Benjamin Franklin raised the amount of guilty he would free to 100 to avoid injustice towards the single innocent. Today we most commonly apply this principle in our criminal justice system assuming that a defendant is “innocent until proven guilty,” but we may forget to realize that there are actions other than crimes to which we can be guilty and ways other than prison in which one might suffer. Just as this phrase deserves to be considered in criminal justice, it has its place in social justice as well.
In America, many of us rely on the existence of the American Dream to guide our decisions and beliefs. It is the idea that any person can become as rich and powerful as he or she wants through hard work. However, there is a side effect; people who do not work hard enough are mired in poverty. But we have collectively decided that this is an acceptable part of the deal, since only the deserving will become poor.
Despite the Dream’s allure, we must realize that reliance on such idealism is obviously misplaced. We hear the stories about the couples who did not expect to have disabled children for whom they must work two jobs each to pay the medical bills. We hear about the military veterans who struggle to regain their footing in civilian society after belonging to a different world. We hear about the people with obsolete skills and no time or money for extra schooling to improve their market value, and we hear of the people who never had a chance to gain marketable skills because of poor public schools that did not pave the way towards college. Despite that we likely feel these people are not deserving of poverty, we continue to support the notion that the meritocracy that punishes them is infallible.
Whereas it may be easy to assume that each of these people must have done something wrong or that they could have worked harder, it is foolish to posit that every person in poverty has deliberately chosen to avoid long-term success in favor of short-term laziness. Because we feel that the meritocracy has served us well and because we comfort ourselves with the more pleasing anecdotes of Sam Walton and other amazing feats of upward social mobility, we decide to ignore the innocents harmed by the system and deride the perceived guilty population who we feel deserves poverty.
If we decide that the plight of these people is important, which it is, then it starts to puncture a hole in our picture of the American Dream, so, to patch the hole, we may choose to assume that these innocents are in the minority; most poor people are deserving. If the innocents continue to work hard, things will turn around and the invisible hand will save them from their current fate. Despite the security of this assumption, it likely is not true. There will be statistics and anecdotal arguments that support either view of the impoverished population, but regardless of which reports we choose to believe or whether we are empathetic towards the involved people, we must ask ourselves the same question that has been asked throughout history. To how many guilty people are we willing to grant freedom from suffering in order to ensure justice for the innocent? Or, more fittingly, to ensure justice for one guilty person, how many innocents are we willing to condemn?
I just bought the album Megalithic Symphony by AWOLNATION, and it reminded me a lot more of Mika than I expected, considering I had only heard “Sail” before. The song “People” from this album probably reminds me of Mika the most, but this song, “Guilty, Filthy Soul” does as well. It’s my favorite from the album so far and is really catchy.