The problem of punishing an innocent person: moral arguments and the role of the media.
The problem of punishing an innocent person is a perennial one, with many real-life examples to support the claim that it happens far more often than we would like. In this essay, I will explore the reasons why this problem persists, looking at both moral and utilitarian arguments. In particular, I will focus on the role of the media in perpetuating the problem, and argue that a more responsible approach to reporting on cases of suspected wrongdoing would go some way towards mitigating it.
2. Morality and utilitarianism:
There are two main moral philosophies which can be applied to the question of whether it is ever permissible to punish an innocent person: deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology is the view that there are certain absolute moral rules which must always be followed, regardless of the consequences; for example, the rule against killing innocent people. This view would argue that even if punishing an innocent person might lead to some greater good, such as deterring future crime, it would still be wrong because it violates a fundamental moral principle.
In contrast, utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethic which judges actions based on their outcomes; that is, whether they lead to more happiness or pleasure (utility) than other available options. This view would consider punishing an innocent person to be permissible if doing so could be shown to lead to a greater overall good for society. For instance, if it could be shown that executing a guilty person would deter others from committing similar crimes, then this would outweigh the negative consequences for the innocent person who is executed.
It should be noted that there are different versions of utilitarianism; in particular, there is a distinction between act and rule utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism argues that we should promote those rules which tend to produce the most utility overall, even if following them sometimes leads to sub-optimal outcomes in individual cases. So, for example, even though executing an innocent person might lead to a net increase in utility in a particular case, if doing so creates a general rule that it is acceptable to execute innocent people then this will have negative consequences in other cases where people are wrongly convicted (utilitarian rule). In contrast, act utilitarianism focuses on specific actions rather than general rules, and would argue that we should always do what leads to the greatest utility in any given case regardless of whether this creates harmful precedents (utilitarian act).
3. The war on terror and the punishment of the innocent:
One area where the problem of punishing an innocent person is particularly relevant is the so-called “war on terror”. Since 9/11 there has been a significant increase in the number of cases where individuals have been detained or killed on suspicion of terrorism without any concrete evidence against them. In many cases these suspicions have been based solely on hearsay or personal vendettas; for instance, it has been reported that some detainees at Guantanamo Bay were handed over by bounty hunters who received payments for every prisoner delivered regardless of their guilt or innocence.
There have also been numerous cases of civilians being killed in drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. While it is impossible to know exactly how many innocent people have been killed in these strikes, estimates suggest that the number could be as high as 1,000. In addition to those killed outright, many more have been left permanently maimed or traumatised.
The problem of punishing innocent people in the war on terror is compounded by the fact that the definition of “terrorism” is often vague and politically contested. This means that individuals can be targeted for punishment even if they are not personally responsible for any act of violence. For instance, in the case of Guantanamo Bay detainees, many have been held without charge or trial for over a decade simply because they are suspected of being “associated” with terrorist organisations.
4. The role of the media:
The media plays a significant role in perpetuating the problem of punishing an innocent person. In particular, the way in which the media reports on cases of suspected wrongdoing can have a significant impact on how those cases are dealt with by the authorities.
For instance, in the case of the war on terror, the media has often taken a very simplistic approach to reporting on terrorist suspects, portraying them as evil villains with no redeeming features. This has helped to create a climate of fear and suspicion which makes it more likely that innocent people will be caught up in the dragnet.
In addition, the media often focuses on sensationalist stories which generate a lot of clicks or views, regardless of whether they are accurate or fair. This can lead to a distorted view of reality; for example, a study found that 70% of news stories about Muslims in the UK portrayed them in a negative light, even though Muslims make up only 5% of the population. This kind of reporting creates an animosity towards Muslims which makes it more likely that they will be targeted for punishment, even if they are innocent.
The problem of punishing an innocent person is a complex one which has many different causes. In this essay, I have focused on two main reasons for this problem: moral arguments and the role of the media. I have argued that both of these factors play a significant role in perpetuating the problem and that a more responsible approach to reporting on cases of suspected wrongdoing would go some way towards mitigating it.