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North Texas Objectivist Society (NTOS) Message Board › On the relationship between benevolence and giving the benefit of the doubt

On the relationship between benevolence and giving the benefit of the doubt

Old T.
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 1,016
In case anyone is interested, I have been thinking on the relationship between benevolence and “giving the benefit of the doubt.”

Practicing the virtue of justice, i.e., the recognition of the character of other men--that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly. Employing the appropriate methodology to one’s purpose is critical to making a good—that is a useful—judgment. In making a judgment, two issues always are involved:

1. Establishing which side of the issue has the burden of proof; and
2. Establishing the appropriate standard of proof.

The burden of proof is a device to recognize reality, such as the fact that men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally (as quoted from Ayn Rand, above on this thread), and to avoid logical fallacies, such as imposing a burden to prove a negative. The one who does not carry the “burden of proof” has “the benefit of assumption,” meaning he needs no evidence to prove the assumption. The one who does carry the burden of proof has the burden to overcome the assumption. An example of a burden of proof is “the presumption of innocent until proven guilty.” Thus, under the proper burden of proof, the judgment of an accused in a criminal matter is and remains: “innocent until proven guilty.”

I think that “the burden of proof” is not merely a matter for use in adversarial debate or legal proceedings, but also applies in the courtroom of one’s mind. In the process of judging, whether the object is an abstract idea or a person or anything else, establishing the burden of proof is an important step because it establishes the starting point or the default position.

The standard of proof is a device to recognize one’s purpose and values in making a judgment. One’s purpose in making a judgment can range, for example, from a parent judging whether a person is safe to be a babysitter for one’s child, to a civil court judging a financial dispute between two businessmen, to a criminal court judging whether a person is guilty of a crime involving the initiation of force against another where the penalty would be imprisonment. In the first case, a parent may justly use a very low standard of proof, even as low as a mere “whiff” of reason to mistrust may be enough to disqualify the person, bearing in mind that the person has no right to be hired as a babysitter. In a case of a civil court judging a dispute between two businessmen, the risk of erroneous judgment is equal to both, and after establishing who has the burden of proof, the standard of proof is mere “preponderance of the evidence,” i.e., “more likely than not.” In the last case, where the risk of erroneous judgment would unjustly imprison an innocent, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What standard of proof should be employed depends on one’s purpose and values in making the judgment. The selected standard of proof can be used as a margin against error and sometimes allows a person who, in fact, would be a good babysitter, to not get the job, and it sometimes allows a person who, in fact, is guilty, to go free.

Regarding “the standard of proof,” I similarly think this is not merely a matter for use in adversarial debate or legal proceedings, but also applies in the courtroom of one’s mind. In the process of judging, whether the object is an abstract idea or a person or anything else, establishing the standard of proof is an important step because it establishes the margin for error.

(In addition, a fair procedure for making a judgment usually requires, especially in legal contexts, a fair opportunity for each side to be heard.)

Under her judgment of good will and benevolence toward strangers, Ayn Rand sometimes referred to “giving the benefit of the doubt,” for example as reported by Leonard Peikoff:

Despite her many disappointments, Ayn Rand did not make collective judgments; she did not become malevolent about people as such. To the end, she felt goodwill toward newcomers and gave them the benefit of the doubt—for as long as they could prove they deserved it. When, as an ignorant and confused teenager, I met her for the first time, she answered my philosophical questions urgently, for hours, struggling to help me clarify my thinking. To her, ideas were the decisive power in life, and a functioning intelligence, however confused, was of inestimable value. The same generosity is evident in many of her letters—lengthy letters of philosophical explanation and analysis sent to complete strangers who had written her their ideas or asked a question. When Ayn Rand thought that an intellectual letter was honest and intelligent, her attitude, especially in the early years, was "price no object"; in the name of full clarity, she could be extravagant in pouring out on paper her time, her effort, her concentration, her knowledge.

As to the people whom she knew personally and cared for, the sky was the limit, as you will see (and as I was lucky enough to learn firsthand). To her friends, Ayn Rand gave unwavering support, in every form possible—intellectual, emotional, and material—from all-night philosophical sessions to editorial advice to food packages (for friends stranded in postwar Europe) to an apartment she herself furnished and decorated (for her sister Nora) to immigration assistance (for her old nanny) to girls of money.

In this respect, too, The Fountainhead's Howard Roark was made in her image: using character Peter Keating's words, she was the original example of the "kindest egoist" in history. As the letters reveal, she also knew when to stop being kind. She drew the line according to the principle of justice. She would not give someone the unearned; she would help a friend in need, but she turned away the would-be moochers (as soon as she recognized them).
--Leonard Peikoff, The Letters of Ayn Rand, Introduction (emphasis added).

In judging a man interested in ideas, Ayn Rand acknowledged both her burden of proof, i.e., the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, and her standard of proof was “giving the benefit of the doubt.” I estimate this standard of proof is between “preponderance of the evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but somewhat closer to the lower than the higher. Of course, a person deserves to be treated for what he is. I think Ayn Rand chose to "give the benefit of the doubt" to protect against an error in judgment that would be an injustice to a person who is, in fact, innocent, and to whom, in justice, one should be benevolent.I think this reflects Ayn Rand’s judgment of the standard of proof that justice to a person interested in ideas deserves.

Notice that "giving the benefit of the doubt" is not benevolence, it is the standard of proof Ayn Rand used for turning away from the presumptive judgment of benevolence.

Of course, none of this post addresses the nature of the evidence and logic that should be considered under this standard of proof.

I apologize for this lengthy post. I did not have time to write a shorter one.

*Notes: This is my personal thinking; not a post on behalf of NTOS. My thoughts are preliminary and not thoroughly fleshed out. This is slightly modified from a few posts I made on ObjectivismOnline.Net on May 30 - June 2, 2009, beginning at: http://forum.objectiv...­
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