Liberals vs. Conservatives:innocent until proven guilty?

October 16th, 2011 by Ravi Iyer

If you are uncertain if a criminal is innocent or guilty, is it better to err on the side of innocence or guilt?  Given that proof is continuous, not categorical, how much bias toward innocent until proven guilty should one have?  A friend of a friend recently asked is this question to a group of psychologists:

do you know if there is any evidence that conservatives would be more upset (defined loosely) by a guilty person getting away with a crime than by an innocent person being convicted of a crime? and would it be the opposite for liberals?

None of us could come up with a ready answer of a published study to this effect (feel free to let me know of one and I’ll add it here), so I thought it would be useful to share a quick analysis of a few questions that help answer this question.

The below question was asked on a 7 point scale, meaning that liberals (and libertarians) generally agree that it is better to let 10 people go free than to convict one innocent person, while conservatives are somewhat torn given a 10-1 scenario.

Liberal vs Conservative "wrongness" of letting a criminal go free

Another way to ask this question is to ask how wrong it would feel for a criminal to go unpunished.  Again, we see a similar result where liberals and libertarians are less punishment oriented, while conservatives feel it would be more wrong.  This is perhaps a gut-level intuitive rationale for the above graph.

Everyone agrees that we should punish the guilty (indeed, everyone is above the midpoint on the above scale) and free the innocent.  The issue is that we operate in an uncertain world and some kinds of errors bother some people more than other errors.

I believe a similar asymmetry drives the differences between Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Most people will admit that there are lazy people who take advantage of government generosity (e.g. the prototypical welfare queen) and that there are poor people who work hard and encounter a disaster that is out of their control and deserve help (e.g. the guy who works 2 jobs that don’t provide health care, and gets a chronic disease).  The question is which case bothers you most.

Similarly, there are cases of wealthy people who clearly deserve their wealth and who create wealth for others (e.g. Steve Jobs) and there are cases of wealthy people who game the system and create negative wealth for others (e.g. the aggressive mortgage bankers of the sub-prime crisis).  Is it worse to unfairly tax Steve Jobs or unfairly let the bankers keep their windfall of ill-gotten rewards?  There is no right answer to this.  I would submit that in such uncertain circumstances, we all let our intuitions lead our moral thinking, and hence we see the strong divisions we see in society.  Personally, I think it’s a good thing (that the conversation is had, though not that it gets so personal and uncivil), as society needs a healthy balance between punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent.

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in differences between republicans and democrats, guilt, innocence, libertarians, moral psychology, occupy wall street, yourmorals.org6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Liberals vs. Conservatives:innocent until proven guilty?”

  1. Don Berg says:


    Regarding your use of the terms “lazy” and “welfare queen”:

    By using these two terms you have effectively said that most people would frame that situation in conservative terms. Given that the rest of the article seemed to otherwise remain relatively neutral about the situations, since it is central to your point that moral understandings vary, this struck me as odd. The second half of the same sentence uses descriptive terms that do not seem morally charged. I am sure it was just a oversight, but you might consider rephrasing the sentence to make that part more neutral.

    I, for one, do not believe that lazy people are capable of duping the system and do believe that the very notion of “welfare queens” is a fantasy not a reality (revealing a more liberal sentiment, perhaps). Criminals who defraud the system are not lazy, they must apply intelligence and persistence in order to be successful in their misguided efforts. And the ones who don’t will easily be found out and prosecuted and thus of no concern in an effectively operating system.

    Of course, there are people with selfish, if not criminal, intent to game the system. But, we cannot make good judgments about the nature of the tradeoff if we do not ground our view of the situation in relatively accurate (even if morally slanted) terms.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    Those are fair comments. I used the terms lazy and welfare queen to channel the rhetoric of others rather than as statements of fact. Perhaps as a liberal, I went a bit far in terms of trying to use “neutral” framing such that I went in the other direction, but there is always some subjectivity to what is balanced (e.g. Fox News’ slogan, “Fair and Balanced”). Thanks for your interest.

  3. lillet says:

    @ Don Berg —

    I notice you don’t take issue with his characterization of mortgage bankers and their “windfall of ill-gotten gains.” I generally loathe conservatives, but it’s difficult to see a “conservative” bias, here. My reading is that he’s simply acknowledging that the conservative paradigm of the “welfare queen” has SOME basis in truth, as does the corrupt plutocrat banker stereotype. If you resist referring to these particular criminals as lazy (instead lauding their “intelligence” and “persistence”), I wonder whether you’d say the same about the “lazy” financiers caught embezzling? I mean, while you probably do need to be quite the mastermind to lie on a government form about the number of children in your household, surely concocting elaborate derivatives and tax shelters requires a bit of brains and diligence, too? I’m all for giving criminals their due, but if we’re going to take positions on whether morally charged stereotypes should be invoked to characterize these criminals, we should at least be consistent.

    @ Ravi — If you’re right that instincts re: social welfare and fiscal policy relate to instincts re: guilty going unpunished, then in a sense you’d expect libertarian respondents to favor social safetynets, since they are just as inclined as liberals to err in the direction of protecting innocents rather than punishing criminals. However, I’d guess that most libertarians, even if supportive of OWS’s anti-establishment aspects, would firmly disfavor the sorts of safetynets designed to prevent the diligent poor from going hungry and, instead, would find more justice in a winner-take-all system that prevents the lazy poor from free-riding. Maybe the difference is that for libertarians, laissez-faire isn’t attractive because it punishes the lazy poor for their laziness. Rather, it’s attractive because it ensures that no hard worker will ever have his gains seized and redistributed unfairly by authorities — paralleling the libertarian desire to ensure that no innocent man gets imprisoned. So maybe the difference between liberals and libertarians, here (and this would be an unsurprising outcome) is that for libertarians, the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor is just as vital and sacred as the freedom to not be incarcerated or enslaved. When you think about it, that makes some sense: if you work but aren’t entitled to the fruits of your work, this is *vaguely* analogous to slavery, although I realize I sound like Ayn Rand here and that isn’t my intent.

  4. Ravi Iyer says:

    Lillet, your thoughts sound very consistent with what we see in our data. I do believe that is how libertarians think.

  5. Alan D. says:

    Ravi —

    Don’t you think these are both symptoms of the evolved aversion to “free riders” that (as I believe one of Jon’s lectures mentioned) is one of the conservative complex of traits that enables group evolution?

    The knock on group evolution has been the free rider problem (per Dawkins). Why would conservatives have all those other group-enabling traits if they did not assist survival? If they assist survival, the free rider problem must have been overcome. Perhaps evolution is even cleverer than Dawkins thinks, and conservative traits of this type are the result.

  6. Ravi Iyer says:

    Yes, I completely agree. Conservative traits are often traits that are adaptive from an evolutionary point of view, as per Jon’s ideas of group evolution.

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