What Would Plato Do?

Wanda: What would an intellectual do?  What would… Plato do?

Otto: Apol-

Wanda: Pardon me?

Otto: Apollgzz.

Wanda: What?

Otto: Apologize!

Well, no.  He probably wouldn’t.  Not Plato.

And certainly not in the case of Troy Davis, whose final clemency request was denied this morning, and who now faces execution tomorrow evening for the killing of a police officer in 1989.  He was convicted at trial 20 years ago, but since then the reliability of that verdict has been called into serious question.  Seven of the nine major witnesses recanted their testimony, many claiming that the police pressured them to give false eyewitness accounts.  No forensic evidence ever tied Davis to the crime, the murder weapon was never found.  In the intervening years, ten new people have come forward to point the finger at another individual known to have been present at the scene.

So it’s possible that Troy Davis might not have shot the officer.  It’s possible that he might have.  Twenty years of second-guessing and changing stories make it uncertain.  But what is certain is that he was convicted, and that the conviction stands.

Should we be troubled by this?

We started pondering this after our kids’ bedtime story the other night.  We were reading to the lads from the Dialogues of Plato [what, you got a problem with that? Shut up, these are not your children.], specifically the Crito.  That’s the one where Socrates has been condemned to death, and his friend Crito shows up to talk him into escaping.  Boiled down to its essence, the Crito runs something like this:

Crito: Wake up, Socrates, we’re busting you outta here!

Socrates: What are you, an idiot?  You can’t do that.

Crito: No worries.  All the bribes are arranged, the travel’s all taken care of, and you have your choice of local city-states all ready to welcome you with open arms.  Let’s blow this Athens joint and get back to freedom and philosophy!

Socrates: Use your head.  Living is not what’s important.  Living a good life — one that is just and honorable — is what’s important.

Crito: Yeah, but…

Socrates: And it’s not just or honorable to try to escape, because that would violate the will of the state that condemned me.

Crito: Aha, but it was unjust for the state to condemn you.

Socrates: Don’t you “aha” me.  The state provided for my entire existence, educated and protected me, and by living here my whole life I’ve entered into an unspoken contract to abide by the state’s law.

Crito: Yeah, but…

Socrates: Shut up.  Justice requires the rule of law.  No man is above the law.  If you start making exceptions for famous philosophers, or for people who can afford bribes, then there is no more rule of law.  Justice disappears, society crumbles, and everyone suffers.

Crito: Yeah, but…

Socrates: So if I break out of here in violation of the state’s law, then I’ll be the bad guy.  I’ll be the enemy of good government.  When I arrive at Thebes or Thessaly, I will come as an enemy of their good government, too.

Crito: Yeah, but…

Socrates: Think of it this way — I’m taking one for the team.  Yes, I’m suffering from an individual injustice.  But that’s the price you pay sometimes for the general justice of society.  If I didn’t pay that price, we’d all suffer.

Crito: Team!  Team!  Team!

Socrates: That’s the spirit.  Now can I go back to sleep, please?

Okay, so after reading this to the kids (and succeeding in our goal of getting them to go the **** to sleep, already), we started wondering if Plato was right about all this.  After all, individual injustice is still, you know, unjust and all.  Wouldn’t it be proper to break the rules to ensure individual justice?  And that got us thinking about Troy Davis.

The rules are keeping him on death row.  The rules will, absent some remarkable and unforeseen intervention, result in his death tomorrow night.  But we’ve got 20 years of hindsight giving us real doubts that he’s guilty.  The rules also say we don’t punish someone unless their guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and there’s reasonable doubt all over the place now.  It would be an injustice to execute someone whose guilt is so ridden with doubt.  Doesn’t the enormity of that individual injustice warrant breaking the rules to prevent it?

Plato (speaking through Socrates) would clearly say no.  And our system, our jurisprudence, says no.  Because when push comes to shove, the goal is not individual justice.  The purpose has never been individual justice.  It’s always been justice in general, not in particular.


Of course, our system tries for individual justice.  Defendants are judged on a case-by-case basis.  It’s terribly inefficient, but that’s how we do it.  We don’t just round up the usual suspects or behead every tenth person.  We treasure the right of the individual to be free from arbitrary and abusive governmental action.  That’s all the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are saying.  The government can hurt you real bad, and so we make the government obey the rules before it does so, to prevent it from hurting you just because it can.  So we decide each case individually, with rules of evidence and constitutional rights and statutory obligations all designed to make sure the might of the state is coming down on you justly.

Though we strive for individual justice, it’s recognized that mistakes get made.  Guilty people escape punishment, and innocent people get convicted.  We try to minimize that, but it happens.  There are rules in place for the undoing of wrongful convictions.  They’re not perfect, but they are the rules.

But if all the rules were followed, and you’re still wrongly convicted?  Well, at this point your interest in individual justice gets trumped by the goal of general justice.

“Finality” is a big concept here.  At some point, everyone has to move on.  Turn the page, close the book, it’s over.  The system is inefficient enough as it is, without allowing people to revisit each case over and over again until they get the result they like.  Society can’t be expected to bear the burden of retrial after retrial — new cases would never get tried, justice would be denied, because we’d be too busy going over the same old cases.

That’s all our criminal justice system really does:  It closes the book so everyone — accused, victims, witnesses, authorities — can get on with their lives.  The jury decides on an official version of the facts, based on what the government could prove rather than on what really happened.  Nobody expects this official version of the facts to be the whole truth.  It’s just something the system can work with, apply the pertinent laws to, and issue the appropriate punishment or dismissal — so everyone can get on with their lives.

In Troy Davis’ case, the official version of the facts is that he killed that police officer in 1989.  It may or may not be the truth — nobody knows but him — but that’s not what’s important.  What’s important is that the government was able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did do it.  Whether they could prove it again today is not what the system and its rules are looking at any more.

He may be taking one for the team, then.  Being killed by the rules of the society in which he lives, which are designed to ensure general justice.  If the rules were to be broken for him, then they could be broken for the next guy, and we’d all suffer.

That’s what our jurisprudence says.  That’s what Plato would say.


And they’d be wrong.

Because one thing that our jurisprudence and Plato routinely ignore is the simple fact that perception is everything.

If the system is perceived to operate in a just fashion — if the people pretty much see it as protecting the rights of the individual and in general getting things right when deciding guilt and innocence — then the system works.  Crime is deterred by the assurance that it is punished accurately.  The laws are generally respected and obeyed because they are seen to be just and to be justly applied.  Society runs smoothly, and the law is doing its job.

But if the system comes to be perceived as unjust — even if in reality it’s as fair as could be — then society falls apart.  If the laws are seen as someone else’s laws, unfairly applied to this community, then the people of that community will lose respect for the laws and be more likely to break them.  If the laws are seen as disproportionately applied to some people as opposed to others, then they are no longer seen as just.  If the system comes to be seen as arbitrary, uncaring and cruel, then the law fails in its purpose.  Fear, not one’s own sense of right and wrong, becomes the primary reason to comply with the law.  That way lies social upheaval, riot and revolution.

In a world like ours, where the rare injustice is what makes the headlines and gets people talking, the risk is that the one-off will come to be seen as the norm.  If the occasional injustice comes more and more to be seen as the norm, rather than the sad exception, then everyone suffers.

The goal of general justice would die, because the perception of individual injustice killed it.


Socrates didn’t want to be the exception who broke the rules to achieve individual justice, because that would have corrupted and undermined the stability of his society.  But in today’s world, making exceptions and breaking the rules, in order to preserve a general perception that our system is a just one, is probably something worth considering.

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