Against legal probabilism

In Jon Robson & Zachary Hoskins (eds.), The Social Epistemology of Legal Trials. Routledge (2021)
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Abstract

Is it right to convict a person of a crime on the basis of purely statistical evidence? Many who have considered this question agree that it is not, posing a direct challenge to legal probabilism – the claim that the criminal standard of proof should be understood in terms of a high probability threshold. Some defenders of legal probabilism have, however, held their ground: Schoeman (1987) argues that there are no clear epistemic or moral problems with convictions based on purely statistical evidence, and speculates that our aversion to such convictions may be nothing more than an irrational bias. More recently, Hedden and Colyvan (2019, section VI) describe our reluctance to convict on the basis of purely statistical evidence as an ‘intuition’, but suggest that there may be no ‘in principle’ problem with such convictions (see also Papineau, forthcoming, section 6). In this paper, I argue that there is, in some cases, an in principle problem with a conviction based upon statistical evidence alone – namely, it commits us to a precedent which, if consistently followed through, could lead to the deliberate conviction of an innocent person. I conclude with some reflections on the idea that the criminal justice system should strive to maximise the accuracy of its verdicts – and the related idea that we should each strive to maximise the accuracy of our beliefs.

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Martin Smith
University of Edinburgh

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