Handling the truth

Oh, the obsession with courtroom drama. It seems my twelve year old son shares this affliction with the rest of us.

The fact that the media outlets have been focused on quite a number of Commission of Enquiries and a few high profile cases involving civil lawsuits has accounted for his new-found obsession. It was his response to the testimony of a former Minister of Finance that has inspired this new topic of discussion on my part.

I was a bit taken aback by a rather snarling: “she really expects us to believe that?” And so I venture now to engender some debate on the ideas at work.

The sad reality, shared by all participants and observers of a trial, is that the trial is not really about guilt or innocence but rather about what can be assumed, what can be established and thusly what meanings may then be derived.

To quote Canadian author and lecturer, John Ralston Saul: “the professionals struggle with structure while the citizen strives to retain a clear sense of the spirit of the law….

“To reduce law to the letter, in opposition to the spirit, is perceived by the citizenry, whose law it is, to be the ultimate betrayal.”

We are all ethical humans; in the sense that we constantly judge, make comparisons and offer justifications with the hope that our viewpoints are commonly held.

None of us want to appear as flawed in the eyes of others, which in Western democracies mean we vigorously defend systems that offer us the possibility of keeping our weaknesses hidden or at least being able to deny them.

Hence, we (rightly in my opinion) become very uncomfortable when moral judgements are seen as ethical or even impartial.

As British academic philosopher Simon Blackburn observed: “The judge, or the priest, or a panel of the great and the good may tell people what they must do, but they do not usually have to live with the consequences….

“Anatole France (French poet and journalist) spoke ironically of the majestic equality of the laws which forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The implication of the assertions of the previous paragraph should lead us to ask difficult questions. Coincidence and fortune do seem to be bigger determinants on the ways our lives go than virtue.

Should the previously mentioned Minister of Finance have been as unlucky as the rest of CLICO depositors many perceptions of her—perhaps even her own perception of herself—would be quite different.

If you read this dismissively, I then ask you to consider this other scenario.

Two different people set about separately driving home after work, both using handheld devices while driving. One driver reaches home without incident; the next one kills a less than vigilant pedestrian that crosses in front of the vehicle.

While our views on the use of handheld devices while driving may be firmly established, the differing luck of the drivers will affect external and internal perceptions of the individuals and even the societal and legal penalties imposed. Even after acknowledging the role of fortune, we shockingly persist that the driver and by extension ourselves will always be ‘guilty’ rather than unlucky.

I shall now leave readers with a commonly told story, which my son found rather amusing.

The story shall be quoted from Blackburn’s recount in Being Good. Bear in mind the purpose of my telling him the story was to reinforce that while a comforting concept, truth is a naïve construct that is neither identifiable nor useful in practice:

A man is about to cross a desert. He has two enemies. In the night the first enemy slips into his camp, and puts strychnine in his water bottle. Later the same night, the second enemy, not knowing of this, slips into his camp and puts a tiny puncture in the water bottle.

The man sets off across the desert; when the time comes to drink there is nothing in the water bottle, and he dies of thirst.

Who murdered him?

Defence counsel for the first man has a cast-iron argument: my client attempted to poison the man, admittedly. But he failed, for the victim took no poison.

Defense counsel for the second man has a similarly powerful argument: my client attempted to deprive the man of water, admittedly. But he failed, for he only deprived the victim of strychnine, and you cannot murder someone by doing that.


Garrick Bruce was last seen unfortunately considering censoring his son’s viewing and reading of various courtroom dramas.

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