Due Process and Freedom of Thought

Here is a paradox that went undiscovered for all but the last hair’s breadth of human history: the innocent will never be safe unless the guilty are protected.

That’s due process of law. To ensure that as few people as possible are wrongly convicted, we trust a process that occasionally lets the guilty go free — sometimes people we know are guilty. Maybe all the evidence was there, but it was illegally obtained. Maybe the suspect was caught in the act, but was not read his Miranda rights. Maybe we know the suspect would collapse under questioning, but our constitution gives him the right to decline to testify.

It can be maddening to watch a trial play out this way, but those of us who are privileged to live in enlightened societies would not have it any other way.

We have learned that the process itself is far more important than any individual outcome. As much as we might long for an enlightened despot who could set injustice right with a wave of his scepter, we have learned at least one lesson of history: We would sooner trust our fate to millions of ignoramuses than to any one person. Even ourselves.

Freedom of thought goes hand-in-hand with due process. We have come a long way from the time when Jesus’s prosecutor shouted, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?” We recognize that people have a right to their opinions.

What does that mean? Does it only mean, “I disagree with you but uphold your right to think as you please?”

We do well if it means much more than that.

To grant someone the right to his opinion entails that we still regard him as a fellow human, fully worthy of compassion and respect, even if we think his opinion is wrong or immoral. The alternative — to regard him as less worthy than ourselves — is to annihilate his humanity. If we mentally grant someone a right to an opinion, but then mentally destroy his humanity, what progress have we made?

To properly value freedom of thought also means that we do not harbor any wish for scepter-waving. If you were sovereign over the world and could wave a magic scepter to make everyone agree with you, would you do it? I hope not. I hope you would use your superpower to cause everyone to engage in civilized but vigorous debate. The debate itself is more valuable than anyone’s opinion.

To echo the opening thought of this meditation, wisdom will be silent unless every fool is allowed to speak.

We freethinkers want people to grant us permission to pursue truth on our own terms. Due process demands that we grant the same freedom to them, from the bottom of our hearts. We must have the courage to maintain that stance even when we are convinced they are heading in the wrong direction.

recently I wrote about my admiration for Pope Francis. Some are surprised that I, an increasingly progressive atheist, could extol the head of one of the most reactionary religions on Earth. It’s easy. Although I disagree with him on many important issues, I admire the fact that he uses his scepter to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion. To me, that is even more important than his specific opinions. And once I allow that someone can differ from me and still be a human worthy of respect, I discover that Pope Francis qua human is a pretty good one.

Do you have someone in your life whose opinions bug you? If so, maybe valuing the debate and the person more than his opinions will make you happier.

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