19th century philosophy

Schopenhauer in the Courtroom

Within Schopenhauer’s monist framework, our understanding of the one world exists within two dimensions, will and representation. Because the world as representation comprises our sensory experiences and intellectual constructs, it is largely a manifestation of our world as will, which represents the underlying force that drives all phenomena. From this, we might posit that many of the institutions that anchor our social fabric are themselves an embodiment of will’s directive role. With its orientation towards something resembling fairness, the American legal code stipulates a three-pronged proof that must precede a criminal conviction: motive, means, and opportunity. Perhaps the most stirring of these three, motive serves as the rhetoric precondition for any sound legal argument.  

A defendant accused of murder, for example, might be represented rather easily as a fiend and aggressor given a sufficiently inconvenient confluence of circumstances—some version of wrong place, wrong time. Say he walked into a fresh murder scene, picked up the gun from the floor, left his fingerprints all over the place, and was found there by the police. Representationally, it’s plain as day that he’s the culprit; he had both means and opportunity, the gun and his physical presence in the location.

But a criminal legal argument, like any piece of persuasive writing, strives to tell a story. This is no accident: human beings organize their thoughts, big and small, into stories. Therefore, the accused’s salvation may just lie in the world of will. If he had no relationship to the victim, no deep-seated hatred for her, indeed no desire to want her dead—beyond the unlikely outburst of unprovoked primal bloodlust—it wouldn’t be a very compelling story. Without some base motive toward that crime, the climb required for a jury to turn up its nose, to righteously indignate unto the accused, would be too steep.

The American justice system demands unity of 12 independent individuals to, within the subjective, non-representational dimension, come to the unanimous will to punish (or acquit). One might ask what exactly this assumes about individuals’ proclivity for condemnation. A unanimous agreement of 12 separate people seems challenging; perhaps humanity is inclined to look down its nose at others. There’s certainly precedent for that sort of behavior all throughout history. We know for a fact that the will of the few can turn entire societies on their head, as Arthur Miller describes in The Crucible, his play about the Salem Witch trials. Abigail and her enablers managed to poison the minds (by way of will) of the entire town against whomever she saw fit, and her malignant will soon manifested itself in the representational reality of the town, seeping into biased legal proceedings that cost several people their lives. The Crucible itself was an analogy to the red scare sweeping the US in the 1950s, with the sensationalism of conservatives led by Senator McCarthy serving as the grounds for destroying countless careers, families, and lives. These examples give us some insight into a justice system governed exclusively by will. The base urge towards survival often poisons the will when irrationally construed, swayed by primal fear, irrational prejudice, and petty squabble.

A contrast to these examples, though, would be the famous play Twelve Angry Men, where the will of most of the jury initially swung to the conviction of a teenage boy for the murder of his father. Left unchecked by juror 8, played by the great Henry Fonda in the film adaptation, the deeply rooted biases of the jury would’ve mangled the representational reality of the case so irrevocably that an innocent boy would be punished for the sins of somebody else. But as Juror 8 scrutinizes the evidence, the other jurors recognize their ill-will one by one.

The structuring of the legal burden of proof implies that laws are built to account for a division of the world along Schopenhauerian lines, and the number of jurors seems to reflect an imbalance of power between the dual considerations of will and understanding. We see that will is as powerful as it is unruly, trampling over the facts as they may be representationally and approaching some internal understanding, which need not have any particular attachment to reality.  

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