Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trial by ordeal

An economist has posted a defensen of the medieval practice of trial by ordeal:
“For 400 years the most sophisticated persons in Europe decided difficult criminal cases by asking the defendant to thrust his arm into a cauldron of boiling water and fish out a ring. If his arm was unharmed, he was exonerated. If not, he was convicted.”

According to Leeson, this is less crazy than it sounds: As long as defendants believe (superstitiously) that ordeals yield accurate verdicts, guilty defendants always confess to avoid the ordeal. At the same time innocent defendants always opt for the ordeal—and are always acquitted, provided the priests cheat by (for example) substituting tepid for boiling water, or “sprinkling” a few gallons of cold holy water over the cauldron, or liberally redefining what counts as “unharmed”.
If the family court used this procedure to determine child custody, would we have a better system or a worse system?

I am going to have to think about that. Maybe that what's we already have -- the modern equivalent of trial by ordeal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

no, you're right, we already have trial by ordeal. Reading this post I'm also reminded of the witch trial scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, very similar in approach to "reasoning" and prejudice towards the accused, in this case fathers, in family court cases. If you've not seen the movie, by all means rent it sometime.