Prince Andrew and the Value of Pyrrhonism

24 Jan

Actually this isn’t very much about Prince Andrew, but the ongoing story about his alleged sexual activity with Jane Doe 3, also known as Virginia Roberts does provide a convenient example of why Pyrrho of Elis was probably right on one or two points.

At the time of writing, the situation is that Prince Andrew has been named in a lawsuit, to which he is not a party, as someone that Virginia Roberts was allegedly forced to have sex with while she was under age.

(The age of consent in Florida where this sexual contact is alleged to have happened is 18, Ms Roberts was 17 at the time. A quick search of the Internet reveals that the age of consent varies from 12 to 20, depending on where you happen to be at the time, with some countries having no specified age of consent, other than the onset of puberty. A legally defined age of consent is a pretty blunt instrument, but in the context of protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation any instrument, however blunt, is better than none at all.)

So far as I’m aware, Prince Andrew is not, at present, the subject of a criminal investigation. Possibly, given the nature of the allegations, he should be, but in any case he has certainly not been charged, as yet, let alone convicted.

Which is pretty much the point. In the various legal systems operating in the USA, the UK and various other countries, an accused person is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.

So the law presumes that Prince Andrew is innocent. This is a centuries old tradition and probably a pretty sound system since the alternative, a presumption of guilt, while it might be convenient for the law enforcement community, would seem to have disturbing implications for basic human rights.

Of course, a quick glance through some of the comments on social media would indicate that not everyone is willing to assume that Prince Andrew’s innocence, but that’s their business.

What seems to be at odds with the presumption of innocence is the relatively recent practice of treating all allegations of rape and sexual abuse, at least initially, as being truthful. This new approach must be a step forward, since the long-standing practice of treating such allegations with scepticism, or even downright dismissal has allowed a number of sexual predators, notably Jimmy Saville, being allowed to go unchallenged and also added to the trauma suffered by victims/ survivors of sexual offences.

But where does that leave the person who is accused of committing these offences?

Well, nowhere really.

Or at least nowhere different from where they would have been anyway, because in reality, the way that an allegation is received by the authorities need have no impact at all on how the alleged perpetrator is treated when he (or occasionally she) is investigated by those same authorities.

So the conflict is more apparent than real when it comes to the legal system.

You could even argue that by adopting a more receptive approach to people alleging sexual offences, the presumption of innocence is not being challenged, as much as it’s being extended to the accuser as well as to the accused. All we’re really doing is assuming that the accuser is not guilty of lying any more than the accused is guilty of the offence they’ve been accused of.

On the other hand, this conflict seems to be much more real in the media and in the minds of the general public.

I think this is because of a confabulation in the minds of people unclear on the basic concepts.

The presumption of innocence is a matter of law. Not a matter of fact. The fact that, in this instance, the law presumes that Prince Andrew is not guilty has no bearing at all on the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do and whether or not he is actually guilty of some form of sexual misconduct. It is a simple recognition of the fact that we don’t yet know what those facts are because the evidence hasn’t even been collected, let alone tested in court.

In the same way, the fact that police officers are now encouraged to take a more receptive approach when dealing with allegations of sexual offences has no bearing on whether or not those allegations are actually true. And it

certainly doesn’t mean that every accusation of sexual offences must, of necessity, be true.

The plain fact is that whether or not we like it, and whether or not it happens to fit with our personal set of hang ups and prejudices, people lie. Not everyone, and not all the time, but often enough to make caution advisable.

It’s also a matter of fact that some people are guilty of offences that they are never convicted of, while others have made allegations that have turned out to be false. (Which is not the same thing as an allegation that is not proven, or even one that’s not provable).

Which brings me to another, somewhat vexed question. In the UK any alleged victim of a sexual offence is entitled to privacy in the sense that their identity cannot legally be disclosed in the media unless they explicitly waive this right.

This right seems to be justified in as much as sexual offences still appear to be woefully under reported and if anonymity will encourage victims to come forward, without significantly undermining the rights of the accused, then it seems little enough to offer.

Some, often those who have been accused of sexual offences, have supported the idea that this right to anonymity should be extended to the accused until, or unless, they have been convicted.

This idea has some justification. An allegation of sexual offences can be incredibly destructive and, while this may be no less than the perpetrator of sexual offences deserves, it can’t be deserved in the case of someone who is not, in fact, guilty.

The opposing view is that publicising the fact that someone has been accused of sexual offences can encourage others to come forward with further allegations. This has to be a good thing if those new allegations help to secure the conviction of a sexual predator, a point that seems to be particularly relevant when the accused already has a high public profile. (Jimmy Saville again provides a useful example, even if he was, regrettably, dead before the allegations could be tested in a court of law).

On the other hand, there is also the case of John Leslie.

Put briefly, Ulrika Jonsson wrote about having been raped early on in her career. She did not name the perpetrator of this alleged attack, but inevitably rumours began to circulate. John Leslie was named, albeit inadvertently, as being the subject of these rumours (although not by Ms Jonsson, who has never confirmed or denied whether or not he was the person she was referring to). And the fact that Mr Leslie was named publicly seems to have been instrumental in several other women coming forward with allegations. John Leslie was charged in relation to these new allegations, but later the charges were dropped.

Now, whatever the actual facts underlying any of these allegations, and I do not care to speculate on this subject, the fact remains that, John Leslie was never convicted of these alleged offences and remains innocent in the eyes of the law. But in spite of this, he has still paid a price simply for being accused.

And this brings me, at some length, to Pyrrho of Elis and to Pyrrhonism.

Pyrrho of Elis was initially a painter who later diverted to philosophy. He wrote nothing himself and what was recorded of his doctrines by his pupil, Timon of Phlius, has been lost.

Pyrrhonism could be summarised very briefly as the doctrine that nothing can be known for certain and therefore the only viable conclusion is that we should suspend judgement.

Pyrrho was apparently held in very high esteem, both by the Elians and the Athenians and the reason for this would seem to be the courage and integrity with which he sought to live by his doctrines. (No small feat, as a matter of fact. In the early 1600s a number of European intellectuals suffered from a ‘pyrrhonist crisis’ and although opinions differ (appropriately enough) it has been alleged that Robert Boyle, the Anglo-Irish polymath, may have been brought close to suicide over pyrrhonism).

So pyrrhonism is tricky.

Doubt is disturbing for most people and not everyone can cope with it.

Certainty is much easier for most people, even, and perhaps especially, when there is no real basis for it.

So most people will jump to conclusions and, worse still, cling tenaciously to those conclusions even in the face of solid evidence.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter. It makes very little difference on a day to day basis whether or not the average person in the street believes in ghosts or extra terrestrial life. It may not even matter too much whether someone is a creationist or believes in evolution by natural selection.

But sometimes it matters very much what people believe. And that is never more the case than when it comes to apportioning blame.

After all, there is something mean spirited, not to mention arrogant, in the presumption that we can ‘know’ someone’s guilty when they’re never had a fair hearing. Just as it is arrogant and mean spirited in assuming that someone is lying when they make accusations that we find disturbing.

In this context pyrrhonism has its place.

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