Aren’t we always innocent?

Let’s say you kill someone and then the police comes to your house to arrest you. Let’s also assume that both of you are completely rational, which means that the police will arrest you only if they are able to prove to you that arresting you is the best thing to do and that if you argue correctly, you may escape the arrest. So then one of the things that can happen is as follows.

Police Guy (PG): I have an arrest warrant for you. You have commited murder, so you will have to spend some time in jail.

You: Jail? What’s that?

PG: Oh, it’s this place where we keep all those people like you who cause troubles to other people in the society so that there is peace in the society.

You: Really? That does sound like a nice thing to do, but I really didn’t know about it.

PG: What do you mean you didn’t know? It’s very clearly written under Section <<some arbitrary three digit number>> of the Indian Constitution.

You: Ok, so what’s written there exactly?

PG: It says people who kill others will be arrested.

You: But I have not read the book. How am I supposed to know that?

PG: You are supposed to know that. Everyone’s supposed to know that.

You: But I didn’t know I was supposed to know that. Is that also written in some book?

I have no clue what could the police guy say after this. There are a few possibilities though. For example, he might say that yes, it’s written in the same book – the Indian Constitution. I don’t know whether that’s true, but if it is, then it’s a very stupid thing to do. If you write in a book that people are supposed to read it, then people can’t know that before reading it and once they have read it, they have already read it and so your instruction solve no purpose. In any case, it will not be surprising if people don’t read it even though you have clearly instructed them to, in the book.

The other possibility is that he says yes, it’s written in a book, which is called, may be, the Indian Meta-Constitution. But then you can use the same reasoning with this book – you didn’t know you were supposed to read it! It’s not just with books though. Let’s say the police guy tells you that it was announced on TV for four weeks continuously. You can still say that you did not know you were supposed to watch it.

So the bottomline is basically this – in any sytem of law, there always exists a rule that is not written anywhere but everyone is somehow supposed to follow it. For example, in the Indian Constitution, the rule is “You are supposed to know that. Everyone’s supposed to know that.” The question is regarding people who break this particular law. Aren’t they innocent, simply because the law was not written anywhere? And as it is clear from the paragraphs above, any crime can be claimed to be a violation of just that one law; you just have to replace ‘murder’ with that crime in the above conversation. So doesn’t this mean that we are all innocent all the time?

Now to some people, this might look like just a stupid analysis of a situation that will never really arise. The policeman, after all, will not entertain questions such as “Jail? What’s that?” He will probably say something like “Come with me, I will show you.” and get along with it. So then why bother about it if it’s not going to be of any help ever? Let me try to present this whole issue from a different point of view, which will hopefully make it look more realistic.

Let’s say I sit with some friends over dinner and prepare a book of laws. We fabricate our own laws that promise to ensure that the world turns into exactly what we want it to be. For example, because we like blue cars, we make it against our law to travel in a car that’s not blue. Then, we hire some strong and sturdy people who go around in public punishing people who own non-blue cars. Now read the above conversation again with the police guy replaced with one of these sturdy people and murder replaced with owning a non-blue car, and may be, jail replaced with doing hundred situps on the footpath. This is something that can definitely happen. In fact people do this every once in a while. For example, people who crave to be in a world where women do not go to pubs and always wear sarees. They have this fabricated book of law which they follow. But it’s somehow very clear to (most of) us that what they are doing is wrong.

Now the point is, even the Indian Constitution, or the law-book of any group of people must have had to pass a similar period, that is, a period when no-one knew about it just like no-one knows about our fabricated book of laws right now. Imagine being in that period and then try to read the conversation above. It will probably make more sense.


18 thoughts on “Aren’t we always innocent?

  1. “Arenโ€™t they innocent, simply because the law was not written anywhere?”

    Not quite.

    And to pre-empt the next comment: no, it doesn’t seem fair (whatever fair means). Yes, your blue car zealots could do this too. But there’s this basic expectation with governments that they’re the only bully around – that they enforce a rigidly defined contract that tells you exactly what rules you need to follow, and that they also ensure no entity can forcibly impose any additional restrictions on top of this contract (you’d usually expect a government that didn’t do this to get overthrown).

    PS: Incidentally, blue car zealots would be a nice name for a band.

  2. The above conversation can happen only in one condition. If the PG is Vinaayak and the You is Vinayak. Every other Police wala (esp in India) will beat you up for this chutiyaps.

    Hmm, Vinnie vs Vinnie. That one’s sure to split the earth wide open

  3. @AV

    the wiki article states that it is a “principle” of law. I hope it is correct to interpret this as saying that it not law but just a general rule followed by the justice system.

    I think Vinayak’s point still stands, it being that there (probably) cannot be a book of law that is complete in itself i.e. contains all the laws that are to be followed. You always require a “principle” like “everyone should read the law book” or the “Ignorantia juris non excusat” as you mentioned.


  4. Vinayak, Karthik:

    I think the point of the ignorantia juris business is that you can have a book that says “if you do not follow the rules in this book, fine folks will throw you into the Pacific, irresepective of your knowledge of this book’s contents”.

    This, of course, is not complete in the sense that it does not do anything to compel the actions of said fine folks, but from one perspective, there’s no reason why it should. It could be read as a descriptive statement, sort of along the lines of a book containing these two rules:
    1. You should not jump off the Empire State Building.
    2. If you disobey rule #1, you will die, irrespective of your knowledge of this book’s contents.

    As for the question of the existence of a self-contained book of law, I’ll have to clarify what “book of laws” (is it a statement or a formal system?) and “have to” mean. Vinayak: I’ll need to talk to you.

  5. As soon as you’re born, you don’t start doing the right things and nobody punishes you for things you shouldn’t do. Like you can shit on anyone and anywhere…
    But as you grow, you learn from people around you and start to understand what is right and what is wrong.And then you’re expected not to shit on public roads.
    These laws are nothing but a written form of what the society thinks should be followed so that harmony is maintained.Of course now this purpose is lost and ridiculous laws are made every day.
    And so, based on what you’ve learnt or understood, if you think you’re innocent then you are and you should fight to prove your innocence.

  6. @Dash…

    I too smell Godel. He smells nice man.

    @Baf, Pranesh and Red Whatever…


    @AV, people who agreed with him and Karthik…

    I think I have made some wrong claims in my post. I am doing some rethinking. Will post the conclusion soon.

  7. See, no section of the Constitution says that, really. S.302 of the Indian Penal Code says you will be charged with murder, and 304 prescibes imprisonment to be one of the punishments.
    Another thing.. there is a concept called ‘ignorentia juris non excusat’ in common law, which is Latin for ‘ignorance of the law is not an excuse’. The logic is that once it is published (as all state and central legislations are), every one is expected to know what the law says. It is most certainly a debatable logic, but think of the chaos that the absence of such a rule would cause.

    Sorry..just had to throw that in:)

  8. @Bhavya … Yes, I did realise all this, that’s why my next post says that this post was too crappy. Thanks for the comment, by the way.

    @Animesh… Actually, no I was not raising this bigger question, although I am planning to post something about it soon. This post was simply meant to point out some sort of incompleteness about the whole concept of having a set of laws to govern people.

  9. When we live and make use of amenities and facilities in a country you are being a citizen of that country, and are supposed to abide by the constitution/law of the land.

    Coming to your and Kartik’s point that there is and must be an implied principle…I disagree.
    Given that one is brought up normally, its the parents/teachers fault of not letting know the individual about the Constitution and Law fully.
    AFAIK, our Preamble to Constitution starts with, WE THE PEOPLE DO SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to abide….

    by simple being an adult survivor in this land, you agree to the terms. There is no untold principle here !

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