A Philosopher's Blog

Campus Sexual Assault & Reasonable Likelihood

Posted in Ethics, Law, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2015

While the goal of reducing the number of sexual assaults on campuses is laudable, this is not true of all the proposed methods of achieving this goal. In addition to the practical concerns regarding the effectiveness of methods and their legality, there is also the concern about the morality of these methods.

During a House hearing, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis expressed his support for a “reasonable likelihood” standard in regards to sexual assault. Polis said that “If I was running [a private university], I might say, ‘Well, you know even if there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance that it happened, I would want to remove this individual.”

Most public universities currently follow the preponderance of evidence standard. Under this standard, a student is to be regarded as guilty of sexual assault if the evidence is interpreted as showing there is a greater than 50 percent chance the student committed assault. It is important to note that this standard applies to the proceedings of the university. If the student is involved in a criminal trial, this is handled by the state and the usual legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies.

While the preponderance of evidence standard seems rather weak, Polis seems to regard the bar as being too high. He said that “It seems like we ought to provide more of a legal framework then that allows a reasonable likelihood standard or a preponderance of evidence standard.” Obviously enough, the standard would need to specify the degree of confidence in the evidence.

Polis seems to regard a 10-20 (or perhaps as high as 30) percent confidence level as adequate for finding a student guilty of sexual assault: “I mean, if there’s 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people.” This standard seems problematic in many ways.

Laying aside the ethics of the standard for a moment, Polis seems to be advocating what could be regarded as justice by fallacy. In philosophy, a fallacy is an argument whose premises fail to provide an adequate degree of support for the conclusion. In the case of inductive reasoning, an argument is assessed in terms of how likely it is that the conclusion is true on the assumption that the premises are true. A good inductive argument is known as a strong argument while a poor one is known as a weak argument. As I tell my students, it is unreasonable and irrational to accept the conclusion of a weak inductive argument on the basis of that argument—to do so would be to accept a fallacy as good reasoning. While there is not an exact number for what counts as strong (strength admits of degrees), the minimum would obviously be a 51% chance that the conclusion is true, assuming the evidence is true—this is, in fact, the current standard.

If the standard for a strong argument for the guilt of a student is set at 10-20%, that would mean that students who are almost certainly innocent (the evidence shows that there is a 90% chance of innocence) are as likely to be found guilty as students who are almost certainly guilty (the evidence shows there is a 90% chance of guilt). Even if the matter had no serious consequences, this standard would be absurd from the standpoint of logic. However, there are serious consequences.

A student found guilty of sexual assault by a university is typically punished with expulsion, which will typically have a serious impact on the student’s life. The student can try to transfer to another school, but will be marked with being expelled for sexual assault. Even if the student is able to attend another school, the expulsion will be a considerable setback not only in the student’s academic career, but also in life.

Polis does have a response to this, noting that “We’re not talking depriving them of life and liberty, we’re talking about their transfer to another university, for crying out loud.” This view does create something of a dilemma. If the punishment for sexual assault is, as Polis seems to believe, merely transfer to another university, then there are at least two problems. The first is that such an allegedly mild punishment would seem to have very little deterrent value. The second is that the 10-20% who actually committed sexual assault would simply be transferred to a new campus were they could continue to engage in sexual assault.

But, if the punishment is actually serious (and serious enough to serve as a deterrent), then there is the moral concern about inflicting a serious punishment with such a low threshold of guilt. At the very least justice would require that the accused be shown to be more likely to be guilty than not. As such, both ethics and logic shows that the preponderance of evidence standard is the weakest acceptable standard (and there are arguments against accepting even this standard).


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6 Responses

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  1. ronster12012 said, on September 16, 2015 at 9:59 am


    How’s this for a radical idea? Let the police handle it. If there is enough evidence for charges then there will be a trial. And a verdict. And a punishment if proven guilty. If he is found not guilty……….nothing else happens.

    Universities are obviously unfit for the purpose of handling rape accusations……..witness recent debacles such as the Columbia ‘Matress Girl’ and some SC? fraternity case…….all BS, no penalty for the false accusers of course. White knight cuckolds rushing in to save damsels in distress by throwing centuries old principles of justice out the window.

    What is a broader question IMO is why do people tolerate this obvious travesty of justice? Jared Polis, dangerous mangina that he is, does not exist in a vacuum and there must be many more like him or else he would not be spouting off this nonsense. He is deserving of a false rape accusation himself to get a dose of reality.

    Another question is what this says about female privilege today,,,,,that a woman can make up a story about rape and have it taken at face value (without corroborating evidence) and some poor guy is hung out to dry.
    And there are no repercussions for her if her story is proven to be lies……for men at least, lying to the police or courts is punishable.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 16, 2015 at 6:00 pm

      In a previous essay I argued exactly that point: crimes should be handled by the legal system, not by universities. They have the legitimate authority to adjudicate academic matters and non-criminal behavior of students that falls under appropriate university rules.

      University “tribunals” are, as you note, poorly equipped to engage in such investigations-yet another reason to leave that to the police.

      Yes, Polis is operating within a context.

      Fortunately, Polis’ proposal was not in the context of the criminal justice system. That remains under the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

      • ronster12012 said, on September 17, 2015 at 7:51 am


        Thinking about this today made me wonder about the idea of competitive justice systems that libertarians always seem to go on and on about. It seems more stupid the more I think about it. Sure, to geeky types it is all so simple….perhaps me being an antigeek blinds me to to the truth, but there can only ever be one justice system in one geographical area. Nothing else works.

        This proposal shows why. Found guilty by a university but not taken to trial, is the person guilty of anything or not? If not actually guilty then he has suffered unjust punishment, if actually guilty then he has escaped just punishment………..so what actual function does a university tribunal serve? And why does anyone take it seriously and not just ridicule it and those associated with it?

  2. TJB said, on September 16, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    The patriarchy at work.

    Roughly 50% more women than men are graduating from college. You would think this would be a problem for men, but you would be wrong. The *real* problem is that women with college degrees often can’t find a guy with a college degree:

    In his book, Birger eloquently explains, in terms that even the non-statistically-literate can comprehend, that the gender ratios of college graduating classes in the past few decades reveal that there really aren’t enough single guys. The “man deficit” is real for the graduate set. The current college class breakdown of women to men is 57:43, which means that there will be about one-third more women than men with college degrees when graduation arrives.

    If we assume these women will want to marry college-educated men—a desire that Birger convincingly argues should and will change—there’s simply not enough men to make all those trips down the aisle a reality.


  3. nailheadtom said, on September 19, 2015 at 11:56 am

    The ideas of Colorado Rep. Jared Polis are another endorsement of the results of the democratic process but, even if they are those of one of America’s most important people, who cares what this moron thinks?

    The whole campus unauthorized sex thing is blatant b.s. First of all, how are female students any different than other young females? Female non-students, those in the work force, hanging around mom & dad’s house, etc. troll bars, too. They get into compromising situations with young men but for some reason it seldom makes the front page of the paper unless actual rape or murder is committed. Why do we care more about women enrolled in Poly Sci 101 than those waiting tables at Cucina Italia or assembling circuit boards at Motorola? Well, we do care about the uneducated ladies that show up for appointments at Duke University lacrosse parties but that’s a different issue.

    Second, the overwhelming majority of campus females are adults, not children. They’re responsible, in large part, for making the decisions that determine their lives. The universities are part and parcel of the recent trend that extends adolescence until well into the third decade of the human life span. In fact, colleges encourage this line of thinking by providing campus amenities designed to appeal to the child-like mind, organized intramural sports, for instance. Since educational segregation by sex is now passe’, and even dormitories segregated by sex are historical artifacts, universities must persuade jittery parents that their daughters are in safe hands or no more astronomical tuition fees. Mommy and Daddy can’t let little Madison go out on her own into the evil world without administrative protection.

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