Understanding Guilt By Association

By Julia Thomas

Updated December 14, 2018

Reviewer Christy B.

Guilt by association, also known as the association fallacy, is officially defined as "guilt ascribed to someone not because of any evidence but because of their association with an offender." More often than not, this term is used in a legal context, although it is sometimes used casually. Guilt by association can also be weaponized as an ad hominem, as affirmed by Logically Fallacious. In this particular context, an individual faces criticism or backlash as a result of their likeness to an already demonized group or entity. Conversely, honor by association, regarded as the inverse of guilt association, lauds someone as a result of their affiliation with groups which are perceived in a positive light, explains RationalWiki.

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Guilt By Association: Debates

Over the years, there have been many debates regarding the association fallacy and fairness. Many people feel differently; for instance, some people argue that guilt by association is completely fair. This position is often backed by the assumption that people tend to surround themselves with people who are most like them. However, arguments which oppose guilt by association affirm that individuals only maintain accountability for their actions.

Despite the fairness of the association fallacy or lack thereof, Psychology Today advises people to choose their friends cautiously, as guilt by association can have incredibly, life-impacting consequences. The desire to belong is only human. In one form or another, the majority of functioning individuals will, at some point, join some type of group, class, etc. where other like-minded people surround them. This is all well and good, but the quality of the groups above is what makes the difference in one's life. For better or worse, humans are at least partially judged by the quality of people with whom they associate themselves with.

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Moreover, there are a variety of phrases and sayings which subscribe to the association fallacy: "birds of a feather flock together," "show me your friends, and I'll tell you who you are." In essence, both of the preceding quotes affirm that human beings tend to surround themselves with people who are most like them. Bearing this reality in mind is guilt by association truly as flawed a principle as some people have made it out to be. Well, different people have different perspectives. Nevertheless, many individuals apply and abide by the assumptions of the association fallacy; this is why people are tasked with the responsibility of carefully choosing the company they keep.

Guilt By Association: Legal Ramifications

Like it or not, the association fallacy is applicable in real life, including within the law and criminal justice system. Although each case and situation varies according to involved individuals, circumstances, and another factor, there are many scenarios where people can be (and have been) held accountable for the actions of others they were connected to, even if they did not break the law.

The Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine

Pullman & Comley LLC provide several examples of the legal ramifications which intertwine with the association fallacy. First and foremost come a hospital administrator and his or her assistant. Hypothetically speaking, were the assistant to provide untrue claims to a Medicare program willfully, the hospital administrator could face legal trouble even if he or she had absolutely no idea of their assistant's crimes. Many people will argue that this isn't fair, but it is lawful.

As stated by the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine (RCOD), corporate officials are legally subjected to accountability for first-time misdemeanors (and even felonies) associated with their enterprise. The RCOD is even applicable in cases where the corporate office did not engage in purposeful or negligent conduct. Supporters of this doctrine have stated that corporate officials ought to exercise their authority to prevent the occurrence of legal breaches.

Source: airforcemedicine.af.mil

Whether people like it or not, federal law does permit guilt of association; this scenario, yet again, goes to show the importance of vetting one's company, or in the case above, vetting one's employees and workers. Background checks, references, prior expertise, and other vetting measures are paramount. Depending on the corporation, some business owners may view employees as expendable, but under the right circumstances, the misconduct of an employee or assistant can have devastating ramifications on the higher-ups.

Accessory To A Crime

The association fallacy yet again rears its head in legal matters regarding convictions where individuals are deemed as accessories to already committed crimes. This is especially applicable in cases of robberies, drug crimes, harboring criminals, etc., states an Indiana Fathers' Right Attorney. However, unlike the RCOD, an accessory to a crime contributes to the commission of the unlawful act. In this case, claiming ignorance or good intentions does not always work as a legal defense.

For instance, say that Person A drives up to a drug store, shoplifts, returns to their car where their friend is waiting for them. The moment that the friend then drives off, he or she can be viewed as an accessory to Person A's robbery. However, if the friend of Person A genuinely did not know about the shoplifting, they could be reprieved from any legal consequences. Nevertheless, it's still quite a slippery slope. For this reason, many individuals take time to vet their friends and trust their instincts carefully.

Guilt by association truly comes into play about drug crimes. People who sell/deal drugs, stash drugs in their homes or cars, provide money for the purchase of drugs, or even help a drug offender hide from law enforcement open themselves up to being charged as accessories to a drug crime. However, similarly to the previous example, if the accused accessory was truly unaware of the occurrence of the crime, they will likely be free of all charges. However, it may be difficult to prove that one honestly remained unaware of illegal drugs in their home.

Guilt By Association: The Pitfalls Of Honor By Association

As previously stated, honor by association exists as an inverse to the guilt above by association, explains Fact Index. However, this philosophy is equally as problematic as the opposite. The idea that an individual or entity is honorable or good due to their association with a particular organization or group can be equally as naive and problematic as the assumption guilt due to poor connections.

In fairness, like attracts like. On average, most individuals tend to gravitate towards others who are most like them innately. Many people want to fix it, the desire to belong to and crave the feeling of being a part of something bigger than themselves. For better or for worse, this is similar common human behavior. However, like all rules and scenarios in life, there are always exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, not every person has pure intentions; as a matter of fact, many people have deceitful, impure intentions and subsequently govern themselves accordingly.

Some individuals attach themselves to certain people, groups, or organizations with ulterior, hidden motives. They may be seeking power, inside information, or even revenge. Different people have various reasons and motivations for associating themselves with others. Some are good; others are not so good. Therefore, to assume that someone is an upstanding or quality individual purely because of who they associate with is naive at best and dangerous at worst.

Guilt By Association: A Positive Alternative

Despite the subsequent flaws of the association fallacy, on some levels, it will always exist in some regards, especially as it pertains to legal ramifications. However, in other contexts, there are still more proactive ways of existing and making judgment calls about the people whom we encounter.

The solution is simple: judge individuals by the content of their character. This is something which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for. The content of one's character involves their words, actions, and decisions. Moreover, the content of one's character regards how they treat people, whether or not they have integrity, etc. Although the company one keeps can often be indicative of certain parts of the character, the association fallacy, especially in isolation, still opens up room for misunderstanding and erroneous conclusions.

Source: iasculture.org

A Final Word

Determining how to make friends and who we should surround ourselves with can be somewhat challenging. Not everyone is who they appear to be. Moreover, the wrong decisions can lead to unnecessary issues down the road. In some of the worst-case scenarios, being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong individuals can engender legal hardships which one might not be able to wiggle their way out of.

Sometimes, sitting down and conversing with a licensed professional can help one clear their head and make beneficial decisions. Here at BetterHelp, we strive to provide assistance and guidance to anyone who reaches out to us, regardless of who they are or the state of their current situation. Everyone needs help sometimes; there is no shame in asking for it. In many cases, an outside, neutral perspective can work wonders, especially when making life-impacting choices.

BetterHelp will always be here as an option for anyone. Get in contact with us at any time by clicking here.


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