Benefit of the doubt
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Rod Nepomuceno () - December 12, 2011 - 12:00am

In my younger days, I used to wonder how the phrase “benefit of the doubt” came about. I mean, sure, I knew what it meant.  And I used it all the time in everyday conversation.  If a person was trying to convince me about something, and I had some “doubts” on the veracity of his claim or story, I would normally say, “Okay, okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.” But then I would ask myself,  “Hmmm, that doesn’t seem to make sense.  I’m giving this guy the benefit of the doubt? I’m telling him that I’m taking his word for it and that I believe him and yet I am giving him the benefit of the doubt? By giving him the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t that mean I am doubting him?” 

When I took up law, however, I learned more about the origin of this saying.  It’s actually not a metaphor or a figure of speech.  It’s actually a literal statement. There isn’t really any figurative or transferred use here of either word. When you give someone the benefit of a doubt, it means that any doubt about the truth or correct interpretation of the facts lessens the fault that can be imputed to the party being accused, thereby benefiting him by improving his case while weakening that of his prosecutors.  It means “to give a verdict of ‘not guilty’ where the evidence is conflicting, or to assume his innocence rather than guilt.  In wider use, to incline to the more favorable or kindly decision." 

These days, we hear the phrase “benefit of the doubt” a lot in the news.  We hear GMA’s lawyers saying that we should give GMA the benefit of the doubt, and that we should give Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona the benefit of the doubt.  We hear people saying we should give Piolo Pascual the benefit of the doubt (is there something to doubt?) and that we should we give Mo Twister the benefit of the mouth — ah, este, doubt. What message are we giving whenever we insist that we should give someone “the benefit of the doubt?”  Ultimately, it all boils down to the assumption that everyone can be trusted. 

But is that assumption valid?  Should the rule be:  “Trust everyone — and proceed with enthusiasm”?  Or should it be:  “Don’t trust anyone — and always proceed with caution”?

My former company, IMG, the largest sports marketing company in the world, started with a handshake deal.  It was between lawyer Mark McCormack, the eventual founder of IMG, and a then up-and-coming golf star named Arnold Palmer. With one handshake, Arnold Palmer agreed to have Mark McCormack as his agent.  This was in the 1950s, a time when sports agents weren’t really “invented” yet.  Arnold Palmer agreed to have McCormack represent him exclusively, and this handshake deal eventually became a multi-billion-dollar empire.  Arnold Palmer became a hugely successful golfer, endorser, golf course designer and licensed brand name — all because of McCormack.  And up until McCormack’s death a few years ago, Palmer and McCormack’s “deal” was still based on that handshake.  They never put it on paper.  They had a four-decade relationship based on the trust in that one handshake.  The “setup” that Mark McCormack and Arnold Palmer had is, to say the least, quite impressive.  It was based purely on trust — 100-percent trust. They gave each other the full benefit of the doubt.  And it worked wonderfully for both of them.

Sadly, that is the exception more than the rule.  The reality is we shouldn’t give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  Now, I’m not saying that you should assume that everyone is guilty before being proven innocent.  It’s not about guilt.  Not everyone’s intention is bad. Not everyone is a murderer or incurable psychopath who’s out for destruction. It’s just that when push comes to shove, each one of us will be looking after our own respective interests. It’s human nature. And that is certainly more than the rule than the exception. That applies to everyone, including myself.  And it’s not because we’re evil by nature.  It’s just human nature.

I heard about this deal among my friends where one of my buddies went ahead in a transaction with a partner, who is also a friend, and they shook hands and agreed on a 50-50 split.  But as the deal progressed, the transaction became more complex.  And when the deal was about to be signed, one party said, “Hey, I worked much harder for this deal, and I spent a lot more resources. I think 50-50 is not equitable.  Can we do 60-40?”  And then the other party said, “Wait a minute, that’s not what we agreed on,” and an argument ensued.  Ultimately, the deal didn’t push through because of the disagreement.

In the movie The Social Network, Eduardo Saverin, the original CFO and initial funder of Facebook, had a 30-percent stake in the startup company.  Giving his partner and friend, Mark Zuckerberg, the “benefit of the doubt,” he signed on to a shareholder agreement, not realizing that the agreement provided that if other investors came in, it was his shares that were to be diluted, and not Mark’s.  Eduardo giving Mark the benefit of the doubt cost him millions — if not billions — of dollars. 

Bottom line: While you shouldn’t assume that everyone is evil, don’t always give people the benefit of the doubt.  Sure, the beginning of any relationship — business or personal — involves some level of trust. Because without basic trust, you can’t even begin conversing with anyone.  But once the personal or business relationship starts getting deeper, you have to start putting up your guard.  Don’t “invest” too much of yourself.  You have to leave some room for doubt.  Because if you are too open, some people will take advantage. 

You don’t believe me?  Good.  Don’t give me the benefit of the doubt. Because until you fully know me, I don’t deserve it.

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