If I committed a crime and was convicted would I feel I would get a fairer sentence from a judge who knew me or one who didn’t?
Have a go at answering this for yourself. Don’t rush. Roll it around in your head for a day or two and then come back here and read the rest of what I’ve written. It will still be here but if you read on now you wont have the pleasure of your own thoughts first.
Seriously. See you tomorrow.
Welcome back. I hope you genuinely enjoyed the question. I want to interrogate my own thoughts with you in the hope they are similar to your own but I’d also love to hear any unique thoughts you have in the comments. Firstly I wonder if your early thoughts were about the notion of bias. Is fairness a similar thing as unbiased? You may have asked this question with the assumption that, if lacking bias is what you mean by fairness in this situation, certainly the judge shouldn’t know you. To know you is to be biased towards or against you.
But is this always true? Aren’t there many people who are biased against Muslims for example precisely because they don’t know any? If you, as a Muslim, stood before a random Anglo-Australian on the street as your judge, you might suspect they would be less biased against you if they knew you as a person rather than simply knowing facts about you, like your religion. So maybe the relationship between being unknown to your judge and a lack of bias doesn’t exist anyway.
That would mean that a judge who doesn’t know you only really brings an impression of being unbiased. This seems an inadequate description of fairness. Given time I imagine the word fairness would give you more and more trouble. It can be a fuller, richer word than we first concede. Is it fair that Joe Bloggs goes to prison? Can we answer that only knowing what Joe’s crime was and what the sentence for such a crime usually is? Do we need to know Joes whole story from birth? Or is it something in between these extremes; A mile long walk in Joes shoes, whatever that means?
You may have felt a need to confess; maybe those who know me actually know me the least for it, maybe I fool the most the ones who know me the best. This is where we need to define knowledge. I’m not referring to a judge who plays golf with you, a judge who has been to your house or a judge who you used to do grafitti runs with – the kind of social knowledge that creates reciprocal obligations even between people who couldn’t provide a paragraph towards a eulogy for each other. I’m talking about accurate knowledge of your strengths, limits, foils and capabilities. I’m talking about the ability to not be fooled by you – to know when you really need some slack cut for you and when you are just slacking off. This idea of knowledge also requires the knower to be miraculously immune to bias. If they distort what they know about you so that the picture they make from it is untrue this wouldn’t be perfect knowledge.
With this idea of knowledge in mind I believe that perfect knowledge is essential for perfect fairness. I would go further to say the more our judges knowledge of us approaches perfection the more fairness we can expect. This knowledge might not agree with our own self-perception. I can imagine someone else knowing me hypothetically at least better than myself. Certainly at times I can be very self-deluded, sometimes stuck in hopelessness and sometimes thrilled with confidence and an external mind can see that my situation hasn’t changed with my mood.
Perhaps like me you thought that maybe you don’t want the judge to know you even if fairness is the result. We might all rather be sent to jail by a stranger rather than lose a friendship over it. Maybe we don’t even want perfect fairness anyway. Fairness is kind of a terrible thing. If the judge doesn’t know you then you can say that the judge made the fairest decision they could but they didn’t know the whole truth. Nobody wants to be treated deliberately unfairly, that offends us, but accidental unfairness is not that. Perfect fairness robs you of the ability to grizzle at the sentence you receive in the end. Perfect fairness robs us of our self-delusions.
How beautiful does that sound though? To be robbed entirely of our self-delusions. The terror of it is overshadowed by a sense of relief. Pretense and self-doubt, born of being unknown, is a burden. If the price of this moment of being both perfectly known and given our sentence is the consequences of perfect fairness then I don’t see how we can refuse to pay. Imagine a community of people who willingly rejected this exchange. How empty would be anything they have to say about themselves and how qualified would their freedom be given its reliance on turning away from an opportunity to receive perfect fairness? By comparison there is something actually holy about the words “fair cop” uttered by the person receiving a truly fair but harsh sentence and how genuinely freeing would a pardon be if it was based on perfect knowledge.
This idea of perfect fairness from perfect knowledge was always a profound attractiveness of the Christianity of my youth. God who knows us completely will one day be our judge. Somewhere someone even told me of a picture of heaven in which everyone's sins were shouted from the roof tops. I can’t imagine this without cringing. I will never probably be brave enough to make this happen in my life, a mumble from my rooftop is more likely. This is despite my suspicion that you and I probably are the same long distance from perfection regardless of our fronts. But this is what Christianity offered – the chance to realize this suspicion one day and not only experience the perfect knowledge of God but to share in a community of people perfectly knowing each other.
To bring together this ethical value of closeness with Christian theology is to produce some interesting conclusions. A God who knows us is a better judge than a distant one. A God who judges from afar, first reading our name with incorrect pronunciation from a book on our judgment day, is pretty much ignorable. They might be biased against us or fooled by our suit on the day. But a God who travels with us and shares in all of our life, knowing our story from birth, offers us something precious in their judgement, something we never know if we can even give ourselves. Whether this seems feasible to us, it is pretty cool. It puts a different spin on the purpose of the incarnation even. It suggests that God must know what is to be a woman, a poor person, a rich person, a grieving parent, a spoilt child, an alcoholic, a sinner like the rest of us. It promises everyone that they will one day be able to say with all their heart, "fair cop."