The Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom


From today’s mailbag (the correspondent somehow tried to post it to the version of this post that lies on my long-defunct blog on WordPress; he left the name “Michael” and an email address, but the email address failed):

From the standpoint of justice, what matters is whether the factually guilty are found legally guilty, and the factually innocent are found legally not guilty.  Other things may not matter to you in your role as lawyer, but they matter in a greater sense for the system of which you are a part.

Look, I know that anyone who has ever watched a single episode of a vile Dick Wolf franchise thinks that makes him an expert on the criminal justice system, but reading the newspaper doesn’t qualify you as a criminal justice expert any more than playing Operation qualifies you as a medical expert.

Non-criminal-defense-lawyer types are as welcome here as anyone else, but let’s agree on these things: that all of us are human; that none of us are omniscient; and that none of us really know what any of the others ultimately deserve.

We’ll call the opposite position — that one or more humans could have enough understanding of the twists and turns of the human soul to correctly mete out Justice — the Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom.

Michael’s position relies on the Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom in two ways.

First, he assumes that he has Godlike Wisdom so that he can speak “from the standpoint of justice.”

Second, he assumes that the criminal justice system metes out appropriate punishments to those who are found legally guilty. Underlying this assumption is, again, the Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom — only if the legislature (as well as the judge or jury) has enough understanding to correctly mete out justice can we be assured that the punishment fits the crime.

Unless the legislature and the sentencer are infallible and all-wise, there will always be people who, while factually guilty, are punished inappropriately for the things they did.

Whether the factually guilty are convicted and the factually innocent are acquitted isn’t quite so important in light of the imperfectness of the people making and enforcing the laws. We commonly hear, “better X factually guilty people go free than one factually innocent person be convicted,” but isn’t it also better for some number of factually guilty people to go free than for one factually guilty person to be punished excessively?

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0 responses to “The Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom”

  1. Damn Mark

    You need to stop asking these deep philosophical questions. I’m still pondering if a factually guilty person should go free because of punishment and I’ll have to get back to you when I’ve had a little less wine.

  2. Ron,

    Should all of the things that are crimes be crimes?

    If not, a factually guilty person should go free because of punishment.

    The rest is haggling over price.

    Mark.

  3. I think you’re too harsh on the guy. I don’t think he portends to be “speaking from the standpoint of justice,” just saying if justice is the ultimate goal, in a perfect world the factually guilty people would be convicted and the factually innocent would go free. In such a perfect an unattainable world, it would be much more easy to punish people with our new found certainty in the result. We could spend less time with exorbitant punishment justified by the fact that we have to slam them when we’re able to convict them or conversely hedging because we know innocent people are convicted. If every crime were solved and solved correctly, then we wouldn’t need to worry about quality of life and gateway crimes, we could reduce the spectrum to that which truly needs to be punished and impose the appropriate punishment.

    I can’t argue the point that that is a perfect world toward which we should strive, but it is simply not something we will ever attain.

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