Confidence, Justice, and Judgment

A friend of mine was recently telling me, over breakfast, some details of a problem that had recently occurred at his institution.

She shared with me only outlines, as I thought was appropriate, and we discussed more generally the cultural implications of what had had happened.  Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing salacious, nothing that wasn’t already in the public domain.

Then she said something interesting:  “I’m telling you all of this in confidence, of course.”

I smiled and told her that if she gave me a penny, I’d be her lawyer.

We then joked around about confidentiality for a moment–she’s a minister, and so she and I (as an attorney) share some special legal privileges.  And then we went on talking.

The thing that struck me as interesting here was this:  Nobody should ever have to say that!

Knowledge is pretty much either public or private, and it’s generally pretty apparent when it falls into one domain or the other.  There are certain bits of information that toe the line, but context matters.  Exchanges between friends about someone removed from the situation generally fall into the edge category, but it’s pretty clear that context moves them into the private column.

Indeed, it is precisely this sort of thing that, when the designation is flipped to public, constitutes what we call gossip.

Herein lies the difference as well between justice  and judgment.  Justice tells you that if you have a certain legal status or relationship, then under the law (e.g., attorney-client) then certain things are definitely private.  Judgment, by contrast, tells you that if you stand in a certain relationship to someone else (e.g., friendship) , then certain things are definitely private, regardless of statute.

Justice requires the law to back it up; judgment does not.

So my friend should never have had to ask, and I shouldn’t have made that stupid joke.

This would be a far, far better world if more of us exercised judgment instead of relying on justice.  Just a thought for the morning.

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