Judgment, again, differently

A recent (well, not recent, but not far back on this blog) posting was in praise of judgment – the ability to assess a case or a situation and make a reasoned and “arguable” decision about it. As it happens, I’ve found myself thinking quite often lately about a different kind of judgment. Passing judgment – moral judgment, judgments about rightness and goodness and propriety – on people.

I don’t like doing it. I do it a lot. So do other people. Increasingly, it annoys and even upsets me. I would like a clearer idea of why we feel the need to do it so much.

I am also worried that too many people think that passing judgment is what ethics is about. Ethics as something you study in order to be able to tell other people that they’re wrong, or tell them which third group of people are wrong. Ethics as a privilege of the chattering classes (Leader columns? The Moral Maze? But I shouldn’t judge it, I don’t listen to it enough) who artificially construct for themselves a position of not being, themselves, talked-about and judged. I suppose this brings out the social and political dimension of the fiction of neutrality/objectivity in texts on ethics; it’s a social privilege to be able to pass judgment.

When I find myself among the talked-about and judged (which seems pretty much unavoidable if you appear in public with small children) it is extremely uncomfortable in a salutary way. It’s also uncomfortable when I realise, as I have done several times recently, that people are making excuses to me, explaining things that don’t need to be explained, treating me as one who is going to pass judgment. (I’m not sure if it’s the job that does it, or just how I come across).

I want to say that passing-judgment is not something you do lightly, it’s not easy, it’s spiritually dangerous, and perhaps some of us need help to do less of it, not more. The potential side-effects (in pride, and lack of charity, and inability to recognise and hear other people, and false sense of security) need to be thought about.

Matthew 7:1. “Don’t judge [I reckon you could translate this as pass-judgment-on], so that you won’t be judged”. I googled the verse (I admit it, couldn’t do the chapter & verse from memory) and found on the first page a whole string of articles explaining why this doesn’t really mean that you can’t judge people (and why liberal tolerance is destroying the world). Well. That’s interesting. Anyway, here’s one way I see it at the moment. Stick with me, we’ll get to the point before too long.

There are some things I do, or try to do, that I would quite like my children to imitate, even while they’re young children. (Saying thank-you is the one we’re working on at the moment).

There are plenty of things I do that I really don’t want them to imitate, ever, because they’re wrong. (I don’t want them to shout at each other, and I tell them not to, even though I sometimes shout at them).

There’s also rather a large group of things I don’t let them do now, because they’re children, even though the things in themselves are not wrong. Best example – cutting with sharp scissors. I say to my children “Don’t cut with the sharp scissors, or you’ll cut yourself”. Cutting with the sharp scissors isn’t wrong; in fact, it’s a skill I hope they’ll learn. But for them, right now, it’s dangerous. I get to do it, they don’t; not because I’m hypocritical or because I want to preserve my power, but because they are children and they can’t do everything I can do.

Try this: “Don’t cut with the scissors, or you’ll cut yourself”. “Don’t judge, or you’ll be judged”. Passing judgment is dangerous – generally best left to God, and to be attempted by the children of God only with great care and under close supervision.

But then in thinking about it just now I saw another side. Perhaps it’s also a message of liberation from the impossible, untenable, soul-rotting position of the unjudgable judge (who can’t even get to the point of receiving forgiveness because she’s so busy trying to be right). If you judge, you get judged, and that is in fact good news.

Well, I had a student in a seminar once who tried to argue that you ‘couldn’t judge’ Hitler because he ‘really believed what he was doing was right’. When I regained speech I said OH YES you could. But I was most worried about the implication that sincere belief in one’s own rightness precluded any critical evaluation of one’s actions by others. It would be more interesting, I think, to reflect on the usefulness or otherwise of passing judgment even in these extreme cases.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by David Anderson on 19 July, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    What strikes me is that emotivist and quasi-realist philosophers e.g Simon Blackburn think that judging – to be precise censuring others – is the essence of morality. A judgement is only a moral judgement if you’re prepared to censure people who don’t make it.
    I think that they’re right to the extent that if you jettison the idea that morality is about flourishing you’re not actually left with very much else except the thought that morality is a means whereby we try to exert control over other people. (Obviously ‘flourishing’ is itself a contested concept. Christians would give as an example of flourishing so loving your friends that you lay down your life for them.)


  2. Nice one! I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that flourishing is the only possible language for a realist account of morality (even though it would be my preferred option) – but perhaps you are broadening the language of flourishing beyond what I’d normally expect. How about “moral judgments are claims about what it is right for every rational being to do” – which does give you “and therefore imply censure directed at anyone who wouldn’t do that”, but then has to go through quite a lot of twists and turns before you get to “and therefore constitute exertions of control over other people”? I guess you could argue that, in order to get off that twisting turning path, you would need at some point to start talking about what is “good for” a rational being, and at that point you would be talking about flourishing.


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