Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

Should We Judge Others?

It depends when, where and in what way

should we judge others david odenberg

Think of your most treasured possessions. You might be imagining your new car, or your mobile phone or tablet, your game console, your house, surfboard, bicycle, first edition of Dickens (not bad!), or your model train set. All material possessions – tangible, visible, saleable, heritable, solid and stable, for yours and my admiration. At least that's what our culture encourages you to focus on. But in that case you would forget something far more important.

What about that invisible, intangible, priceless, inalienable, ethereal possession that ranks far above all the others – your good name? Wouldn’t you rather lose every material possession than have others think badly of you? I don’t mean a few people – that’s unavoidably true of all of us. Nor do I mean that anyone thinks badly of you in some light or trivial way – say, that you are known for being stingy with restaurant tips. I am thinking of the case where you have an all-round bad reputation as a person, or where on one or more serious matters you are harshly judged by others. Even if the reputation is deserved, being so reputed is still painful to all but the most hardened of us.

Everyone treasures their reputation, and so they should. Being thought well of – at least not thought ill of – is not supposed to be an invitation to smug self-satisfaction. It is about external reinforcement of your sense of self-worth, about not being a scandal to others, about being, instead, a model for others, an inspiration to their own virtue. There’s the rub. As I said on a recent radio programme, the best way of ‘virtue-signalling’ is by being virtuous. What we really want is a good reputation that is earned, for anything less is – as with material possessions – something endowed with the advantages of theft over honest toil.

Most of us are, I presume, sensitive to the vagaries of reputation. We want ours preserved. We don’t want merely to be liked but to be thought well of. We know that admiration might be too much to ask; we are all too conscious of our vices. At least, we hope, our vices will not be made manifest, for who could weather the judgment of their fellows? At least let us be of decent repute. And so we hesitate to judge others. ‘Do not be judgmental’, we think and say. ‘Who am I to judge?’. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, we opine sagely. And we have high authority for such a stance: ‘Judge not, that you may not be judged.’ So Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount.

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Double standards are better than no standards

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Yet the following words explain what is meant: ‘For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ In other words, if you judge, then use no higher standard than you would want applied to your own self. Only passing acquaintance with the Gospels makes clear Jesus’s own harsh judgment of scribes, Pharisees, and unrepentant sinners. As for the rest of us, with far less moral authority, how can we not judge each other? After all, if charity demands that we judge positively, when the good names of others are at stake, who would object? It is adverse judgment that poses the main problem, of course. ‘Judge not’ means, primarily, ‘do not judge negatively’.

We might think: tell that to someone dealing with a phone scammer, or encountering an aggressive-looking individual in the street, or finding evidence of their spouse’s infidelity. It is fine to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but what if there is little room for doubt? The question concerns, not judgment as such, but rash or temerarious judgment – judgment in the absence of evidence, or in the absence of sufficient evidence given the standard appropriate to the situation. When we call someone ‘judgmental’ (itself an adverse judgment) or want to avoid being seen as such ourselves, what we mean is that a person should not be hasty to judge, should not form a judgment motivated by vices such as spite, envy, or malice, or stemming from one’s own (inevitably inflated) sense of moral superiority. Indeed, even if the evidence is overwhelming, and the judgment not hasty in the strictly evidential sense, we should think it still rash if impurely motivated. You might exult in the fall of Richard B. Rich due to the corruption you have good reason to believe he practised, but where you are energised less by his evildoing than by your desire to see the wealthy laid low.

What, then, is the appropriate standard? If you are in the proverbial dark alley and the pedestrian on the other side seems menacing, the standard must be lower than usual since you have a moral duty to protect your life. None of us think you have to examine them closely for signs of a weapon, for such might well be folly. A suspicion based on fairly slight evidence that all pointed in the same direction would not of itself be a rash judgment. In other words, the standard is dictated partly by the question whether judging according to that standard would involve violating some other moral obligation – exposing yourself or others to unnecessary risk is one example.

Rash judgment involves a lack of charity towards one’s neighbour. Justice, however, trumps charity – so if your judgment requires you to be unjust to someone, the standard must be wrong. You might have a guest of whose dishonesty you have some evidence, but it would be unjust to go around extravagantly locking every cupboard in such a way as to blacken their name in front of others or humiliate them in front of yourself. Perhaps you need to be less severe in your assessment. I said that the question of rash judgment primarily concerns adverse assessments of others, but it might also involve an overly benign judgment in the face of sufficient contrary evidence. Generally, judgments that err on the side of charity are admirable, but if this leads immediately to injustice – say, exposing others to a serious risk – then the standard is too lenient. This is one case where the desire to avoid being ‘judgmental’ can lead to serious harm. If I have hearsay evidence that someone is a danger around children, I need less evidence to judge that person than if I judge someone’s table manners based on the mere word of another.

What if a person’s bad character is a matter of notoriety? The world is far too full of people who flaunt their vices, as though it were a badge of honour. Perhaps I will incur the wrath of some readers, but frankly I would prefer a politician or celebrity who paid lip service to virtue by hiding their bad behaviour (which of itself was not a matter of direct public interest) and painting themselves white in public, to another who trailed their vices in public as though they were a matter of titillation or perhaps even of no consequence. My own view has always been that double standards are better than no standards (though still not good), but as far as our judgment goes, the latter case invites a negative assessment. A person whose immorality is notorious has abandoned their good name – hence an adverse judgment cannot unjustly deprive them of it.

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Most of what most people do is good. It’s just that this generally quotidian goodness is like the air we breathe invisible, easily liable to be swamped by the blackness of vice

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Now you might think something like the following: the world is full of bad people, of whom a great proportion are notorious. You might point to the endless supply of news stories evidencing the terrible behaviour of people in all walks of life. Badness is not hard to find. So then perhaps the prohibition on rash judgment is best left to a more upright age, to a time when social mores were generally healthier, people more prim in their words and deeds. Shouldn’t our standards of judgment be lowered, as far as the need for sufficient evidence goes, to the behavioural standards of the age?

My reply is that even now, in a world such as ours, most of what most people do is good. It’s just that this generally quotidian goodness is like the air we breathe, invisible, easily liable to be swamped by the blackness of vice, usually portrayed in the most lurid terms, that is painted all over social media. To be clear, it is not as though we live in a virtuous age. Our age might be the worst ever, so far. Yet still, we are bound not to judge rashly – out of charity for the vast majority of people whose bad behaviour is not notorious, not sufficiently evidenced, or just plain not our business.

We love it when the mighty fall. We smile inwardly when we find out that money does not buy happiness. We enjoy seeing people hoist with their own petard. We have so many urges to think meanly of others, bring them down to our own level – the only level of which we have direct knowledge – that you might think that avoiding rash judgment is no more than a high ideal. Well, surely we also want people to be good even if so many of us enjoy reputing them bad? Wouldn’t their being good offer, if nothing else, more practical benefit to us than esteeming them low?

vitaliy paykov 373314 unsplash Being With Others Read more Consider the facts. As demonstrated by Rosenthal and Jacobson in the 1960s, children in a classroom situation tend to conform to positive expectations: if the teacher judges them to be high achievers, they will achieve more highly than a control group. These findings have been replicated and seem robust. Although there has been precious little research on ‘expectancy effects’ when it comes to the moral evaluation of people’s actions or characters, the overall data on the psychology and sociology of conformity strongly suggest that if we evaluate people as virtuous by default, yielding only to clear contrary evidence, they will tend to conform to expectations where otherwise they would not. Similarly, people tend to live up to negative ethical judgments. Someone widely considered a troublemaker is likely, even if they have long stopped making trouble or never even started, to conform to type.

These findings accord perfectly with common sense. We generally do not like disappointing each other. The proverbial ‘Do not disappoint me’, said to a child by their parent or teacher, is a powerful tool for encouraging certain kinds of desired behaviour. Better for all of us if such behaviour were directed towards virtue and away from vice. In the case of adults the hold is weaker because one’s sense of autonomy and individuality tends to confound expectations. Even here, though, I would suggest that non-conformity to expectations emanating from one quarter often demonstrates no more than conformity to expectations stemming from another quarter thought more influential by the person at hand – family as against friends, friends as against work colleagues, neighbours as against political associates, and so on. Overall, in my view, a positive reputation attributed to someone – where the reputation is well known and well understood – is always accompanied by a strong desire on the part of the person so esteemed not to let others down.

No one, however, wants to be caught out as a fraud. Hence reputation and desert should align. A person with the honour of a good name should seek to preserve it without deception. Deception, apart from its inherent immorality, requires effort. Better the effort be spent on backing up one’s good name with the real meat of virtue than the thin skin of mere appearance. Conversely, we should all seek not to damage the good name of our fellows by rash judgment, as we would not want to be judged. The happy reward is that by judging others well we encourage them to act well – and so they will tend to act. This looks like an ethical win-win scenario to me.

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