Justice and responsibility

Is judgement a bad thing? The question seems dangerously circular. Answering it requires judgement. It seems that a proponent of an affirmative answer is automatically guilty of judging.
Maybe making the proposition axiomatic helps? Judging judgement bad is not bad, but each subsequent judgement is. This avoids the circular definition, but one ends up in nihilism. It requires Christian goodness to not judge the murderer, rapist or pederast. Even so, the Christian cannot forsake judging in good conscience since he must believe that the Almighty will bestow ultimate justice upon uncondemned sinners
[1]. An atheist can dodge heavenly dilemmas, but if judging is bad, not-judging the before-mentioned offenders is (question beggingly) worse.
But might one not say that these are extreme examples, readily used to call for the death-penalty, but of no help in everyday life? It seems that this provides no relief. Wherever one looks, everyday life is full of judgement, from the morning choice of fair-trade coffee to settling the dispute about the TV programme in the evening. The still unregenerate will come to appreciate justice when suffering its lack at the hands of unfair superiors at the workplace, when realizing that without judgment they can neither love nor beloved, or, ultimately, when seeing humanity evaporate in the nihilistic world lacking this essential ingredient of human feelings; justice.

But is judgment, then, a good thing? If judgment is judged good, there is no circular logical problem as before. But examples of judgmental behaviour can be readily produced and it is clear that they are not good at all. The religious fundamentalist judging the heathen inferior, or the media frenzy publicly and mercilessly condemning a supposed offender without neither granting a fair trial nor being in possession of all the facts, are clear examples of negative judgmental behaviour.

To shed some light on this confusion, it seems useful to distinguish judging from being judgemental. Judging is concerned with the important concept of truth. The related term “justice” involves giving everyone their due, a principle that everyone, if not being satisfied, at least can live with. King Solomon, who did not hesitate to judge, epitomises what is good in a just ruler. Being judgemental, on the other hand, is associated with reinforcing someone’s pretext on a matter. It includes judging prematurely, without being in possession of all the facts that could be at ones disposition. Expressing the opinion that one can consider herself lucky to have a nice and non-violent Muslim man, is being judgemental, because it links the Muslim faith to violence, whereas obvious alternative hypothesises (such as culture or geographic origin) explaining the itself dubitable impression of generally violent behaviour of some group are not considered.
This shows how ignorance is related to being judgmental. Lacking knowledge of certain facts might make a judgement seem fair. Its judgemental and ignorant character only comes to light once additional knowledge is gained. It is clear that one man’s ignorance is another one’s wisdom. The link between religious indoctrination and being judgmental is equally clear.
It then seems that it is the latter, rather than the former that one has in mind when worried about being judgemental. In fact, the intuitive usage of the language provides ready help. Being judgemental has a negative connotation. Having judgement is much more positive. The verb to judge lies in-between, its being perceived positive or negative depending on the context. It seems that precisely what is needed to balance between the two is … judgement.

Where does the popular fear of being judgmental come from? Some of it can certainly be explained by the general spirit of our rapidly changing times that is suspicious of all judgment, for fear of hurting ever shifting social boundaries. But there clearly is a noble intention behind withholding judgment for fear of doing injustice to someone. After all, how can we be sure to know all facts and to not make a terrible mistake in passing down our judgment on the innocent? But here the problem turns epistemological. Ultimately we cannot know that we know anything and, that we are really not dreaming. But this leads to solipsism. So again, if we accept that we can have knowledge, it can also be possible to be reasonably sure of the facts and then to be able to make a fair judgment.

But there is another reason why someone would avoid judging or being judged. It seems that judgement is related to responsibility. Judgments are associated to actions, either directly, since responsible[2] action requires prior judgement, or indirectly by influencing others to act in a certain way. A wish to refrain from judging is thus also a wish to not be held responsible[3]. Of course, as discussed earlier, this is impossible.
It is insightful to realize that the link between judging and responsibility works both ways. By not judging, one avoids being responsible for the consequences of one’s judgment. By avoiding to be judged, one puts ones actions outside the realm of justice and morals.

My intention here was by no means to give a defence of judgement in the negative sense. Examples in which it is wise or opportune not to judge, for example until further information becomes available, or because one thinks not to be in a position to judge, are plentiful, and precisely related to the difference between (good) judgment and being judgmental. Indeed, I think that readiness to withhold or delay judgement, until more careful examination is possible, would make society a better place to live in. Nevertheless, the fact that responsibility is linked to acting, and acting to judging remains intact, and the same goes for the practical and conceptual impossibility to not judge at all.



[1] An additional complication is that according to the Divine Command theory God’s doing something makes the act god. God’s judging would thus seem to be good and bad at the same time
[2] General irresponsible action would be rightly considered inhuman
[3] How judgment and responsibility relate to the capability to accept criticism would provide for an interesting continuation of this investigation