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Judge Thy Neighbor: An Argument for Passing Moral Judgment

“Don’t judge me,” he said.

...and thus ended the conversation.


Three small words had not only rendered my argument powerless, but also indicted me for bigotry and close-mindedness. In an instant, the discussion fell from the lofty sphere of theoretical moral debate to the uncomfortable den of personal interaction. Frustrated by a rhetorical weapon so facile and accusatory, I retreated into my private sanctum of judgment, even more determined than before to construct a line of reasoning to vindicate my moral verdict.


It is probably not a stretch to say that every human being has, at one time, been on one side of the above exchange. In such an exchange, a judge of moral character appraises the actions or the person of another, and he confidently states his claim with absolute certainty of its correctness. The accused, or the gallant defender of the accused, drives a stake into the judge’s heart with a defensive guilt tactic. Those three ugly words, “Don’t”, “Judge”, and “Me” abruptly terminate the conversation, undercutting the efforts of the judge to comprehensively defend his claim. Both parties leave the conversation hurt, miffed, and more resolute in their moral stances than before. Worst of all, the conversation ends, leaving no chance of a mutual understanding, a successful persuasion, or a refinement of perspective.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. Why shouldn’t I be able to judge the actions of another? Why must every moral appraisal be taken as a personal attack on the accused? We can fix this. And it starts with an escape from the prison of denial.

Let’s be honest. You, the judged, are in an uncomfortable position. You have been accused of committing a wrongdoing, and now you feel one of two things. Either you feel a sense of guilt at the betrayal of your own moral code, a sense that you have actually done wrong, but are unwilling or emotionally unable to face the consequences of your moral turpitude. You say, “don’t judge me” to reduce cognitive dissonance, to relieve yourself of the duty to judge yourself. To accomplish this, you maim the accuser, who is really only a proxy for your own conscience.

Or we can give you the benefit of the doubt. You firmly stand behind your actions and believe them to be consonant with your system of moral values. Under this assumption, your imperative, “don’t judge me,” is not simply a defensive rhetorical ploy, but it actually formulates a meta-argument - that the accuser has no right to judge others. You subscribe to an extreme and probably contradictory moral relativism by which not only do you believe that many value systems are acceptable, but that everyone is obliged to accept that many value systems are acceptable, an ironically absolutist view.

But what about the judge? Does he have free reign to judge everybody from the line-cutter to the abortionist willy-nilly? Can he unabashedly pass a trying glance at the gay couple and the meth addict? The answer is yes, with qualifications.

The fact of the matter is that we are all human, and as humans we all have a sense of right and wrong, of good and evil (with the possible exception of psychopaths). When confronted with real-life scenarios that have potential moral implications, we naturally evaluate the matter before us. We take the “is” of reality and transform it into the prescriptive “ought” that exists in our minds. We can’t help it. The question then isn’t so much whether we can help but judge, but what we can and should do with these judgments. To address this question, it pays to learn a little about the process of judgment.

Where do our judgments come from? Philosophers from Plato to Descartes have claimed that we have the capacity to arrive at moral judgments through rational moral reasoning. That is, human beings can react to circumstances that have moral implications by connecting the dots from abstract moral principles to definitive moral conclusions in a deliberative and effortful manner. For example, if I know of an impregnated rape victim who has aborted her two-week-old fetus, I may go through the following reasoning process:

“Well, I know that all fetuses are human beings. I also know that I define ‘murder’ as ‘killing a defenseless human being.’ Murder is evil under any circumstances. And somebody who performs an evil act is an evil person.”

I will arrive at the rational conclusion, based on a priori moral principles, that the woman is evil.

In the 18th century, Scottish and English philosophers began to seriously challenge this theory of moral judgment. Scottish philosopher David Hume posited that our judgments derive not from a “chain of argument and induction” but from “immediate feeling and finer internal sense.” Our judgments are actually gut feelings, similar in ways to aesthetic judgments. English philosopher Adam Smith appealed to the authority of the “impartial spectator,” a moral conscience that aims for a “mutual sympathy of sentiments” with others. Morals, argued Smith, actually evolve in a social context, and people make judgments based on a set of experiences and interactions. In fact, according to Smith, we take the perceived judgment of others into account when we make our own judgments. “Reason,” wrote Hume, is “the slave of the passions.” It is the mechanism we use to justify an already existing moral intuition or, according to Smith, consciousness. Hume and Smith do not claim that we do not use reason at all, but only that the reasoning process comes after an initial judgment is made.

To parallel the case of the impregnated rape victim in light of Hume and Smith’s conception of judgment, one might make the gut assessment that the woman is evil, based on social norms or shared experience. Only afterwards, if pressed for a justification, will he piece together a cogent argument in defense of that judgment.

So who was correct, Plato or Hume? Modern psychological research has shown that the way human beings judge more closely emulates Hume. We often arrive at moral conclusions first and then construct arguments to defend our moral judgments. Jonathan Haidt, in his 2001 article, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment” compares our reasoning process to a lawyer defending a client, as opposed to a judge or scientist seeking truth. We tend to tailor and twist our arguments to appeal to those with whom we are arguing, either to avoid confrontation or to win them over. We also have the illusion that any subsequent moral reasoning is objective and disinterested when, in fact, we selectively look for data and principles that back up our intuitive moral judgment.

With this in mind, can we invalidate all moral judgments? Does the fact that human beings rarely engage in detached moral reasoning before making judgment calls mean that all judgments are wrong? Not necessarily. It does force us to recognize the limits of our knowledge, to understand that we are susceptible to biases that stem from social context, and to dig deeply to identify those biases. Some biases may render a judgment invalid upon further scrutiny, but some may be found to be totally appropriate, in context.

The fact that many different people have vastly different views about what constitutes good and evil is probably proof enough that we will never be able to rationally deduce a holistic set of values that constitutes a “universally objective morality.” We will never be able to play God. And that is probably what the defendant means when he says “don’t judge me” – “don’t play God.” But I do not have to play God to pass moral judgment. I enter the conversation with the conviction that the set of values that I believe to be sacrosanct are, in fact, the best based on my experiences, my perceptions of the world, and some of my own private thinking. How could I, with integrity, subscribe to these values otherwise? I welcome new experiences and arguments to change my moral worldview. I challenge you to change my moral convictions.

If we think about it hard enough, it seems silly to say that we may not judge. After all, we pick our friends and acquaintances from a large pool of people, some of whom we would rather not associate with. There are, of course, other important considerations in making judgments. Do we verbalize our disapproval? Here, sensitivity is a virtue that must not be ignored. Do we generalize? Here, we must be careful to distinguish the sin from the sinner, the doer from the deed. But these are peripheral questions, generally relevant only after the private judgment has been made.

We judge because we are human beings. We judge because we have a sacred set of values and beliefs about the world. We judge to maintain perceived moral order in the world around us. We judge because it is the best we can do with our limited experiences and knowledge.

So the next time someone judges you or your friend, listen to what he has to say. Let him finish. Respond with a question or a counterargument. Continue the conversation. Maybe someone will learn something.