Judging Others


This thought is sort of the result of a few conversations I have had over a widely separated time period.

A - possibly the - cardinal sin of the modern world is judging others, a.k.a. judgmentalism (not a real word, oddly). However, exactly what is covered by this is somewhat unclear. I can see three things it could refer to.
  1. Internal judging: The act of forming a judgement about the actions of others. These judgements can be positive or negative, and fall in one of many areas, such as tactical, moral, social, etc. For example, I could judge that you made a bad move in chess, or that you are a good driver. We all make and act on these judgements all the time; it is a necessary part of responding intelligently to the world. If you are bad at chess, I might spot you my queen next time. If you are a good driver, I will be more willing to lend you my car (I don't actually have one, but the point holds).
  2. External negative moral judgements: Condemning the actions of others on moral grounds. This may be spoken ("That's cheating!") or implied by actions (leaving a party when people start getting drunk). However, exactly what counts as a condemnation by actions is fuzzy. I might have just left your party because it was late and I had to get up at 5:00 AM tomorrow, so I needed my sleep. Or maybe drunk people scare me. Or your party was boring (a non-moral condemnation).
  3. Negative moral self-judgement: Condemning yourself on moral grounds and blaming others. From what I have seen, people tend to have two different moral codes. There is the normal one they (usually) follow (the "basic code"). Then there is the other, typically-stricter, moral code that floats around inside their minds and on some level they think they ought to follow (the "deep code"). People normally don't think about the deep code, and when they do, they often think that it is wrong, with a variety of justification. These can range from "Yes, I'm stealing this ring buoy off someones boat but I am using to save a drowning person and I will put it back after so it is OK" (a good reason based on an appeal to a higher moral rule) to "the social expectation here is that everybody does this" (a rationalization based on not wanting to feel left out).
The problem with #3 comes when:
  1. You do something that is accepted by your basic moral code
  2. The action violates your deep code
  3. You justify the violation with something like "nobody believes that anymore"
  4. There is somebody (e.g. my invisible friend Gwendolyn) nearby who you know does believe it
In that case, you are likely to judge yourself according to the deep code and find that you do not measure up. You are also unable to use your normal excuse because Gwendolyn refutes it by her mere presence. This leaves you feeling morally condemned by Gwendolyn because a) you feel condemned and b) it wouldn't have happened without her. However, Gwendolyn didn't actually do anything - she might have been thinking about something else and not even noticed.

Note that the deep code could actually be wrong. For example, I read a book (Lost Truth, by Dawn Cook) which contained a young woman who, for cultural reasons, was extremely embarrassed by the thought that someone might see her ankles (without her socks). She eventually got married, but still instinctively felt guilty about letting her new husband see them. Intellectually, she knew this was silly, but it still bothered her. I know this is fiction, not reality, but I doubt it would feel so appropriate if this was not human nature. I have also seen something similar in real life at the University. I had a friend there who was a strong advocate of the moral acceptability of homosexuality. A result of this was that nobody used "gay" as an insult when she was nearby. I think was was not because they were afraid she would flip out at them, but because she had managed to change the social expectations around here. I don't really have a position of the use of "gay" as an insult, myself, but the effect was real.

The form of judgmentalism that people claim to condemn is form 2. There are cases where this makes sense (you shouldn't condemn someone for having the wrong favorite flavor of ice cream) and cases where it doesn't (murder really is immoral). However, people are often condemned for form-3-judgements. This can lead to the people with the too-strict moral codes being pressured (often subtly) to change their principles (or at least ignore them in present company) or their becoming unwelcome. This is, of course, also an example of form 3 judgmentalism.

I don't think we can really get away from form 3. In order to do so, we would have to either a) divide people into like-minded groups and prevent interaction between them, or b) force everyone to conform to a single viewpoint. I would judge plan A as unworkable, although the people who talk about "echo chambers" on the internet may disagree. Plan B would be tricky because there are many moral questions where reasonable people can disagree, often because they started with different assumptions. I suppose it could be done with some sort of thought police, but I don't think anyone actually wants that. I think what we actually need is more tolerance in the old sense, where people who think that others are wrong agree to put up with each other.

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