When is it okay for to judge Judy? Or: An assessment of the ethics of passing judgement in light of self-doubt, ethnocentric tendencies and the power of multiple perspectives.
By Nick Dilonardo
When is it appropriate to pass judgement? Is it ever fair to judge? And whether it is or it isn’t, why do we do it at all?
Some of us have an inherent will to judge. We exhibit that trait when we take the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator. It’s a mode of thought, a certain vein of thinking, one that constitutes placing value upon something. Isn’t that what a judgement is? Aren’t they the outcome of what value we place on something or someone, whether positive or negative?
Some of us think through our judgements. Some use rational arguments to provide some semblance of validity to our passing of judgement, to our evaluating some thought, some idea, some person. It could be as small as a person’s cuticle. It can be as large as their size. It frames how we look at people, whether we think we can help it or not. And at least with some, it’s inherent, frequent, near constant. For some, it’s breathing. And at a place like USD, it’s being a fish in the sea, swimming up current on Alcala Park, passing person after person, surrounded in as much water as people to judge. Do we fight against the impulse to judge or do we embrace it?
Is it wrong to judge? Just like the limits we place on people – what we are willing to accept, what we aren’t; what we are willing to take, and what we will leave – judgements serve to define lines: those that we will not cross, those we will, and those that appear to us as lines at all.
We judge people for their political affiliations. We judge them for their reaction to events or news. We judge them for drinking or smoking pot. Without judgement, we rely simply on always accepting, without taking a stance. How are we defined if not by those things we choose to do or not do? If we simply check the herd, see what’s cool and go on, doing whatever is accepted in the name of social convenience, then that are we? “Sheep” comes to mind.
We may judge others negatively. We may even judge the act of judging negatively. But what means more: the admiration of a person who professes to abstain from judging anyone? Or that which comes from someone who defines what they like and don’t like in people, someone who thinks about these things and has answers, a product of their judgemental self?
We may be consumed in our judgement. When surrounded by those we loathe, that resentment and frustration is hardly healthy or attractive. Painful as it can be to be different in a place of homogeneity, and as tempting as it can be to fit in and save oneself the risk of rejection, there exists hope and strength in persevering to be oneself in spite of others. It was precisely this to which the poet e.e. cummings referred in his famous quote about being yourself. A girl once wrote it on my pong table as a signature. It stood out against the others.
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting,” Cummings wrote.
People will tell you that when you want to judge, hold back. Don’t judge someone without walking in their shoes, or something like that. That may be fair. So what’s the standard?
When is it ethical to pass judgement? And upon what does it depend?
When it comes to, I don’t know, guacamole let’s say, how can one pass judgement? I don’t know about you, but when my little sister refused to try guacamole because it was lumpy and green, I had a fit. Looking back, I probably overreacted, but the idea that she would refuse to try something because it was new or “strange” infuriated me. Ignorance of that form is unconscionable to me, and my little sister is simply too brilliant for that kind of willful naivete. If something cannot kill you by trying it, then what is the harm? And what kind of person refuses to try something simply because it’s new or different? What kind of mindset or mentality does that require? Is that healthy, let alone attractive?
Without experience, it’s difficult to judge. Without empirical data, one has to rely on rationality or intuition. The Greek god Apollo was the god of reason. That same god was also the god that set limits on women, the same god and concept that stood in opposition to Dionysius, a god of femininity and of the unbridled power of intuitive and creative thought. Between these two concepts, between reason and intuition, one can come to a judgement. It’ll come through either theory, or through your gut.
Some people intuitively judge, and are quite proud of it. One of the proudest is George Bush. He touted himself as a great decider. To decide, he used his gut. President Obama is anything if not hyper-theoretical and abstract to a fault at times, the bulk of which Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men” can attest. Obama surrounded himself with disparate voices, like Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” He thought that if his team litigated each decision to it’s end extent and then weighed the decision rationally, it would lead to the best consequence.
The result was inaction, trembling indecision and a dissipation of his presidential authority within his own administration as a result. Only after Lawrence Summers and Rahm Emanuel moved on from the White House – leaving the President with a staff comprised of closer insiders and smaller egos – was he free to exercise his own will and trust himself again.
And now, as an article by Jackie Calmes last week’s New York Times points out, the President is quite comfortable in his own skin, especially after the election.
“He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others’ ideas — enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris,” wrote Calmes.
But as Nietzsche would agree, one can only relax after the fretting over outcomes ends. We tend to fret over outcomes, because we think we have some kind of control over them. We tend to place great value on consequences, rather than on the will or motivation behind the decisions that we think lead to them. In utilitarian logic, it is considered ethical or moral to do something if the ends or consequences of a decision measure out appropriately on a scale.
In ethics, Prof. Schlessinger used the example of Stalin, weighing whether or not to suffer the deaths of millions of civilians in his country, in order to continue his fight against the capitalists. If he won, he would have achieved freedom from the capitalists forever. Upon losing, the Soviet Union and communism would and did fall. For him, the ends outweighed the means, meaning that because of the opportunity to seize great ends, it justified distasteful means. This is the same way Jean Val Jean justified stealing a loaf of bread in “Les Miserables.” For Jean, the ends justified the means. But where does this fascination with consequences lead us?
It leads to crippling anxiety. If you truly believe you have control over the outcome of each of your actions, it’s near impossible not to be seized by indecision. Without faith in yourself or God, attempting to weigh each and every decision, doing the moral calculus and weighing the pros and cons, each and every decision becomes crippling.
But the silly thing is free will doesn’t exist. It’s a fabrication of the church in order to hold people accountable for their decisions. Heaven and hell can’t exist without free will. To be damned or rewarded for a fate ultimately beyond our control would be absurd, or Calvinist. As Woody Allen’s film “Match Point” demonstrates, there is just too much luck in this world for any of us to have the absurdly egotistic notion that we are the sole arbiters of our fate. Without free will, there is no reason to ever be anxious. All we need to do is relax, and be us. We’re fated by our nature. Some people call this “soft-determinism.”
We are who we are, Nietzsche would argue and I concur, and blessed with both reason and instinct. Some of us repress our instinct. Some of us repress our reason. Some of us should really trust our gut. Others, not so much. But those of us who are fairly rational, those of us who consider ourself reasonable thinkers, shouldn’t we trust ourselves? Shouldn’t the gut of a rational person be a reasonable place to check when making decisions? Philosophers like Immanuel Kant will tell you “no,” but he had no understanding of moment or intuition. He believed the right thing to do, the “good” thing to do even, was always the most logical, and the thing that everyone would or ought to do in any given situation. It’s called the categorical imperative.
Judgement doesn’t work as an imperative, I think. I don’t believe in moral absolutes. Judgement to me is only ethical with an appreciation of context, and experience. Without a will to experience new things, judgements are simply ignorant and shallow. And who wants to be that way?
So how does one weigh the pros and cons of making a decision like trying something new? If its guacamole, if the worst that happen is that you spit the food out, I think you’re hard pressed to come up with a reason not to try it. If you are at an incredibly fancy dinner and not swallowing the food is not an option, perhaps then you don’t try something that you’ve been warned is of strong flavor.
Yes, there are exceptions, but this is how we make decisions, or how we should at least. We use our reason. We determine the possible negative and positive consequences: tasty, or putrid. At that point, what is left for us is to account for the moment, which is what the example of the fancy restaurant does. Judgements and decisions must be made in appreciation of the moment. Otherwise, we are making decisions in a vacuum that does not exist, like Kant.
What if it’s something like a drug, or booze? I remember the first time I drank alcohol. It was after-school and some girl put me up to it. My mom was coming home soon, so I spit it out when she wasn’t looking. It wasn’t the right moment.
Later, at the bonfire to mark the end of freshman year of high school, I was offered a red cup of mostly soda and some booze. It was sunset. I was with my oldest friends, surrounded by company. There was a risk: I could have been caught, I guess. But, after consulting the moment, and my rational knowledge of the vastly unlikely chance of being singly arrested, I made my decision. In the words of Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, I had to decide whether to “buy the ticket and take the ride.”
What if it’s a drug? What even constitutes a drug? Caffeine technically counts. If I’ve never tried caffeine, I can rationally consult my theoretical knowledge of the drug, as my empirical knowledge is lacking. I can consult knowledge of how its ingested, digested, and its effects on the human body. Even then, however, I have no way to truly know what could happen when I use it. It brings to mind the words of Dr. Dre facing a similar situation.
“I just took some ecstasy, ain’t no telling what the side effects will be,” the Dr. raps.
Here, the side effects to which Dr. Dre refers are unknown, in the sense that he does not know how he will handle the drug. However, one of the possible outcomes of Dre’s decision could be death. It is possible to die the first time one uses ecstasy. Further, the physical side effects of the drug on the brain are real, in comparison to the claims of brain damage made about cannabis.
However, without some universal sense of right or wrong he holds on to, Dr. Dre is forced to make a decision. Without some general rule like “What would Jesus do” or a categorical imperative to follow, decision making can take some work.
We can use our reason to evaluate the outcomes. We can consult our experience to inform us. But at the end of the day, we have to actually make a decision. At that point, some of us will trust our intuition. For some of us, like George Costanza on Seinfeld, whose life remarkably changes for the better after he starts doing the exact opposite of what he would normally do in any situation, we should not trust our intuition. But for those of us that do, how do we defend it? Should we have to? And for those of us who don’t, how do you have time for all the moral arithmetic?