Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's wrong with judging?

One of my friends has an online profile that states she is "On a mission to wipe away all negativity and judgment from my life." My gym has a "lunk alarm" that the employees can set off on anyone who "grunts, drops weights or judges." I hear a lot of people talk about how its wrong to judge another person.

But what does any of this actually mean?

It is not possible to give up judging people, and if it was, it would be terribly undesirable. When people talk about judging, they imply a very narrow definition. What they really mean is reaching a firm negative conclusion about someone from little information.

But that isn't always a bad thing. If I was looking to hire a babysitter and I learned one of the candidates was a convicted child molester, I would cross them off the list.

But wait a minute, that's judging someone. What's more, I even discriminated against the person based on my judgment. But would anyone look down on me for doing it?

What if it wasn't so extreme - what if I got to know all the candidates really well and I thought one of them was irresponsible. I had seen the car they drive was filled with food wrappers and beer bottles. One of their references said they forgot to feed the kids on two separate occasions. The candidate didn't pay attention during the interview. If I was to use these facts to dismiss the candidate as irresponsible, I would absolutely be judging them.

So what I want to know is, what's the problem here?

Maybe the convicted child molester was falsely accused. Maybe the slob had a series of creative excuses and misunderstandings. There's always a chance that the judgment is wrong or is based on incomplete information. That's unavoidable, but it's silly to reject all evidence and clues out of some fear of passing judgment. We will always have incomplete information and judgments don't have to be firm - they can always adjust with new information.

On the other side of the coin, people don't seem to have much of a problem with positive judgments. If your opinion of someone goes up after you see them hand a stranger a dropped $5 bill or hear they left a fun activity early to drive someone home, then you are judging them - and on very little information too.

Look back at that opening quote - how could anyone think living life without "judgment" is a smart plan? It's foolish to reject a person because you don't like their socks or eye color, but that is straw man. Judgment is needed because sometimes we don't have the luxury of perpetually delaying a conclusion. Sometimes we need to act fast, and our sense of judgment is the key to making good decisions.

You don't have to walk a mile in someones shoes to judge them. A simple evaluation on the choices and decisions a person has made and the context they were made in is a good start.

And by the way, when someone sneers at me because I say I am proud to judge people, they are in fact passing judgment on me.


  1. Good article.

    I like to take a queue from Marcus Aurelius and give people the benefit of the doubt. We're always going to be wrong in some manner, but we can choose to reach out to other human beings in a positive, constructive way. Offering trust to people can be dangerous, you obviously have to be prepared for betrayal (some inadvertent, some not) and disappointment. Aurelius' stoic background did that for him, and I like to think I'm getting to that point myself.

    I like his views of humanity. He believed we're all significantly flawed but still worthy of indiscriminate love and respect. He believed it was biological, that we were like ants built to work with each other and subsequently lend our trust.

    Then I read some Robert Wright (an evolutionary psychologist) and his book "Nonzero." It seems as if humanity is getting better at doing what Aurelius taught us all the time and Wright views our highly integrated, interdependent, globalized world as evidence. We must specialize to excel in our free-trade environment. We then depend upon others to produce the other necessities of life while we work in our own niche. It takes trust to rely on that system.

  2. Its the same with "discrimination", which is called bad, but even those who say so tend to discriminate between food and poison, say.

    You have to believe in Judgement in order to believe in Justice.

    One thing I notice from is the proliferation of women who declare they seek a "non-judgemental" mate. I sometimes ask them if they bother to judge their partners, or if they simply accept all comers. Usually the conversation ends right about that point. At least I am amusing myself, I guess.

    I have a bumper sticker that reads "Judge Ye, and Be Judged". It's a motto to live by.