On Moral Judgment

There exists a moral universe. We are subject in that universe just as we are subject in the physical universe. We can affect the state of this universe, just as we can affect the state of the physical universe. We are also objects in the moral universe; we can be affected by the state of this universe. Ethics is a mode of analysis that considers how we do and how we ought to relate to this moral universe. The goal of ethics is to live life well. In order to live life well, we need to

  1. see the state of the moral universe as it truly is, and
  2. respond to that state appropriately.

In essence, ethics is this simple; the complexity arises when we actually attempt to live life well. The practice of ethics is difficult.

I find that one of the most common points of error in the practice of ethics is the application of judgment. I want to consider, briefly, what judgment is with respect to the moral universe, how it can be used properly, and how it is often used improperly.

Judgment is a type of critical analysis, and critical analysis is absolutely necessary to living life well. It is a key means to the end of seeing the state of the moral universe correctly and responding to it appropriately. It is preparation, exercise, and review. Conceptually, judgment has a few central characteristics. First and foremost, judgment always has a particular object of focus. We do not judge abstract ideas (we may critique them, but we do not–properly speaking–judge them); we judge people, actions, or beliefs. And this is the first key way in which we can differentiate judgment from criticism. One can be critical of either a general or a particular; one can only judge a particular. “That is bad/wrong/evil.” There must be a “that” there. Judgment must be focused.

Note, however, that the language of judgment often elides the judge. I am not the judge, for I cannot be a sufficient grounds for judgment. What makes “that” “bad/wrong/evil”? The answer to this question can be thought of as the subject of the judgment. And while the object of the judgment is particular, the subject of the judgment must be general. No particular can provide a sufficient foundation for a moral judgement. We judge on the grounds of Right or Truth or Justice. We may be the mouthpiece for judgment, but we are not the judge.

This leads us to consider the chief way in which judgment can be used properly within the moral universe. We can and should often judge ourselves, make ourselves the particular object of a judgment. We must hold ourselves accountable; we must judge our successes and failures in attempting to correctly see the state of the moral universe and appropriately respond to it. Now, I am not advocating any kind of ethical self-immolation. One could easily imagine taking things too far, but rutting in our mistakes to the exclusion of anything else very clearly does not help us to live life well. To live life well, we must live life; we must act and engage and take risks and keep moving forward, even when we do not know the way. Judgment can help us to turn our past mistakes into guards against future ones, it can help us to more clearly see the correct state of the moral universe, but it shouldn’t be an albatross that drags us into stagnation.

If ethics is aimed at living life well, in what ways does judging others aid in achieving that goal? Does making someone else the particular object of judgment help me to live my life well? Does making someone else the particular object of judgment help them to live their live well? These are the questions we must ask before even beginning to judge others. In my opinion, there is often little value to my own goal of living life well in judging someone else. And while it might occasionally be beneficial to the other, the only context in which that is true is when I and the other already share a close enough relationship that I can speak truth into their life. I believe firmly that there is no value in judging another with whom you have no pre-existing relationship. It does not help you to live life well and it will not help them to live life well. And yet, to my eyes, this is the primary context in which I see judgment being practiced.

Before you start to judge, ask yourself: how is this helping me to live life well? How is this helping them to live life well? If you can’t come up with a concrete answer, an answer you can practically employ, you ought not to judge. In short, we may want to consider the deeper truths behind:

Judge not, lest ye be judged.