The demand for refraining from judgment is commonplace today. It’s even elevated to a cardinal virtue, one of the few still remaining. As Aristotle said:
Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society.
These things now feature centrally in today’s political rhetoric. This stifles debate, and demands us not to notice things that are bad for society, or especially do anything about them.
There’s a difference between liberty and license. The freedom to act toward one’s best interests, guided by the power of reason, is a good thing. Doing whatever the hell you want doesn’t always work so well. Expecting people not to pass judgment on negative consequences, be they potential or evident, is silly. The demand for radical personal autonomy, and the lack of social pressure to enforce morality, has had many negative effects.
The case against judgment
The following Biblical passage is well known:
Judge not, lest ye be judged.
As a heathen, I’m not qualified to deliver an authoritative theological opinion, but the way I read this is that you’d better have your house in order before pointing fingers. Another interpretation is as an absolute prohibition, though I recognize limits in its applicability since my patience is not infinite. My capacity for forgiveness has practical limits too; I’ll concur with Edmund Burke:
There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty argues powerfully in the second chapter for freedom of thought and freedom of speech. In the third, he advocated personal autonomy:
Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.
Theodore Dalrymple, in classic Aristotelian debate form, lays out the thesis before arguing the antithesis:
A man who judges others will sometimes condemn them and therefore deny them aid and assistance: whereas the man who refuses to judge excludes no one from his all-embracing compassion. He never asks where his fellowman’s suffering comes from, whether it be self-inflicted or no: for whatever its source, he sympathizes with it and succors the sufferer.
However, none of that is all to be said on the subject.
The case for judgment
The Bible tells us not to judge, though Jesus certainly calls out others for wrongdoing. (One certainly could argue that being a deity grants the required street cred.) In any case, compassion is granted—quite touchingly, in some passages—for those who repent from sin. Still, hypocrites and the unrepentant don’t get excused from judgment. Righteous conduct is expected, though it’s understood that human fallibility means everyone misses the mark from time to time. It’s fair to say that the Gospel message doesn’t give license to be a rotten scoundrel six days a week so long as one apologizes on Sunday.
Mill’s classic On Liberty argues for personal autonomy, but recognizes practical limits. The basic idea, particularly spelled out in the fourth chapter, is that things which can affect society are legitimate matters of public notice. Thus, where necessary, such things may be prohibited by legislation. It seems strange to imagine these days, but liberals actually used to make sense, at least back in the 19th century.
Theodore Dalrymple’s article describes how the attitude of non-judgmentalism leads to a reckless form of apathy by society. Without outside encouragement to steer the right course, people won’t even examine their own lives (as Socrates strongly recommended) and learn from their mistakes. He describes several instances where women hook up at a bar with violent losers, and then after their Stockholm Syndrome relationship ends, they immediately find another guy just like him.
Although glaringly irrational, this is hardly a surprise to us. What is surprising is that Dalrymple actually was able to talk sense into some of them. Naturally, daring to point out the obvious is a critical first step.
The political angle
The demand for non-judgmentalism often supports an agenda, particularly to chip away at the established political, cultural, or moral order. This usually is phrased in terms of personal autonomy, doing your own thing, and all the rest of it. Declaring something to be a right, when no legal basis exists for it, is a common rhetorical trick. They’ll state “I have the right to X” rather than “I should be granted the special right to do X“; then the legal system’s nonrecognition of X is spun as an atrocity equivalent to the Mongols wiping out Baghdad. In Rights Talk, Mary Ann Glendon notes that this isn’t constructive:
Discourse about rights has become the principal language that we use in public settings to discuss weighty questions of both right and wrong, but time and again it proves inadequate, or leads to a standoff of one right against another. The problem is not, however, as some contend, with the very notion of rights, or with our strong rights tradition. It is with a new version of rights discourse that has achieved dominance over the past thirty years.
Pat Buchanan, in Right From the Beginning, points out that such demands on society aren’t about neutrality, but rather to promote an agenda:
Traditionalists and conservatives have as much right as secularists to see our values written into law, to have our beliefs serve as the basis for federal legislation… [We must not stop fighting] until we have re-created a government and an America that conforms, as close as possible, to our image of the Good Society, if you will, a Godly country… Someone’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours? Whose country is it, anyway? Whose moral code says we may interfere with a man’s right to be a practicing bigot, but must respect and protect his right to be a practicing sodomite?
Jonah Goldberg argues that society needs to promote its values, rather than maintain a wishy-washy posture of neutrality:
Look, the libertarian critique of the state is useful, valuable, important, and much needed. But, in my humble opinion, the libertarian critique of the culture—“established authority”—tends to be exactly what I’ve always said it was: a celebration of personal liberty over everything else, and in many (but certainly not all) respects indistinguishable from the more asinine prattle we hear from the Left. […]
Without character-forming institutions which softly coerce (persuade) kids—and remind adults—to revere our open, free, and tolerant culture over others, we run the risk of having them embrace any old creed or ideology that they find most rewarding or exciting, including some value systems which take it on blind faith that America is evil and, say, Cuba or Osama bin Laden is wonderful. That’s precisely why campuses today are infested with so many silly radicals, and why libertarians in their own way encourage the dismantling of the soapboxes they stand on.
Finally, Theodore Dalrymple argues elsewhere against drug legalization:
The philosophic argument is that, in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others. […]
In practice, of course, it is exceedingly difficult to make people take all the consequences of their own actions… Addiction to, or regular use of, most currently prohibited drugs cannot affect only the person who takes them—and not his spouse, children, neighbors, or employers.
Indeed, making people deal with the repercussions of their mistakes is quite a vexing problem. This is especially so when society continually bails people out after they screw up their lives, and a social taboo (non-judgmentalism) exists against warning them of future consequences.
Those who demand that we refrain from judgment often refer to it as “shaming”. The unstated assumption is that this is always a bad thing. However, if it makes people think twice about making bad choices and messing up their lives, it’s actually a good thing. The tension between individual desires and what’s necessary for society to function properly is difficult to resolve; ultimately, these are legitimate matters to be resolved by public debate and the legislative process.
Where does judgment come from? It’s the product of the rational mind. When someone advocates refraining from judgment, it’s a demand to turn off part of your brain. To hell with that!