Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair

#16: Is It Wrong To Judge?

January 10, 2024 Jarrod Blair Episode 16
Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair
#16: Is It Wrong To Judge?
Show Notes Transcript

People often say things like "you shouldn't judge" or "don't be so judgmental," but what exactly does this criticism mean? Is it really immoral to form a belief about whether someone's actions were right or wrong? I think not. So in this episode, I will try to convince you that judging is actually a valuable tool for leading a virtuous life, and I'll also address some important worries people have about judging that we must be careful to avoid, like making judgments that are ill-informed or when we let our judgments cloud our entire view of a person. 

Outro music: "Jazzy Abstract Beat" by Coma-Media on Pixabay

Intro music: "Lofi Heavy Chill Bass & Keyboard" by Phill Dillow on Pixabay

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Welcome to a new year of Virtue Vibes, the podcast where we think hard about how to be good. I’m your host, Jarrod Blair, and today we’re going to talk about the value of judging.  

This is something that’s been on my mind for a while, probably since middle school. I've been hearing people say things like “don’t judge” or “you’re so judgmental” for a long time, and I sometimes wonder what exactly these critiques are supposed to mean. Many people are hurt and angered by the thought of being judged, and many people believe that judging is an awful thing to do, but I’m not so sure. Is it really immoral for me to form any judgment at all about the actions of others? Because if so, boy oh boy am I in trouble. 

I have a dirty little secret to tell you; I’m judging people’s actions all the time. In fact, I think making judgments about the actions of others is an incredibly important tool for leading a virtuous life.  

So in this episode, I want to explain my reasoning to you. I’ll start by sharing what I mean by the term “judge,” and I’ll explain why I think that judging is so valuable. After that, I’ll consider some really important objections to judging, but I’ll show how I think we can address these worries without giving up the practice of judging altogether. Lastly, I’ll consider some bad reasons why people don’t like to be judged, and I’ll share why I think they should reassess the value of judging.  

So that’s the plan, let’s jump right into it.  




So to begin, I want to share what exactly I mean by the term judge. To me, judging is simply the act of thinking through someone’s actions and deciding whether what they did was good or bad. Sometimes these judgments are about artistic matters, like when we judge a musician to be good, or we say that a painting is just ok, or when we say that someone’s clothing style is bad. These are largely a matter of taste and personal preference. But there’s another kind of judgment that has to do with the proper way to live one's life.  This happens when we judge actions to be right or wrong, permissible or impermissible, morally good or evil. It’s these kinds of ethical judgments, rather than those artistic and subjective ones, that I want to focus on today.  

Also, sometimes the idea of judgment carries a connotation of punishment along with it, like when a legal judge decides when someone is guilty and them gives them jail time, or when the Bible says, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In this episode, I’m only using the term judge to refer to the act of deciding whether some action was right or wrong, and I’m not talking at all about what we should do to them in response to their action. So I won’t be talking about punishment, forgiveness, rewards, or anything like that.  

So, as I mentioned before, my mind is judging the actions of other people all the time, and I think it’s great! If this is all it means to be judgmental, then I’m all for it. That might sound weird, so I’m going to try and explain my reasoning as best as I can.  

I'm someone who spends huge amounts of time observing and trying to process through the actions of other people. As a child, I watched the decisions my older sister made that got her spanked or grounded, and I thought about whether she really was wrong for doing what she did. In high school, I thought about whether my friends were wrong for cheating on tests or homework, and what exactly made their actions wrong. And today, I run an ethics podcast where I think about what’s ethically good and bad to do, and my ideas don’t come from nowhere. In order to work on these topics, I’m actually pulling from judgments that I've made throughout the years, as well as the judgments that I’ve seen other people make in conversations, books, movies, music, etc.  

I’m doing this because the decisions and experiences of other people are some of the best sources of ethical information we have available to us. People are constantly making choices and testing different ways of living all around you, and you can observe their successes and mistakes, and harvest valuable ethical lessons by thinking about the goodness or badness of their choices. Once you’ve formed a judgment, you can use it when you’re in a similar situation down the road. For example, if you find out that your friend is cheating on their spouse, this could inspire you to think about what exactly is wrong with their actions, and once you’ve formed a judgment about that, then later on when you’re feeling tempted to do something similar, you'll be better prepared to make a good decision yourself, rather than just giving into whatever impulses you feel at the time. Another example would be when you observe the impact a great listener can have on their friends, and how they make anyone they're talking to feel like the most important person in the world. After seeing them in action, you might make judgment about their conversational style, and be inspired to implement some of it in your own conversations.  

So my point here is simply that judgments can help us to store bits of wisdom that could come in handy later on. By the time you’re going through something similar, you have a judgment you can pull from ready to go. This is why I think judging the actions of others is a powerful tool that can help us to lead a virtuous life.  




Now that I’ve shared why I think making judgments about the actions of others can be helpful, let’s look at some important criticisms of judging. Here’s something you’ve probably heard before after someone has been told that they did something wrong, “You don’t know me!” or “What do you know about my life?” or “You don’t know what I’ve been through.”  In other words, the person judging an action is being criticized for their lack of knowledge about the particulars of the situation at hand.  

I think this is an important objection to the act of judging, because it's often true that our judgments are made with a limited amount of data. But instead of giving up judging all together, perhaps we could just not form our judgments too quickly, or we could hold them loosely, with an open-mindedness and a willingness to hear more about a person’s particular story. Rather than quickly making a rigid judgment and sticking to it, we could ask this person to explain their actions, which might make us adjust our judgement. Also, we don’t have to always share our judgments, and it’s probably wise to pick and choose your battles. For your family members and loved ones, you're probably in a much better position to know what’s going on, so your judgment will be better informed, and you will hopefully be a trusted person in their life, with means your judgment will be more important to them. But if you’re engaging with someone who you don’t know all that well, it’s ok to form a loose judgment without immediately spouting it out, unless they seem open and willing to hear it. In other words, the more you know about a situation, the better, and more useful, your judgments will be.  

Another good objection to judging is that it causes you to write people off too quickly, and being judgmental can stop you from loving them. I think there is some truth to this, especially since our minds so readily notice someone's flaws. But again, I don’t think we have to stop making judgments about people altogether to counteract this. Instead, I think we should remember to think about people wholistically and make a real effort to see the good in them as well. I made this same point at the end of episode 4, titled “Compassionate Disagreement,” but I think it applies here as well even when you're not in the middle of a disagreement. People are mixed bags, and so it’s important not to let a negative judgment about someone's actions stop you from seeing other good features about them. They might have a terrible drinking problem, which you have formed a negative judgment about, but they might also have a deep love for their kids, or a great sense of humor, or they might be a fiercely loyal friend, and by recognizing these good qualities, it will be easier to maintain a sense of compassion towards them.  

Another criticism of judging people give is encapsulated in the phrase, “who are you to judge me”? The idea here is that when people judge others, they are unjustly elevating themselves to a position of authority, and perhaps they are being hypocritical because they too are flawed in other ways, making them unqualified to judge. I would agree that sometimes people wield their judgments in a way than unjustly elevates their own worth and diminishes the worth of other people, and I would agree that everyone is flawed in some way or another, but I don’t think this is enough of a reason to give up on the act of making judgments entirely. Again, all I mean by judging is simply thinking through someone’s actions and deciding whether what they did was good or bad. This can be done without unjustly diminishing someone's worth or elevating your own, and it can be done even by a flawed beings like us. Our judgments definitely won’t be perfect, and some of our own flaws might even cloud our judgments, but we still have to try.  

Imagine a world where everyone refused to judge the actions of others entirely. And I don’t just mean that they’re slower, or more careful, or more charitable in their judgments. I mean no judgments at all, nothing, nada, zilch. This might sound nice on the surface, but really think about it. When a child throws their toy truck at his sister, the parents simply look and say “hmm, that’s interesting, but who am I to judge.” When a car is getting broken into, onlookers simply observe the action and say “hmm, that’s different. But let’s not be judgmental.” Or when mother Theresa gives her time to the needy and the poor, onlookers say, “those sure are some actions you could do, but I don’t want to say that they're good actions, because that too would be judging.  

This kind of a world is clearly undesirable. So even though people are often too quick to judge, and too confident in their judgments, and even though they unjustly put down others and elevate themselves, and forget their own shortcomings too often, this doesn’t mean that we should stop making judgments entirely. Making judgments about the actions of others can be a useful tool that helps us to live reflective and ethical lives.  




So far I’ve shared why making judgments is helpful, and I’ve addressed some really good objections to the practice of judging that I think we should accommodate. Now I wanna talk about some bad reasons people don't like judging.  

Firstly, I think people’s pride gets in the way. Most of us like to think of ourselves as relatively good people, so when someone makes a negative judgment about our actions, it’s easy for us to become bitter and defensive. Our pride stops us from being curious about their judgment and instead makes us want to shut it down completely. 

Secondly, I think many people have a real lack of intellectual humility, and they don't think that they could be in the wrong. They also don’t think that other people could have ethical insights that they’re missing, which is why they never ask questions or seek advice. This lack of intellectual curiosity about ethical issues makes them quick to write off the ethical judgments of others.  

I think these issues of pride and intellectual humility can be addressed if we remember that we are flawed beings, and that the judgments other people make about our actions can help us to course correct and to see something that we are missing. People's judgments will often be wrong, but by staying curious and open to them, we will be able to engage with a few of them that can really help us to see the light.  

Also, I think it’s important to remember that just because someone has made a judgment about some of our actions, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are making a judgment about us as a whole. It’s true that many people do write others off based on one negative judgment, but try to seek out those people who are able to make judgments while still viewing you in a wholistic light, and who are able to see the good in you and to help you become the best version of yourself.  

In summary, I think the process of forming judgments about other people's actions is extremely helpful for living an ethical life. There are definitely a number of ways that judging can be done incorrectly, but if done right, in humility, and in open minded conversation with others, these judgments can help us to navigate our lives in a virtuous manner.  

So that’s all I have for ya. Hopefully that explains why I think judging is such a valuable tool, but I know that this will sound pretty strange to a lot of people. This is a topic where I know I’m saying something quite different, and I very well might be missing something, so if you heard anything in my reasoning that sounds strange or if you think there’s some problem with judging that I haven’t considered, feel free to reach out! I love talking about this stuff, so I’d be happy to hear from you. I hope you’re having a great year so far, and thanks so much for tuning in to Virtue Vibes. See you soon.