OBSERVATION: The precept ‘Judge not that ye be not judged’…is an abdication of moral responsibility. It is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself. – Ayn Rand

When I graduated law school in 1967 it was popular to rail against people who made moral judgments. We called finger wagging moralists presuming to judge people and life styles as right or wrong “moral imperialists” and adopted, instead, a form of ethical relativism implying that there was no true universal right or wrong, just equally valid or invalid opinions. After all, we reasoned, they eat dogs in Singapore and burn widows in India (they still did in 1967) , who are we to judge? As is evident from my commentaries and advocacy of ethics and virtue, I changed my view on this. The change began when I became a father burdened with the responsibility of

giving my son a moral code and a basis for distinguishing right from wrong.

I still get nervous at people who are quick to label other people, their political beliefs or lifestyles  as immoral but I no longer accept the notion that making moral judgments is wrong.

My thinking was influenced  by philosopher and novelist Any Rand (Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead) and her famous essay “The Virtue Of Selfishness.”

While  I disagree with her basic thesis and her condemnation of altruism, Ms. Rand’s discussion of the issue of moral judgement is, in my view, exceptionally well-reasoned and persuasive. Here is an excerpt:

“There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.”

“The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is ‘Judge, and be prepared to be judged.’”

“The opposite of moral neutrality is not a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action, or person that does not fit one’s mood, one’s memorized slogans, or one’s snap judgment of the moment. Indiscriminate tolerance and indiscriminate condemnation are not two opposites; they are two variants of the same evasion. To declare that ‘everybody is white’ or ‘everybody is black’ or ‘everybody is neither white nor black but gray’ is not a moral judgment but an escape from the responsibility of moral judgment.”

“To judge means to evaluate a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard. It is not an easy task. It is not a task that can be performed automatically by one’s feelings, “instincts,” or hunches. It is a task that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought. It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles; it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person. When one pronounces moral judgment, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer ‘Why?’ and to prove one’s case – to oneself and to any rational inquirer.”

“Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.”

“It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you, whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?”

What do you think?


Comments 6

  1. I don’t disagree with the basic tenet of the post – in fact, I quite agree. I think Jesus would agree as well. So, I wish to defend the gospel citation. Matthew 7:1 taken out of context could be misconstrued as promoting moral neutrality.

    But the text needs to be considered in light of the Mt 7: 1-5, which concludes with “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, good judgement must be applied to the self first. The Jerome Biblical Commentary [JBC] suggests that it is a warning to those who practice “acute observation of the faults of others combined with complacency with one’s own character.” The JBC goes on to say, “Men must judge one another, but they can be expect to be called to responsibility for their judgments.”

    Mt 7:1 could be translated as “Do not judge harshly, and you will not be harshly judged, ” meaning that you would be judged fairly, but not harshly if you were not harsh in your judgments. The gospels are about justice. True justice requires that we hold people accountable for their actions. Judgment is required in a just society.

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  2. This is a wonderful, solid, and thought-provoking discussion! Love the focus on this often mis-understood and overlooked (or as Rand says “abdicated”) area of the human experience.

    One additional caveat I’d like to make to Christopher’s great review of the full passage from Matthew is that this comment of Jesus was actually an attempt to get the ‘religious’ of the day to stop holding others accountable to a standard that they themselves couldn’t even possibly live up to. It’s actually less about judging others and more about avoiding personal hypocrisy.

    It’s unfortunate that this focus of the passage is often overlooked because it is a concept that could really be used in our world today. Look at the depths to which we now justify prying in to the lives of political leaders, celebrities, and even our coworkers. How often do people find personal joy in exposing and exploiting the failures of others… when they themselves would never be able to stand up under similar scrutiny? In doing so, how does that make us any different from those whom Jesus spoke these words to 2,000 years ago?

    Jesus’ instruction here isn’t that judging others is bad; so long as such judgment is valid, fact-based, and just. But judging that is based in emotion, perception, assumption, and condescension is hypocrisy in its truest form and THAT is what we all should strive to avoid giving in to.

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  3. I sincerely wish that we could count on each other to disagree with or judge another person in a respectful, civil manner without resorting to condemnation of the person we disagree with. However, as we have seen displayed many times over recently in a very public way by our elected officials in congress, viewpoints are often so polarized that emotions take over and judgemental attitudes prevail. We tend to mimic the behavior we see. I believe there is a growing consensus for more civil discourse, and I would dare say even a less judgemental attitude toward others, because of the level of polarization and disagreement that we see in society today. Because of this, I truely believe that now is the time to be less judgemental, less critical of others and instead try to be more understanding in an effort to understand one another better.

  4. I like the discussion of the verse in Matthew and would add a thought. There is a huge difference between judging a person and judging an act. I cannot know what led a person to commit a certain act, so judgment of people must focus on protecting society, not on determining something about that person’s moral character. But I have every responsibility to figure out what is right or wrong in a situation and to advocate for what is right.

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