COMMENTARY 980.1: Who Am I to Judge? – The Ethics of Moral Judgments

Almost every week someone indignantly attacks my integrity because I offended them with a real or perceived opinion they didn’t like. The underlying assumption is that stating an opinion on any controversial matter violates the sacred duty of neutrality.

First, I’m a teacher and a commentator, not a judge or journalist. Although I strive mightily to be objective, I don’t feel obligated to be neutral. Objectivity implies impartiality, detachment, and independence in evaluating evidence; it doesn’t preclude expressing judgment.

When I think my opinion might matter, I’ve criticized politicians of both parties; condemned shady business practices, racial prejudice, torture, and the denial of due process; and commended admirable words, actions, and moving events irrespective of political implications.

When I was young, I thought it was wrong to be judgmental, regardless of the issue. Later, I came across an observation by philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand who argued that nonjudgmentalness is an abdication of moral responsibility, an exchange of moral blank checks – I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t be a good father or effective teacher unless I made moral judgments. Now, making and encouraging you to make moral judgments is part of what I do.

But while there’s a responsibility to make moral judgments for ourselves, we need to be careful in deciding whether and when to express them.

For example, my primary goal is to prod you to deeper thinking; it’s not to persuade you to my way of thinking. I’d rather build bridges than walls. Thus, I usually keep my personal convictions to myself.

Before you express a moral judgment, therefore, ask yourself what you hope to accomplish and what you’re likely to accomplish.

My opinion: Whether we’re talking politics or instructing our kids, we should use restraint in expressing moral judgments. And we should do so in a way that promotes respect, reflection, and discourse rather than resentment, resistance, and disagreement. That’s not so easy.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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