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.

Comments 14

  1. Michael,
    The social worker and I are teaching the students at our school interpersonal skills and two things we start with are a) no one can disagree with how you feel and b) people can disagree with your opinion. We go on to teach them to express their opinions in a concrete and respectful way in hopes that the relationships in their lives will benefit from this.

  2. As a teacher, there is much accountability. James 3:1 says:
    not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.

    In this case Mr Josephson, be in peace that I encourage you to encourage your readers to test what you say as truthful if there is any question about your authenticity and truth. Take the focus off of you. The Word says in John 4:1:

    4 My loved ones, I warn you: do not trust every spirit. Instead, examine them carefully to determine if they come from God, because the corrupt world is filled with the voices of many false prophets.

    In that way noone can come against you unless there is error in your words and thoughts. Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. BUt if you speak truth, there is no condemnation then in the words you speak.

    John 8:31-32

    Jesus (to the new Jewish believers): 31 If you hear My voice and abide in My word, you are truly My disciples; 32 you will know the truth, and that truth will give you freedom.

    So let your word be a mimc of the Word of God WHICH IS the cornerstone, the reference point, and the “litmus test”. The Word contains the formula for success as Joshua so very well says in Josh 1:8…

    8 Let the words from the book of the law be always on your lips. Meditate on them day and night so that you may be careful to live by all that is written in it. If you do, as you make your way through this world, you will prosper and always find success.

    Big Amen!!!!

    B.I.B.L.E.= Book of Instruction Before Leaving Earth!!!!!!!!

  3. I am the Father of 3 Great Sons. Our youngest has been coaching (football) and teaching just over 16 years. His biggest disappointment is to watch other coaches act like this guy from Rutgers. He always said quote:” Dad I get more out of a player by putting my arm around his shoulder to discuss improvement etc.”
    I am surprised that one of his players (Rice Coach) did not punch him out! Naturally this would have led to losing scholarship, and this was probably the only thing that stood between act of violence and taking the crap this coach handed out etc..

  4. I think there is a distinction between making judgments and being judgmental. (I am also an Ayn Rand fan.) The word “judgmental” has been corrupted from “judgmental” to “too judgmental” to “prejudiced”. As a linguistics major, I can appreciate that the meanings of words change over time but I do sometimes bemoan certain changes. (Another example is the current fuss over the legal term “illegal aliens” which some people decided was racist so it changed to “illegal immigrants” which has now apparently also become racist so the AP has gone to “people who immigrate illegally” -or at least until that is perceived as negative.)
    Human beings do make judgments; you are correct in saying the issue is whether or not it is always a good idea to express them or not. And we need good judgment to help us make good decisions. I think at times, some accuse others of being judgmental just because they do not like the opinion expressed and that is unfair fighting. I don’t ALWAYS agree with you, Michael, but I do appreciate the rational thought you bring to your commentaries.

    1. Post

      And i appreciate your thoughtful comments. Ayn Rand said – nonjudgmentalness is like giving others a moral blank check. I do agree we need to make judgments, including moral judgement, but it is tricky area.

      1. Michael, sometimes I don’t agree with you, but I am convinced that you have good intentions and that you want to work towards making this a better world. I wouldn’t be worried about criticism. People criticize us for different reasons but we can always learn something from what they say, either get a glimpse into a different perspective or point of view we had not considered before, or we can get a deper understanding regarding the fact that, often, what people say about others reveals more about the critic than the person or idea being criticized. Keep up the good work, Michael. If more people did what you do, we would learn to be better thinkers, we would be encouraged to reflect on important issues, and we would have access to a good example of a measure of civility. Thank you for what you do.

  5. Michael,
    Using the race card to win an argument or even worse to enforce a law against another person or group is every bit as wrong; certain people (becoming more and more) have figured out that through the media, twitter, face book, etc…. they can ruin someone’s life simply because they were offended, in a free society being offended by what someone said or did is a choice; we can chose to be offended or we can chose not to be offended. Yes words can be hurtful at any age we just need to be mature enough to not let those things ruin our day and we as a society need to not allow the reverse to ruin people lives because of a thing said in passing or simply because we don’t agree with their point of view.

  6. Michael,
    I am a college sports coach and writer. I have written two books but my passion for many years was the weekly syndicated humor/insight column that I wrote. I was often asked why I didn’t interject my personal opinion more often in my columns, especially as my readership and influence grew. Your words in this blog describe my feelings as accurately as any words could. I am not obligated to share my opinion, especially when it could be unnecessarily divisive. But I am obligated to share when there is a moral necessity to right a wrong I feel led to confront, regardless of the popularity of my position. I also feel that sometimes people draw their own wise conclusions when they are presented with a balanced, objective analysis instead of a fiery, passionate stance. Perhaps I am given a platform as a writer as a means to inspire people to deeper thought for themselves, not to create foot soldiers defending my thoughts. However, I do agree that sometimes we all have to take a stand, especially when our deepest convictions can no longer be contained.

    1. A question, Michael. At what point does an opinion become moral judgement? An individuals views, opinions and bias, for or against, is not always fact. It may merely be an opinion. And that begs the question, are we all entitled to our opinion? How you react to the persons statement depends on whether you agree or disagree with the individual. It may be as simple as that.

  7. Without a moral compass we end up trapped in a tangle of opinions, lost in a sea of blank checks or wandering aimlessly in the vagueness of neutrality. This is how we live because we refuse to see God of the Bible as the source of absolute truth, tested and proven by time. However, if we accept the One who establishes the moral standard that we all must live by, we can then begin to understand that even before we came to be, it was, “all good”. Life as we know it was intended for the individual and society as a whole to co-exist in harmony.

  8. And why not go beyond moralism and jugments up, up .. unto that world of light
    and love where only peace beyond understanding exists, No need to judge only to love.

  9. I would like to take a moment to thank you for years and years of character building that you have either given to me or helped enlighten me with. Your last paragraph has really hit home to me. I have two young children that my husband and I are adopting. When it comes to their friends we are very cautious (you are the company you keep). Our twelve year old daughter has a friend that comes from a respectable enough family but is in my opinion very disrespectful, and entitled and encourages her to be the same way which doesn

  10. My observation is that most judgmental are those who want everyone to be tolerant of others. That seems backwards.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing the current plight of injustice that you are having to bear due to the apathy that exists in our society. Your commentary brought to mind one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr:

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