Déardaoin, Eanáir 06, 2011

Quick Thought on Judgement

When I was a teenager I would get offended by claims that 'we shouldn't judge others'. It struck me as PC nonsense, back in the days before I realized that complaints of political correctness were themselves the nonsense claims of those who confused dickishness for courage. And I myself was one of many who confused non-judgment with weakness and amorality. How could one possibly believe anything at all without passing judgment on personal traits and behaviors that one found objectionable.

As I've grown older I've come to realize that 'you shouldn't judge' isn't quite literal, it's more of a simplification for minds that may not be mature enough to grasp the nuances of its truth, it is indeed a perfectly valid and necessary moral tenant. The problem that the statement is meant to condemn isn't judgment or condemnation per se. Obviously we can't help but to assess the actions of others as either generally right or wrong. The problem is the notion that our own assessment of what others do is the ultimate point behind what they do; the half-conscious feeling that bad behavior exists for the purpose of showing us why such behavior is wrong and making us feel good about ourselves for not doing it.

But morality isn't about being rewarded for doing right and punished for doing wrong; neither at the physical, emotional or spiritual level. Morality is only about doing what is right or wrong, period. When there is a person who is suffering at least partially because of some foolishness he brought upon himself and now needs help getting out, then the fact that he is a bad person who did wrong is always secondary to the fact that he is a suffering person who needs help.

This is what was so pernicious about that old witch Dr. Laura, and to a lesser extent what continues to be wrong with daytime talk shows and reality TV to this day. Say there's a teenage girl you know, either in your extended family or maybe the daughter of a friend, who suddenly finds yourself pregnant by some dull mook who couldn't raise a rock. You'd be disappointed in the girl, and probably tell her so, but you wouldn't browbeat her, because that obviously would do nothing to improve the situation, and the fact that this person you know and care about was reckless is simply unimportant compared to the question of how you can help. Obviously this same girl wouldn't get the slightest bit of help from the likes of Dr. Laura or Jerry Springer. The entire purpose of such shows is to turn the failings of flesh-and-blood people who suffer and are loved into abstractions. They are now morality fables, enduring the hosts verbal abuse so that the audience can feel assured of their own goodness, so that the suburban megachurch crowd that made up Dr. Laura's audience can reassure themselves that they are the only people on earth not covered in filth and that society would be lost without their control of it.

It was a George Will column I read today that made me think of all this. He reviews a book about America's 'loss of self-control' and dwells a bit on the obesity problem in the lower classes. It bothered me greatly, the way this leading light of the 'taxing the rich is the ultimate evil' crowd was reproaching the little people for their lack of austerity.

Environmental stimuli and our genetic inheritances circumscribe self-control, but Akst insists that we are not merely fleshy robots responding to them. Skepticism about free will has, however, become convenient and soothing, because exculpatory behaviors once considered signs of bad character have been drained of moral taint by being medicalized as "addictions."

This of course is a false dichotomy. To describe a bad habit as an addiction does nothing to excuse the addict from moral culpability, and I think that deep down George Will probably knows this full well. His real problem is that he resents any hint of a suggestion that he should feel pity for the weak and addicted instead of feeling superior to them, and this resentment is what the Right's imaginary war between 'personal responsibility' and 'blaming society' has always been about. Whatsoever you do for the least or my people might make your hands dirty.


Blake said...

It depends on the standard of your morality. In any case, if you hold any moral values whatsoever, refraining from judgment would only subvert your own beliefs. Judgment doesn't necessarily mean going out of one's way to morally condemn another, but it does entail consistently distinguishing the good from bad in accordance with your own moral code.

Joshua Beran said...

True, and as I mentioned in the post the problem isn't judgement per se, interpreting behavior as good or bad is almost instinctive. The problem lies in sensing that your judgement of an action and the person doing it is the central point, instead of dealing with the consequenses and preventing further harm to people.

Blake said...

I see. That would certainly depend on context, eg whether or not the person you are judging has any value to you, the weight of that persons particular moral "infraction", etc.

I can't say I know a whole lot about the shows you referred, but I wouldn't be surprised if people might get their "kicks" watching these shows to reaffirm their own moral "cleanliness".

The judging of the action and person is certainly the point of moral judgment. Dealing with the consequences is an entirely different act, and depends on the context. The proper way to address the situation is to condemn the act, state your own moral convictions, and move on. That is to say your doing so is even relevant or necessary.

However.. I agree that hounding and repudiating a pregnant teen is as morally condemnable as it is impractical. In fact, I don't find her situation itself as morally condemnable, but like I said, it depends on your moral code.