I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how often it seems like people who hold strong opinions about issues are accused of being “judgmental,” and the related assumption that making judgments is by definition a bad thing.

A book I am reading says this (and I will quote very briefly to avoid copyright problems:

Leaving aside the blaming of “intellectuals” and the conclusion that society is currently in “a sorry state,” what do Dopers think of the relative value of making personal and societal judgments? Is there something to be said for the old implicit punishment of bad behavior by “shaming,” meaning none of your neighbors would associate with you? Is there societal value in the concept of evil (regardless of whether it exists or not as a philosophical proposition)? Or are we better off as a society by refusing to judge, much less penalize, any behavior as so egregious it is simply “beyond the pale”?

What think ye?

I’m think we have to judge to a certain extent. Some moral judgements are best left to higher authority. But if someone breaks the law, they should be judged.

I think that’s what you’re asking.

lest ye be human.

Human beings do form judgments. Personally, I think it is an ethical responsiblity to judge both the actions of others and one’s own actions. To withhold judgment is to either deny involvement with the person/action in question or to abdicate the responsibility incumbent in that involvement.

I also believe that all judgment must be made from an empathic base. If I am unwilling (or unable) to empathize with your circumstances, then I have no solid basis from which to build a fair opinion of your actions. I think that what many people decry as “judgmentalism” is what I would decry as “judgment without empathy”.

That does not prevent me from judging that maiming people with mail bombs in an effort to combat the growing influence of technogical artifacts in human lives is an evil act. Ted was wrong. His actions deserve both condemnation and punishment.

I can only be secure in that judgment, though, if I first make the effort to understand the drives behind those actions.[sup]1[/sup]

[sub]1. For the detail oriented, please assume that human empathy and understanding are necessarily bounded by our isolated phenomenological reference frames and that every judgment therefore carries with it an inate level of uncertainty. That should not disuade us from making judgments, nor from being secure in those judgments. It should make us willing to revise our judgments as our understanding evolves.[/sub]

Well put, Spiritus

I would also add another distinction that seems to have been left out. This concerns individuals or society acting on their judgements. this requires a higher degree of certainty and a greater amount of potential harm than merely sitting at home and thinking that so-and-so is a jerk. (The actions of the president of NU must be considered in this context. He acknowledged that he had very strongly held opinions about the holocaust denier. But he felt that the standard for him taking action to impose these views on others had not been met).

Jodi knows well my thoughts on this subject already, but for the edification of others…

You have to be able to judge right from wrong. It keeps you out of prison. It keeps you from getting your ass kicked. Et cetera, et cetera.

Warning others when they are doing wrong isn’t a bad idea either. If they listen to you, it may keep them out of prison, out of harm’s way, etc.

But, if you do evil to those who do evil, you are just sinking to their level. You might be the king of the hill but there’s a danger of being usurped, temporarily but permanently – even if it’s only some wingnut with a U-Haul full of fertilizer at your fortress gate.

But you’ll be avenged, then the nut will be avenged, then someone will avenge the avengers. Until all hell breaks loose, or not.


Interesting OP. Absolutely we should judge personal behaviors and societal ills by our standards of right and wrong. And I think this happens all the time, even among those intellectuals Gelernter believes abandoned the concept of evil.

One reason, IMHO, that “judgmentalism” is so often considered a bad trait, comes not from any common denial that evil exists, but from common misapprehension of the idea that people’s behavior patterns are developed in large part from parental and societal influences that are outside of their control. Many people take this as some sort of requirement for society to make allowances for sociopathic behaviors, but I don’t believe the idea of psycho-social development excludes the idea of person accountability in any way.

Another reason those who freely express strong opinions are often termed judgemental is possibly because they so often include absolute moral statements in communicating those opinions. (Polycarp makes the point more eloquently than I can in this thread.) But this denial of other possible ways of thinking does not itself preclude an accurate evaluation of “good” and “bad,” it just makes one’s pronouncements come across as condescending or inflexible.

Jodi, you bring up a good point.

I think there’s a difference between evaluating views and your own actions (acceptable uses of judgment) and standing in judgment over others and their actions. I’m quite guilty of judging those who judge others; I’ve condemned them for it on this board, and been called out for being myself judgmental. I’m quite well aware of it.

The distinction, to me, is in that absolutism that my Pit rant was about and which Xenophon eloquently deals with. I think that everyone has some wrong ideas (including me) and some right ones, does some things wrong and some things right. And that one can learn from others. Therein lies the difference. You’ve taught me stuff, David’s taught me stuff, Gaudere’s taught me stuff, Spiritus Mundi’s taught me stuff, even FriendofGod has taught me stuff. And I hope I’ve returned the favor.


How does that play out if you’re dealing with someone who, oh, commits perjury, or cheats on his wife? (Or both?) If you can say “I can see why you might have decided to lie/cheat/steal/whatever, but you were still wrong to do so,” how is that any more valuable than just saying “you were wrong to do so”? In other words, why must I empathize with the impulse to do wrong as a prerequisite for judging that wrong has been done?

Nice footnote, BTW; you oughta be a lawyer. :wink:


But then when is societal censure justified? When the action is really wrong, or when the vast majority of society is of the opinion it is wrong? I mean, I read about things like a guy (or woman) who leaves his wife (or husband) and three little kids (cue “You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me, Lucille”), and people say “well, who are we to judge that as wrong?” Who are we to not judge it as wrong?

This to me is why this is a classic example. If we as a society cannot decide that denying the Holocaust is wrong and/or stupid, what possible action would rise to the level of wrongness/stupidity to merit our censure?

This is what I don’t understand. What’s wrong with the occasional absolute moral statement? Unjustifiable homocide is wrong. Cheating on a spouse you’ve vowed fidelity to is wrong. Betraying your country for money is wrong. Anytime we make the determination that anything is “wrong,” we are making a moral judgment. If I refuse to entertain the idea that homocide/infidelity/treason are generally right, am I being inflexible? Maybe. But under what theory am I required to entertain the idea that they might be right – despite all I know and believe to the contrary – or risk denying “other possible ways of thinking”?

I appreciate the responses and encourage others. This is not really a debate in the usual sense, as I have no position to defend. It’s more of a solicitation of opinions, since I’ve been sort of wrestling with this issue and am trying to clarify my own thinking on it.

I can’t improve on the words of Spiritus, but I will pick on a minor point:

Maybe, but moral relativism has been around for a while. See http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/m/m-relati.htm

I might also point out another aspect of US liberal conventional wisdom: true evil exists, as revealed by the sorry acts of genocide committed in the 20th century, and should be identified as such.

Great question though.


But surely there is a time and a place to sit in judgment of others. You know, that whole rule of law thing.

Does that mean that your reaction to news of a pedophile who killed his victims, cooked them, and fed them to the neighbors (true story/nightmare/uproar from right down the road) would be, “well, it’s not for me to judge”? I don’t mean legally (unless you’re on the jury); I mean morally. (And, no, I don’t think that would really be your reaction; I’m just trying to flesh out where the boundaries are between “judging:okay” and “judging:not okay,” and I don’t believe – and don’t think you believe – that “judging:never okay” is the way to go.)

But surely there are actions, legal or not, that we can decide as a society – as a group of moral individuals – are wrong. Surely there is a point at which we can say “that just ain’t right.” My question is: How do we find that point? Or if we refuse to pinpoint it, are we as a society abdicating morality altogether?

I seriously doubt I’ve taught you one-tenth what I’ve learned from you. You know I admire you enormously, even when I’m not behaving as I imagine you would prefer me to.


Great link! Is there a word for the opposite of ‘moral relativism’? I tried to put in ‘moral absolutism,’ but it didn’t have that.

Isn’t that refuted by college professor shrugging off Holocaust denial by saying “who decides what is distasteful?”?

I see the question not as one of “value” but of “evaluation”. How do we evaluate whether an action is wrong? One way is to simply codify a list of actions, isolated from circumstances or motivations, and declare them wrong. Many people find comfort in such a schema. I do not. I find the ability to differentiate between self-defense and murder, for example, to be an ethical necessity. If truthful testimony would lead to a greater injustice <insert unlikely totalitarian example here>, then I would not consider the perjury an unethical act. If a marriage contract were not freely entered into (or maintained) then I might not consider cheating to be an unethical act.

My point, really, is that I have no basis for forming a judgment until I establish an empathic understanding of the event/individual.

You do not need to empathize with the impulse to do wrong. You need to empathize with the individual who might have done wrong.

Thanks. I considered it, actually, but I’m afraid my intense dislike for structured education made such a path too tortuous to bear. Luckily, I have these boards to serve as an outlet for my pedantry and argumentative nature. :wink:

Jodi, I don’t take what you have to say lightly, but I seriously doubt you’re ever accused of being “too judgemental” by proclaiming unjustifiable homicide and treason to be wrong. When I talk about moral absolutists, I mean those from whom we hear such arguable statements as “welfare recipients are freeloaders” or “homosexuals are deviants” or “anyone who votes Republican hates the poor”. While you could hardly be termed as priggish or inflexible for believing infidelity to be generally immoral, it would certainly be fair to slap the label of “judgemental” on you for saying premarital sex is wicked (or for the converse “saving it for marriage is stupid”).

The major difference lies in the allowances you’re willing to give for the context in which morally ambiguous actions are made.

Mostly it’s a question of being fair-minded. Context is usually of some importance: the example of, say, stealing a bottle of milk for your child comes to mind. To consider possible extenuating circumstances requires some degree of empathy.

And it’s not all that difficult: Freedom2 gives an example here: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=46954 (third post from top). Admittedly, the empathy is somewhat implicit.

In more general terms, considering (and perhaps absorbing) the perspective of your hypothetical adversary in advance gives your position more credibility.

:confused: But then you just empathize with everyone all the time? How do you know who to empathize with and who not to empathize with? It seems like I’d get a headache.

No. The College President was asked to remove a Holocaust denying webpage from the Northwestern University website. He refused: “I believe his views are monstrous,” said university President Henry Bienen. “But I don’t want to set myself up as a censor of his views. Who decides what’s distasteful? Do you make general law around bad cases?”
(Incidentally, this quote is scattered around the web.)

President Bienen did denounce the holocaust denier. He also refused to unilaterally censor him, and gave some justification for his position.

In an ideal world, yes.

Upon whom do I wish to pass judgment?

I know of no other “higher” authority then another human being.


Some selected definitions paraphrased/quoted from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I believe that it is brief enough to evade copyright problems. Jodi: apparently the opposite is “Ethical Objectivism”, not to be confused with “Objectivism”, which those with a fondness for Ayn Rand can explain to you (and me).

Relativism - the denial that there are certain kinds of universal truths

Cognitive relativism - holds there are no universal truths about the world: the world has no intrinsic characteristics, there are just different ways of interpreting it.

Ethical relativism - no universally valid moral principles: all moral principles are valid relative to the conventions of a given culture or individual choice.
sub type: conventionalism - moral principles are valid relative to a given culture or society.
sub type: subjectivism - the individual decides.


Ethical objectivism - although cultures differ in their moral principles, some moral principles have universal validity.
sub type (strong) - absolutism: there is one true moral system with specific moral rules.

sub type (weak) - Weak objectivism - there is a core morality, a determinant set of principles that are universally valid. There is also an indeterminate area where relativism is legitimate, eg. sexual mores.

There’s also

Ethical skepticism - we can’t know whether there are any valid moral principles.
Ethical nihilism - there are no valid moral principles.

and on the opposite side,

Moral Realism - valid moral principles are true, independently of human choice
Ethical Constructivism - objective principles are those that impartial human beings would choose behind the veil of ignorance (eg. Rawls).


:confused: Since “evaluate” is defined as “to determine or fix the value or worth of,” I don’t see the distinction you are drawing.

I think we can agree that’s not the way to go. My problem is not that I advocate moral absolutism, but that I perceive a strain of moral relativism so extreme (in its own way) that it borders on abdication of any moral consensus.

But, really, what are the chances of that? If you heard that Ted from down the hall in Receivables was sleeping with that sexy number from Accounting, would your first thought be “well, maybe his marriage wasn’t freely entered into”? Can we not assume that some acts, even if in rare cases legitimately defensible, are in the vast majority of cases not defensible (i.e., are wrong)? Do I have an obligation to withhold judgment on a man who abandons his family, or shoots someone in cold blood, or betrays his country, until I can establish for certain that his is not the one in a million case where censure is not appropriate? And, in the meantime, does he suffer no societal penalty for his act, as we all tolerantly withold judgment? Which is worse, that we judge wrongly in particulars (but establish that as a society certain conduct is not tolerated), or that we wait until we are aboslutley certain before judging (but establish that as a society almost anything goes, at least initially)? Again, I’m not asking simply to trigger debate; I’m truly curious.


What about prostitution? What about promiscuity? (Just to name two issues off the top of my head that have come up on the Board recently, where people who said “that ain’t right” were instantly told they were being “too judgmental.”) Sure, adultery and treason are way out on one end of the right-wrong continuum; my problem is that I perceive that if you move into that continuum the least little bit, well, then you’re being (too) judgmental.

So why can’t you slap the same label on me for saying infidelity is wrong? Just because you happen to agree with me? Who decides when the label is affixed and the knives come out?

This begs the question, because arguably every action is morally ambiguous, if you declare that it is. As FLOWBARK’S link points out, if you go too far down the path of moral relativism, then you lose the moral authority to say that anything is wrong, because who are you to judge? So how to we strike a balance between moral absolutism (intolerance) and moral relativism (bordering on total amorality)?


Well, I don’t equate empathy with the ability to take into consideration extenuating circumstances, but I take your point. But, again, does that mean that in every case, no matter how egregious the conduct appears to be on its face, and regardless of personal and/or societal experience that the conduct really is, 99% of the time, exactly as egregious as it appears, that we still withhold judgment in the name of tolerance? Why?


And SAINT ZERO apparently does. Could we please not go there? This is not a thread about religion, except insofar as it impacts societal mores and morality.