There’s no way around it: being told you’re “judgmental” is an accusation. It refers to a habit of being overly critical, quick to jump to conclusions, rigid in one’s assessments, reluctant to examine one’s point of view. And it’s not just how one regards others – you can make equally harsh judgments about yourself.
This readiness to judge others or yourself, combined with an assumption that your particular attitudes are correct and universal, can be a problem. Such a habit can stop you trying to understand where other people are coming from and can be associated with intolerance and prejudice. You may have a strong reaction to a fashion you don’t like – extensive body piercing, for instance – and judge that it’s not just your taste but also simply wrong. Or you could be challenged by a friend’s emotional response to a situation and conclude they should just pull themselves together. When it comes to yourself, you might make judgments in terms of social norms that you don’t actually believe in (you should be more ambitious, perhaps, more outgoing) and that you wouldn’t apply to others.
But making judgments is an essential part of what it means to be human. It seems vitally important to be able to assess what comes our way, discriminating between what is valuable and what should be avoided. Unless we have some clarity about what we value, we have little chance of finding a satisfactory path through life.
Value judgments matter. Unexamined ones, however, are more likely to propel us towards unwise action. So it’s not a question of avoiding value judgments but of becoming aware of what they are and scrutinising them as much as possible. It’s also good to be open and questioning, challenging our immediate interpretations with plausible alternatives. If we’re careful, we’ll find it’s possible to make value judgments without being judgmental.
Not so long ago, western philosophy largely agreed with Hamlet’s pithy put-down to morality: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” If you ventured to suggest some things might be right and others wrong, you would have been told “that’s a value judgment”, as though you’d done no more than expressed a preference for one salad dressing over another.
Unusually, the world appears to have followed academe’s lead. If you make a value judgment which appears to be anything more than a personal opinion, you will often find yourself being accused of being judgmental, moralistic or even fascistic. The contradiction in vehemently telling people they are wrong to say some things are wrong is usually missed but goes to show how tenacious value judgments are.
The desire to avoid judgment has some well-intentioned motivations. No one has infallible access to moral truth and there is more than one good way to live. But that does not mean that no one has any moral insight and that there aren’t many wrong ways to live. The alternative to unjustified confidence in the one true way is not a misguided faith in the validity of all paths.
A more subtle reason to drop value judgments is the belief that they are not objective, scientific facts and so cannot be anything other than mere opinions. But this assumes that scientific truth is the only legitimate form of knowledge. We should instead accept that there is a continuum between personal prejudice and hard fact, along which we find beliefs that can be robustly defended without ever being completely proved. So, for example, a strong case that tax avoidance is wrong need not demonstrate its wickedness as indisputable, objective fact.
As it happens, just as shoulder-shrugging, moral relativism has become widespread in the general culture, it has ceased to be popular in academe. Value judgments have returned, not so much with a vengeance but with more caution and humility than of old. Society should follow suit. The time for “anything goes” has gone.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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