Is It Necessarily Bad to be Judgmental?

As was often the case in the Electricity Industry during my career, there had been another major restructure and which, as a result, meant that the CEO I had previously reported to had changed as well. Shortly after, I went to head office with a man who worked for me tutoring our middle managers and aiding in the development of a constructive culture at the new power station I had been appointed to manage. At some stage I was summoned to the CEO’s office to meet my new boss and my colleague went along with me. We talked with the CEO for perhaps fifteen minutes before he took his leave to go to another appointment.

As we walked back from the meeting my companion asked, “Well what did you think of him?”

My non-judgmental nature surfaced and I replied, “Well we only saw him for fifteen minutes, I’ll reserve my judgment until I get to know him a little better”.

My companion snorted at my response and I felt compelled to ask him, “What did you think of him?”

He responded immediately, “He’s an idiot!”

After six months of exposure to my new boss I was compelled to believe he did have significant shortcomings. But of course in my non-judgmental way I would never have called him an idiot!

It has only been in the last century or so that being non-judgmental began to be seen as a virtue. It is often equated with tolerance. Judgmentalism, on the other hand, has come to be associated with narrow-minded prejudice. We learnt, for example, that it was detrimental to our children to be critical of them. Consequently every child was to believe it was special. Unfortunately when they had to face the harsher realities of real life they soon learnt that they were not as special as they were led to believe and living in the world as it actually is became more traumatic for them than it necessarily had to be.

On the other hand we have always expressed admiration for those that exemplified “good judgment”.

British sociologist, Frank Furedi, Notes how we have even changed our vocabulary to avoid seeming to be too judgmental. He writes:

Anglo-American society has become so alienated from making value judgments that it has developed an entire vocabulary of euphemisms to avoid being unambiguous, clear and blunt in its statements. The term ‘inappropriate’ is paradigmatic in this respect, obfuscating the distinction between what is morally right and wrong and censoring while refusing to condemn outright. The trend towards the adoption of a non-judgmental rhetoric is particularly visible in schooling and education, where a veritable Orwellian vocabulary has emerged to provide teachers and others with a language that spares them from the responsibility of making a judgment.

He relates for example, university examiners who are instructed to notify students that they were “not passed” rather than the more direct notification that they “failed”!

Now of course there is a tension here. The extra-judgmental are prone to apportion blame where sometimes it is not warranted. The extra-non-judgmental are prone to forgive everything even when there is moral justification to disapprove. Resisting a temptation to be judgmental can lead us to a form of moral relativism. Nothing is inherently bad.

Now I am still loath to jump to criticism of others knowing full well that we don’t consciously choose much of our behaviour. But I am still prepared to call out those things that I find morally reprehensible as my essays will no doubt demonstrate to you.

Non-judgmentalism discourages society from discussing issues that implicitly raise questions about right and wrong.

The American-German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, wrote of:

The blind obstinacy that becomes manifest in the lack of imagination and failure to judge.

Our reluctance to judge is sometimes seen at its worst in cultural and religious settings.  We are often told we need to be tolerant of the beliefs and behaviours of those different from us.

So under this mandate all cultures and all religions are equally as valid.

But it is not hard to make a case that some interpretations of indigenous culture, for example, that promote male dominance and female subservience is detrimental to the values generally assumed in modern society. The horrific rate of domestic violence perpetrated against indigenous women, alone, makes it necessary for me to be critical of this culture.

Nor is it hard to argue (as I have in previous essays) that with respect to religion, fundamentalist Islam rejects many of the concepts that have led us to enjoy our liberal democracy. Being intolerant of other points of view, again denigrating women and advocating death for apostasy ensure I will be critical of this extreme religious doctrine.

But I would argue here that I am exercising “informed” judgment. I will make a judgment based at least on a reasonable knowledge of the matter at hand. And as a result I would like to think my judgments, whether they might be deemed reasonable or unreasonable by others, were at least well-considered and informed by the evidence as far as I can discern it.

Now contrary to my position regarding making judgments, I often see others make judgments that seem to be reasonably uninformed.

My colleague’s judgment of my new CEO which I related at the start of this essay would seem to be a case in point. And yet his judgment proved to be largely correct. Does this indicate that some people are better equipped to make judgments on the basis of scant evidence? Or maybe, in this case, he was just lucky?

Psychologists tell us that two of our most important cognitive functions are:

  • Gathering data, then on the basis of that data,
  • Making decisions.

Generally people tend to focus on one of these functions more than the other.

Thus some people are reluctant to make decisions until they can glean every possible piece of data related to that decision. Such people often come across as “wishy-washy” and indecisive.

Alternatively other folk seem happy to plunge in and make a decision based on the evidence immediately at hand. Such people come across as decisive and in control.

Now I naturally belong to the former group of people. But I have occupied senior management positions (right up to being a CEO) and I can’t recall ever being labelled as indecisive.

What I found in my career was that many of the decisions a CEO is called upon to make don’t have major consequences for the organisation. It was my practice to make those decisions quickly knowing that even if I was wrong I could do little damage and often the decision was easily revokable.

But when there were major decisions to be made I wanted those decisions to be well-considered and supported with as much evidence as was available.

(It is interesting that early in my career I was asked to relieve a senior manager who was notorious for not making decisions. For the sake of this story let’s call him Jeff. I liked Jeff personally and he had been kind to me in my early career. But when I got to sit at Jeff’s desk I found he had an in-tray that seemed to be a metre high. I methodically went through his tray and after two or three days had reduced it to a pile of documents that were maybe a few centimetres thick. Some of these related to long-term projects that I felt it was inappropriate for a short-term relief manager to decide upon. Jeff’s secretary, Maude, was astounded. “How were you able to make so many decisions in such a short time? I am not sure that Jeff would approve.”  “Well Maude,” I replied, “Most of what I have signed off on are small matters that will help Jeff’s staff get on with their work. It is not going to substantially change anything significant.” “But,” she responded, being used to Jeff’s caution, “Might not you have made some wrong decisions?” And I vividly remember my response. “Maude, if I followed Jeff’s example, I might have made ten decisions and got them all right. I have perhaps made a hundred decisions and If I got five or six of them wrong I will be quite comfortable.”)

But one of the worst forms of Judgmentalism that we see is when people use it without rational basis to champion their identity politics. J K Rowling (under a nom de plume) recently published a novel where a principal character was a transvestite. The politically correct from the LGBTQI movement called for the novel to be banned from bookshops because it was deemed critical of transgender people. Most of these virtue signallers admitted they hadn’t even read the book!

So, all in all, I find I must come down on the side of informed Judgmentalism. Without it we will drift into the dangerous morass of moral relativism,

3 Replies to “Is It Necessarily Bad to be Judgmental?”

  1. Judgements are still made but they masquerade in different form. If you dislike the views of someone else you call them a troll, ‘flat-earther,’ anti-vaxxer, or some other dismissive and highly judgemental label.

    It is however, not informed judgementalism which is always needed.

  2. Ted, agree with the tenor of your discussion on making judgement based on accurate information. After all, that is the essence of my book. Sometimes I find it is not necessary to make judgement at all – life is a self-weeding garden from which people can move in and out of your life without being disturbed into judgement.
    However honest judgement based on best information is essential to moving forward and takes courage.

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