On the value of Judgement

We’re told not to judge, lest we be judged.

But we are judged, by our customers choosing between us and a competitor, by our employees choosing whether to entwine their careers with our fate, and by our peers, allies, and passive-aggressive antagonists on social media.

We’re instructed to respect others, especially other cultures. And it’s true that new perspectives yield new insight, and that we’re generally plagued with a bias against the unfamiliar, especially when it’s convenient for our egos to deny that a new idea is superior to our own. But battling our emotional distain of the alien does not automatically imply respect for all other cultures and ideas. “Respecting” female mutilation because “it’s a sin to judge,” is unacceptable.

Judgement is essential. Judgements carve out the important from the incidental, a necessary component of focus. Judgement declares a victorious idea among alternatives, not as a determinant of universal truth, but to cease dithering, and thus enable progress.

Rather than avoid judgement as a sin, we should invest in it as a skill. Rather than damn the act of judgement for the sake of avoiding incorrect judgments, we should celebrate the component skills of great judgement such as bias-avoidance, clarifying the essential, combining data with vision, reasoning from first-principals, and prioritization of apparently uncomparable options.

Observing the world with dispassionate equanimity is not a recipe for progress, nor insight. Great products, great design, great companies, great cultures, great writing, great religions, all depend on a set of strong judgments.

Thus, avoiding judgement means avoiding greatness.

  • Great post. As a Christian, I was raised to “Judge not…” but it was always clear that this was about suspending judgment about how others stood with God. In other words, I have no right to convict another for his/her sins—that’s between her/him and the Big Guy. But cultivating “good judgment” was a staple in my upbringing and one I’m grateful to my parents for championing. Thanks!

  • Michael Burnell

    To Judge – it has a negative connotation. We should all agree, however, that we are to DISCERN at all times! Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it. Mike Burnell

  • This post reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, which ponders the utility of the “golden rule” & other such “cultural values”:
    “The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbor and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure [of energy]. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of hem in check by psychical reaction-formations. Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relations of love, hence the restriction upon sexual life, and hence too the ideal’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself — a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man. In spite of every effort, these endeavors of civilization have not so far achieved very much. It hopes to prevent the crudest excesses of brutal violence by itself assuming the right to use violence against criminals, but the law is not able to lay hold of the more cautious and refined manifestations of human aggressiveness. The time comes when each one of us has to give up illusions the expectations which, in his youth. he pinned upon his fellow men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will. At the same time, it would be unfair to reproach civilization with trying to eliminate strife and competition from human activity. These things are undoubtedly indispensable. But opposition is not necessarily enmity; it is merely misused and made occasion for enmity.

    faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Freud-CivDis.html”

    For contrast, I always have found Plato’s analogy of the dual horse chariot to be very useful when thinking about how to deal with instincts and drives that run counter to cultural values ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chariot_Allegory ).
    “First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.”[1]

    …my reading of the all agony is that you must control your “dark horse”, and avoid being fooled into thinking you can go anyplace significant if you focus your energies only on your “light horse”. To ascend to lofty heights your “charioteer” must gain control of both light and dark horses, and leverage them both in your journey.

  • Sarah Pressler

    Awesome post, Jason. So many miss the subtle but huge and important difference between judgment and discernment. You nailed it!

  • Sharon Pettis McElwee

    It’s funny that the same people who call judgement a sin consider its cousin discernment a skill. Thanks, Jason.