An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
It’s time we had a word about judgment. This is a concept that is fraught with peril and negative connotations. It’s easy to be a bad judge, it’s easy to be fooled, it’s easy to fail. It is also critical, at all times and in all places, to remember that we are our neighbor’s judges. We are the arbiters of our fellow men, and without that focus, without the action that comes from that realization, societies collapse.
This article is part of a series called The Modern Survival Guide, and as the name implies, I am interested in passing on concepts and lessons that aid others in surviving. Judgment is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the key things we must do in order to survive the modern world. It is more important now than it has ever been that we judge our fellows quickly, competently, and accurately. We are living through a transition point in history (all hail the information age), and consequently our risks are high.
Identifying people who are behaving badly is one of the key things we can do to lower the risks to our livelihood and health, and that means we have to pass judgment on a regular basis. This is a difficult thing to do, because we have to get over a couple of things before it can be done well.
The first of those is that judgment is often frowned upon in religion. A lot of people in the US, where I live, are Christian. Christianity comes with a lot of people saying “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and “Forgiveness is divine.” Some Christians seem to think that means they should never judge anyone, or that they should forgive everyone. Both of these are problematic in the real world. This is a serious problem in lots of aspects of American life, because it limits the ability of Christians to participate in the public arena and often leads to allegations of gross hypocrisy when they do.
I’ve touched on the forgiveness part of things before, so let’s clear up the other issue: the point of the “judge not” passage is that you should only judge others using measures that you are comfortable being used on you. Being Christian does not absolve you of passing judgment, it simply reinforces the idea that you should hold yourself at least to the standards you use for others. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is not a command that appears in Jesus’s words, and should not be the way we conduct ourselves in life, even if we are not Christian.¹
This leads us directly to the other problem with judgment, which is that people tend to operate on a pattern of rationalizing their own actions while judging others absolutely. This is known as fundamental attribution error, and it’s why I’m a good driver and everyone else on the road is a bloody moron: I am applying the circumstances of my situation to my own driving style, while judging everyone else on the road against the things I learned in driver’s ed.
Both of these are issue areas that we have to get past before we can effectively judge the actions of others. To that end, every judgment that we make should be rooted in the following points:
- Humility — The knowledge and acceptance of the reality that we are flawed beings incapable of perfection. This should foster the realization that any judgment we make can be wrong, and should help us take into account the circumstances of others.
- Assumption of innocence — The idea that we should assume innocence before we assume malice in all cases where evidence is unclear. To put that another way, evil is usually temporary but stupidity is eternal, and we’re all stupid about one thing or another from time to time. Incompetence is more common than malevolent action, and everyone makes mistakes.
- Reliance on evidence — The idea that any judgment we make should be based on evidence of a particular action, not on generalizations, not on assumptions, not on guilt by associate or any of the other logical fallacies. Evidence is king. Building that evidence for each individual is the correct path of judgment.
With these points in mind, let’s dive into how to judge our neighbors. We have to do it. We do it without realizing it, in many cases. We may as well do it well. To my mind, there are five basic ways that we should all judge our neighbors, with five corresponding preferences:
- Judgment based on the Harm Principle: Is my neighbor doing things that are actively harming me or others? Is my neighbor intervening in situations that are not causing harm? We should prefer neighbors who aren’t harming people, and who allow us maximum freedom.
- Judgment based on hypocrisy: Are my neighbor’s actions in line with their stated views, religion, or ideology? We should prefer neighbors who are reliable in their actions.
- Judgment based on selfless or selfish action: Are my neighbor’s actions mostly selfless or mostly selfish? We should prefer selfless neighbors.
- Judgment based on wisdom: Is your neighbor in touch with the real world, or do they live in their own worldview bubble? We should prefer neighbors who recognize reality and act on it.
- Judgment based on good and evil: Are my neighbor’s actions mostly good or mostly evil? We should prefer good neighbors.
Ok, let’s get into it.
Judgment Based on Harm
This is probably the easiest thing on the list. I’ve written about the Harm Principle before, and the general gist is as follows: unless someone is hurting you or hurting others, you shouldn’t interfere in their life. People have a right to live as they wish, without interference, provided that they are not harming others.
“Harm” in this sense indicates unprovoked actions that compromise your or someone else’s bodily autonomy, hurt you physically, hurt your livelihood, or hurt your social life. Murder is harm. Stealing is harm. Rape is harm. Bullying people on social media is harm. Spreading malicious rumors during Bible study is harm. Getting arrested because you murdered someone is not harm; you deserved that, because you provoked that reaction.
You should keep track of who harms you in life. If (when) someone harms you, you should judge them for it. This is your responsibility, your judgment, your choice. Lots of people will have opinions, but if you have been harmed, it is your judgment that matters, most of the time. Judgment in this sense means that you evaluate the action, determine your response, and alter the way that you view that person as a result of their actions, with the aim of preferentially filtering people who consistently and deliberately harm you out of your life.
Please keep in mind: everyone who has a relationship with another person will hurt that person at some point, and be hurt by them. That’s reality. The judgment comes in when you have to decide what kind of harm was done, what severity of harm was done, and whether it justifies a response; everything from a conversation with the person, punishment, revocation of relationships, an appeal to higher authority for redress of grievances, or direct action to preserve your life might be warranted. Not all harm is the same, not all harm deserves the maximum censure, but some of it certainly does.
Similarly, you should keep track of who interferes in your life. Unless they are intervening to prevent harm, they have very little business being there unless you’ve invited them in. We each have the right to live as we think best, provided that we are not harming others. Someone who interferes in your life or the life of another person, without a good justification centered on the concept of preventing harm, deserves your judgment in response.
In these cases, we should cast judgment with the aim of increasing our interactions with people who do not harm us or interfere in our lives unnecessarily, and decreasing interactions with people who do, as a general rule.
Judgment Based on Hypocrisy
This one requires a little more effort, because judging someone based on their hypocrisy requires that we pay at least some attention to both their professed beliefs and their actions. Hypocrisy is generally defined as saying one thing and doing another, and I’ve written about it before.
As a rule, hypocrisy is a bad thing because it degrades social trust, which limits our ability to predict each other’s actions and cooperate in a group. Both of those things are issues for any human society, because our main survival skills are adaptation and cooperation, and hypocrisy therefore undermines our ability to survive in any environment.
You should be on the lookout for hypocrites and you should judge the ones you find. Now, there’s a catch here: we’re all hypocrites. Every one of us. It’s inevitable. Therefore, we shouldn’t worry too much about the little hypocrisies when there are bigger fish in the pond.
If I say that I think lying is wrong, and then turn around and tell my wife she looks good in a dress that I hate because it boosts her self-esteem, that is a much lower-priority item on the hypocrisy totem pole than if I say that I think killing people is always wrong and then turn around and support a war. There’s an area of grey here that is part and parcel of the judgment of any hypocrite, and we should always keep that in mind.
The point of judging hypocrites is that we’re looking for generally trustworthy people who understand their professed moral beliefs and are capable of following them, as opposed to generally untrustworthy people who will call you a friend and then stab you in the back, or who change their moral code to fit each new circumstance. Those people can’t be trusted, and therefore shouldn’t be much involved in your life if you can help it.
Judgment Based on Selfish Action
As previously noted, a prime human survival trait is cooperation. Cooperation implies a degree of selfless action; to cooperate means that I am participating in an activity that may benefit me only tangentially or not at all, but I do it anyway because it helps my neighbor and my community and these are implicitly worthwhile goals. This implies that the next instance of cooperation might be something that does directly benefit me, and in any case makes my world a nicer place to live.
Cooperation is an inherently worthwhile activity; I cannot survive with some direct support, and I cannot survive on an island. To be human means that our physical strength is temporary, our health is precarious, and we rely on the approval and validation of others. Anyone who tells you that they are a solitary rock of strength who needs no one else is lying. Maybe they’re lying to themselves too, but they’re still lying.
Any pretense of strength is by definition temporary and transitory on an individual level. I temporarily able-bodied, temporarily of sound mind, temporarily successful in my endeavors. Over a long enough timeline, and often subject to chance, those things all fail. As a species, then, we draw our source of power from our ability to work together to shore up our individual weaknesses, and most of us instinctively do so. People who don’t, who typically act in their own self-interest even in situations where doing so is actively harmful to others, bear watching. Selfless, cooperative behavior is a good thing to have in society. Selfish behavior generally isn’t.
Now, there’s a caveat here. From time to time, it is required for our own survival that all of us behave in a selfish fashion. I’ve written about this before; it does you no good to starve while giving your food to others, if for no other reason than in absolute terms that action will eventually result in one fewer person to produce food when you starve to death. Accordingly, no one behaves selflessly all the time. What we have to watch out for are people who behave in a selfish pattern even when they don’t need to, in situations where a selfless action is the morally correct thing to do if one has the means.
In these cases, we should cast judgment with an eye toward protecting ourselves from people whose normal pattern of behavior is selfishness.
Judgment Based on Wisdom
“Who is more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?” Thanks Obi-won Kenobi, you’re my only hope. Especially in this day and age, it is critically important to avoid becoming fools ourselves and avoid, wherever possible, supporting other fools. Therefore, we should judge our neighbors based on their ability to interpret reality correctly.
I’ve written in other places that this is not necessarily an easy task, which is why wisdom is a valued commodity. People who can consistently sift out good courses of action from the miasma of conflicting information that surrounds us are very good to know. People who consistently can’t are going to make poor decisions, and those decisions will affect you if these are people in your life (or even just nearby). Arguably, we are all worse off as a result of the anti-vaxx/anti-mask movement’s actions during the COVID pandemic, which resulted in both a faster spread and higher death rate. Those people were foolish, and society as a whole suffered as a result.
Now, this is a hard thing in the information age. We are bombarded by propaganda on a daily basis, and it is very, very easy to fall into an echo chamber. What looks like foolishness to you may, with just a tweak of perception or a different narrative viewpoint, be completely in line with the worldview of someone else. How do we get around this?
Evidence. Evidence is king, and always has been. When confronted with evidence we should adapt our worldview to it, rather than trying to adapt the evidence to our worldview. I’ve written about this before, because it can be a hard thing to acquire and then accept objective evidence, but it can be done, it has been done, and once you do it you’re more likely to keep doing it in the future. So, start there. Before you can judge the wisdom of others, make sure your own foundation is not resting on sand. Note that this is a perpetually ongoing process; the moment you are absolutely certain is most likely the moment you start being wrong.
With that in hand, we should be actively judging our neighbor based on the degree to which they have made wise choices. We should not trust fools, we shouldn’t listen to fools, we shouldn’t give fools any more of a platform to spout foolish things than is legally required. Fools are not good for the world, and judging whether people are wise or foolish is a key factor in survival.²
Judgment Based on Good and Evil
This one is subtly different from things we’ve discussed before. Judgment based on harm is looking for people who hurt you or unnecessarily interfere in your life. Judgement based hypocrisy is focused on matching people’s words to their actions. Judgment based on selfishness is concerned with whether people are likely to help others. And judgment based on wisdom should screen out fools who can’t recognize reality. But good and evil… that’s a bit of a different kettle of fish.
The problem with using the words “good” and “evil” is that these concepts have been diluted down to be nearly meaningless in modern parlance. What we’re talking about here is morality, and morality means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. My official attitude towards that position is that a lot of people have terrible systems of morality. I have written before on my personal views of good and evil, but I’ll be the first to say that this isn’t an easy concept to nail down. Nonetheless, we can make some broad statements.
“Good” to me is a positive force. It is that which builds us up, comforts us, grows our capabilities, makes our lives worth living, makes love worth having, and makes a community worth living in. Good things make life better for one person or many people without harming someone else; you cannot act according to good principles if your gain is someone else’s harm.
“Evil,” as I understand it, is wantonly destructive, ignorant of consequences, cruel for the sake of pleasure, mean for the sake of misery, covetous beyond need, excessive past reason, and willfully stupid. Evil things benefit one person while harming another, or benefit no one at all.³
Obviously this is a stripped-down version of these concepts, and there’s a book or three to be read on this subject. But the core of the point here is that we should all have a systematic view of good and evil. We should understand when actions that we take or that others take are good or evil. And we should judge people for this.
People who routinely perform evil actions are to be avoided at minimum, and countered if possible. This isn’t just me talking, either, just about every moral system or religion you could care to mention treats this as an imperative — in other words, if you observe evil, you don’t have a choice, morally speaking. You have to act to oppose it, or you yourself become a supporter of evil. Evil thrives when good men do nothing.
In this sense, we must judge people based on their actions to determine good or evil intent, execution, and results — all of which are components of ethical action, another thing I’ve written about previously (I write about lots of things). Based on that judgment, we must oppose evil actions, and we are well advised to support people who routinely engage in good actions. This is one of the most significant acts of judgment you can make in your life, and it behooves you to treat it with appropriate respect, because your society’s success or failure depends in part on how many evil bastards are running around in it.
Judge Your Neighbor as You Would Prefer to be Judged Yourself
To close this out, we have a duty and obligation as adults and moral beings to judge our neighbors according to their actions based on harm, hypocrisy, selfishness, foolishness, and evil actions. It is not a good idea to go through life without casting judgment at all, because that opens us up to being manipulated and taken advantage of.
The goal of all judgment should be to help you determine your personal actions and course in life by identifying people with whom you would like to continue association, and identifying people you’d be perfectly happy never seeing again or, perhaps, might need to directly oppose. That is its primary point and purpose — not to feel superior, not to engage in judgments of the immortal soul, but rather to inform our practical experience of life.
As we do this, we must remember to judge others only using the standards that we would set for ourselves. To do anything else is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s blatant hypocrisy of the worst sort and deserving of censure. If you need motivation for personal change, though, this a great source. If you wake up one morning and feel shame because you have judged someone else based on a standard that you yourself fail to meet, that is an opportunity for self-improvement; you’ve identified the correct path already, now you just have to walk it.
And finally, it’s important to remember that all of us will inevitably fail at this standard. To err is human. When this happens, we will and should suffer the judgment of our peers; we may or may not be forgiven. That is how things are. Even the saints didn’t live blame-free lives, and as we enter the next life (if there is one), our guilt will doubtless be heavier than a feather. That doesn’t mean we should cease judgment; those who do not judge are complicit in everything.
It just means that the playing field should be even.
¹A similar discussion occurs in Islam and Hinduism. Given that these are the other two largest religions on earth, it seems that everyone wrestles with this issue but the main religions have come to a unanimous conclusion: you have to judge the actions of others in daily life, but don’t be a hypocrite. At the same time, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism all agree that divine judgment, judgment of the soul, is not within the power or scope of human authority, and rests solely with a divine being. And for the record, I do not identify as Christian, Muslim, or Hindu — proud agnostic over here.
²The COVID epidemic has provided another lesson in this truth, if one was needed.
⁴The Harm Principle comes into play again here. It is very important to remember that “hurt” is not necessarily the same thing as “harm.” Negative things can and do justifiably happen to you. “Harm” means that something bad happened that wasn’t justified. E.g., I don’t like paying taxes, but paying taxes is not harm; I’m getting something back from them, it’s part of the social contract, and I have a vote and a line to my Congressman if I don’t like how my taxes are being used. A stranger stealing my money is harm, because they’re hurting me without cause, without my permission, and without me gaining anything by it in return.