The problem of judgment

In Dependent Rational Animals Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

In the context of particular practices we generally have no one else to rely on but those who are our expert coworkers, to make us aware both of our particular mistakes in this or that practical activity and of the sources of those mistakes in our failures in respect of virtues and skills. Outside of such contexts of practice, we have to rely on our friends, including family members, for similar correction. When we are unable to rely on coworkers and friends, then our confidence in our own judgments may become a source of illusion. And in order to be effective practical reasoners we do need to have justified confidence in our conclusions. That we generally and characteristically continue to be dependent on others in our practical reasoning does not mean that we should not from time to time defend and act upon conclusions that are at variance with the judgments of everybody else, including those on whose concurrence we normally rely most. Independence of mind requires this. But we always require exceptionally good reasons for so doing.” (p.96-7)

Long before MacIntyre wrote, Jesus said, “Do not judge.” Some contemporary church practice as tried to make this the central aspect of Jesus’ teaching. Is there any way we can make common sense of MacIntyre and Jesus?

The centrality of the “do not judge” command surely draws its energy from those who have witnessed the condemnation of sinners within churches. Although the practice of tearing others down is common to all human institutions, our expectation that the church ought to be different has made the judgment we do see rankle all the more. It just doesn’t fit. It’s a definite anomaly.

Yet MacIntyre is also right. Much if not all of our practical learning, whether moral or skill related, comes from others. As learners we make mistakes. We even make mistakes in identifying our mistakes as mistakes. We need the input of others to show us the right way to do the right things and to inform us when we go wrong.

Moral learning is difficult in our age. We want to think we can do it all ourselves. When faced with input from others we retort, “Who do you think you are to tell me how to live my life?” In some cases the answer comes from the self-deception of our adviser. “I know more about life, the good life, and your life than you do, so you ought to listen to me. Sometimes it’s just plain bossiness. But other times the voice of correction is from one who is more mature in the identification of the good than we are or from one who is able to see and understand our context more helpfully than we can. In such a case our pursuit of our own good entails that we listen to others and practice accountability to them.

In order to keep this practice from the reticence to judge enjoined by Jesus, we recognize that we have a mutual accountability. Within the church in particular, we are accountable to each other. As fellow disciples of Jesus we are responsible to help each other along the way. We recognize our independence in our willingness to carry through and make decisions and act for ourselves even while we recognize our dependence on others not only for a clearer view of our context and behavior, but also for achieving a common good.

On this view, our “not judging” is not a refusal to enter relations of mutual accountability, but a refusal to do so with an attitude of lording it over others, refusing to be accountable ourselves, and leaving love out of the picture.

In following this model, we also practice humility, refusing to assume that we know everything about either the good or even our own good. Rather, we learn that our apprehension of the good (for humans, for ourselves, and for the company of the saints) is discerned together. Since we are committed to that good more than we are committed to our own satisfaction, we yearn for correction when we err. Although this practice is foreign to the current American ethos, it seems like a Christian way to do things. What to do you think?

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2 Responses to The problem of judgment

  1. Kim Thompson says:

    You know more about the original languages than I do, Richard, but it seems to me that “judgment” as Jesus used it in the admonition not to judge, is different than we commonly use it (as in, “use good judgment”). I think “discernment” as it is used in the Bible is probably closer to our every day use of the word “judgment.” To me, it would seem ridiculous that Jesus would be saying, “Don’t discern between one thing and another,” or “Don’t make decisions about your opinion of someone’s behavior”. Those would be prohibitions impossible to comply with.

    I am particularly interested in the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders. For the uninitiated, a personality disorder is a “problem in living” that is pervasive and an integral part of the person’s personality (as opposed to conditions such as depression, anxiety, or even schizophrenia — all conditions which can be worked on and treated without fundamentally changing the person’s personality). One of the things I notice about people with personality disorders, especially when they are severe, is the tendency for them to jump to conclusions about interpersonal situations with GLARINGLY incomplete information. I think we all do this to a certain extent — based on our past experiences, we compare the present situation to what we know and fill in the blanks from our own memories. We can all slip up in this manner. However, people with personality disorders don’t seem to learn from their mistakes in this arena … they tend to continue to act on these judgments that were made with incomplete information. They don’t tend to say “I think …” but rather to say “I know …”

    I feel a bit uncomfortable writing “they” because I have been guilty of the same thing. Thinking I KNOW something when I am only INFERRING something from incomplete information. The difference is, when I come up against my faulty reasoning, I (however reluctantly) admit it. What defines a “disorder” is the determination to twist the situation to fit your preconceived notion. The inability to admit and maybe even recognize that you were wrong.

    The world is FILLED with ambiguity. I admit it, I am one of those people who has been terribly uncomfortable with that ambiguity. Age and experience has dragged me kicking and screaming to the recognition that a lot of the time I don’t have all the information.

    Maybe Jesus wasn’t saying so much “Don’t have an opinion” as He was saying “You can be wrong … keep yourself open to admitting it.”

  2. rheyduck says:

    Yes, Kim, I think you peg Jesus well. I put it the way I did because so many in my experience take him in an absolute sense to be banning all judging of any kind. As a literal thinker, I don’t see how one can even speak (at least make use of nouns) without judging (discerning).

    I am familiar with the KNOWING you speak of, having a child with autism. one of her favorite sayings (which I remember well hearing frequently when I was in junior high) is “I don’t think it, I know it.”

    I don’t know whether it is my own fixation and experience or not, but my assessment of the individuals who are like this is that they are a micro version of our modern culture that too easily takes knowledge to be an individual project. Much – if not all of our knowing is collective. WE know things, WE learn thing. The modern trend toward a purely individualist epistemology was surely helpful in overcoming a mindless conformity, a conformity that ignored accountability to external reality (and to God) in favor of social cohesion, but went too far in that direction.

    Most often in my life, I think I go the opposite direction (which is also an impairment), deferring action until I have adequate information to reach a reasonable certainty. But that little word “reasonable” is the challenge for me, and too easily forgotten.

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