The Good Way to Judge Others

I wanted to write about an idea that is commonly brought up, is emotionally charged, and can be expressed in a simple way:

You can’t judge anyone.

When people say something like this, they likely are against the idea judging in general. They can give different reasons for being against it, like it makes someone feel less valuable, or it causes us to make assumptions that may not be true about someone. No matter the reasons, many people think that judging someone is always a bad thing to do.

But what if there is a good way to judge others? If there is one, it would have to incorporate things that are true, such as all humans have equal value, and we don’t have complete knowledge about someone’s life or about the future.

In light of these true things, let’s exclude the following actions from a potential good way to judge:

– Making an all-encompassing judgment about someone’s entire life
– Considering someone less valuable than ourselves
– Claiming authority over someone’s eternal destination (like heaven or hell)

And then let’s include some actions into the potential good way to judge:

– Putting focus on the idea that the judging will help us, rather than hinder someone else
– Using the knowledge that we have without making assumptions about things we don’t know
Referring to the present instead of the distant future (since we don’t know what will happen in the distant future)

Based on these excluded and included actions, we can define a potential good way to judge:

Making some type of assessment about someone based on knowledge you have about the person, for the purpose of taking the best action towards the person.

This definition still incorporates an element of judging – making an assessment about someone. But the purpose of making the judgment is good – understanding how to take the best action towards that person. And the judgment can even be necessary to help us take the best action.

The concept of a first date can show how this way to judge is both good and necessary. After a first date, someone may make an assessment that the other person does not share the same moral values, based on present knowledge about that person.

This assessment is good because it helps the person decide what action to take (likely to stop going on dates). The assessment is necessary because without it, the person could stay with someone who has different moral values, and thus could be led down an undesired path.

Dating isn’t the only example where this way to judge is good and necessary. Managers need to make an assessment about someone’s qualifications during a job interview in order to decide if hiring the person is a good idea. Christians need to make an assessment about someone’s religious beliefs in order to understand how to best point that person towards God. And parents need to make an assessment about a child’s behavior before making a decision on how to discipline the child. In all of these examples, some judging about an aspect of a person’s life needs to take place in order to take an action that is good.

Since judging others can sometimes be a good thing, a generalization like “you can’t judge anyone” throws out something that could be good. But of course, there are still circumstances in which judging is a bad thing to do. So how could should we talk about the concept of judging others?

Instead of using a phrase that indicates judging is always a bad thing, I would suggest explaining why a specific way of judging is bad. Examples could include:

“You make me feel less valuable when you tell me that I’m not smart.”
“You shouldn’t say that he is a hopeless alcoholic, because you don’t know what path he has taken to fight his addiction.”
“You don’t know if that person will eventually go to Hell, because you don’t know the future, and God is the one who makes that determination.”

By being more specific about why a particular judgment is bad to make, we can have greater clarity in conversations about judging, while acknowledging that there are situations where judging can be helpful. Getting into these specifics may be more difficult and more painful compared to making general statements. But I think the difficulty is worth the potential of having clear conversations around this otherwise confusing topic.

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