noun, the most important part of a thing, the essence; from the
Latin cor, meaning heart.
This Views Guest Column
November 18, 2002
We Should Judge
In our pluralistic, freedom-loving society, passing judgment on others is something
we often like to avoid. While there is a religious belief that a mere man is
not qualified to examine another man’s soul, there are also more practical concerns.
If our entire society were like the barbershop or the beauty parlor, with everyone
gossiping about the misdeeds and shortcomings of everyone else and condemning
each other in short order, it would be very difficult to develop the trust and
respect that sustains relationships between friends and neighbors.
The truth, however, is that we pass judgment all the time. If one person does
not trust another enough to enter into a business relationship with him, he
will not go ahead despite his doubts and say, “Who am I to judge?” Instead,
there simply will be no relationship. If a boyfriend or a husband cheats on
his partner, she will usually not say that she is in no position to judge. She
will most likely throw his unfaithful carcass out on the street. While we may
not consider ourselves competent to judge crimes against God, we have always
reserved the power to judge crimes against other human beings. Trial by jury
is an institution that gives twelve ordinary people the power to judge the guilt
or innocence of someone whom they have never met and whose alleged crime they
did not see. We consider it distasteful and sometimes hypocritical to judge
the beliefs and motives of others, but we consider it absolutely necessary to
judge the actions of others.
Tuesday, October 22, 2002, in a discussion with several New York University
freshmen, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked if it would be right for Americans to
do nothing while people in another country passed a law requiring that every
third female child be sold into slavery. A student said that that would be wrong,
but that others believe that many of the things we do in this country are wrong,
so who is right? Taking the hypothetical to its logical conclusion, Mr. Kennedy
asked the student what she would do if that government, with the support of
the majority, decided to slaughter all of a minority tribe? The student said
that this would be “absolutely wrong,” but again asked, “Who are we to come
in and tell them what to do?” The only exception would be that something should
be done if a “majority of the world” decided that the genocide is wrong.
If something is “absolutely wrong,” how can the opinion of anyone else change
that? If the rest of the world were led by nuns, doctors and firemen, I could
at least understand if one wanted to take their opinions into consideration.
But as we know, much of the rest of the world is run by the equivalent of serial
killers, mafia dons, and Enron executives, so is there any reason why we should
believe that their moral beliefs are worth anything?
I admit that there is good authority for being reluctant to pass judgment.
Most people would probably cite Matthew 7:1, in which Jesus says, “Do not judge,
or you too will be judged.” What they might not consider is Matthew 7:3-5: “Why
do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention
to the plank in your own eye?” I think that the clear implication is that we
should not judge others for minor sins when we have committed far greater sins.
The problem is that many people reverse this idea and argue that so long as
we have the smallest mote in our eye, we cannot criticize another for having
a beam in his eye.
Even if we cannot entirely absolve ourselves of some evil deeds, it is unconscionable
to allow far greater evils to occur elsewhere. Americans make judgments about
each other every day based on their words and deeds, and there is no good reason
not to hold people in other countries to the same standards that we hold ourselves.
Our political philosophy is based on the belief that we have inalienable and
self-evident rights to life, liberty, and property. If these rights are inalienable
and self-evident, they must apply to all people everywhere. To reserve them
only for ourselves is hypocrisy and arrogance. If certain things like slavery
and genocide are such great violations of these rights that they are “absolutely
wrong,” then the fact that a majority of the citizens in the country that carries
out these acts supported them cannot make them right, nor can the support or
connivance of the whole world. The problem seems to be not that people refuse
to call anything absolutely wrong, but that they do not believe that they have
the moral authority to tell another that something is absolutely wrong.
One student asked Justice Kennedy, “Who are we to judge?” To her I respond:
you are an individual with free will, a moral code, and a belief that life and
liberty are paramount values. This makes you as qualified as anyone to judge
others whose actions grossly violate these principles. If you truly believe
that something like the wrongness of genocide is universal and absolute, you
will still be right even if not one other person agrees with you.