Monday, April 02, 2007

Judging Actions, Judging People

One of the barriers to robust moral discourse in our society is a reluctance on the part of smart, thoughtful, caring people to make clear judgments about the actions of others, even when the actions are clearly wrong.

One of the major sources of this hesitancy is a reaction to those who insist on moralizing, that is, those who claim to have access to an unambiguous moral truth that governs every situation. These high and mighty ethical know-it-alls fail to acknowledge the complexities of real moral conundrums and in desiring to not be like those jerks, many think that the alternative is not to judge at all.

The other primary reason for popular reticence is a confusion over what gets judged. It is actions, not people, that are morally right or morally wrong. Everyone does things that are admirable and other things that are deplorable. A person who does a bad thing is not thereby rendered a bad person, just someone who did something wrong.

This is not to say that we cannot get judged as people. As Aristotle argues, we may be judged for our character, that is the sort of person we are with the sort of predilections to act that we acquire. The problem is that we have been so conditioned by an overly simplistic binary notion of character. There are good guys who wear white hats and they always do good things; they are helpful, kind, generous, virtuous in every way. Then there are bad guys who wear black hats and they always do evil things; they are selfish, impulsive, violent, and pick on innocents who can't defend themselves. Of course, it is always so much more complicated than that. Not only is the attempt to demarcate absolute good and absolute evil as the sole meaningful moral categories absurd, but the idea that people's characters are one-dimensional is naive. We all have complicated selves with multiple aspects and layers. These parts may be judged, some laudable and others problematic.

While all of our actions may be judged, that doesn't mean that we are judged by all of our actions. Some acts are wrong, but lead us to say things like, "How out of character for him." That is, he is still an admirable person in this regard, but, boy, he really screwed up that time. At the same time, some acts are good, but fail to redeem a person's character. I'm glad that Al Capone was very charitable, but that doesn't make him less of a thug, less of a person not to model oneself after.

Yet, there is the sense that one cannot judge unless one is him or herself flawless, that judging the acts or character of someone else is to put onself above someone else, to claim some sense of moral superiority. "Who are you to judge someone else?" Again, this is where our obnoxious, unsophisticated moralizers have poisoned the intellectual well. We refuse to think carefully about the acts and characters of others because we feel we are unqualified, no matter how thoughtful we are. But this means that we don't learn from others.

But, even worse, we are often led to feel as if we are to be morally judged, not only by our actions, but by the judgments we make. Here's where we get hit from both directions. From the one side, the act of judging itself is taken as problematic because it makes you like those who are not thoughtful, who do not allow that there will be deep, possibly insoluble disagreements about moral judgments. In order to make sure that we are not closed-minded, we will refuse to be mindful. From the other side, if the judgment disagrees with those of the high horse moralizers, it is not seen as an invitation to think carefully and discuss closely the details of an intricate moral question, but rather evidence in and of itself of a flaw in your character. So, to avoid both of these, too many of us fail to judge, fail to think hard about moral questions.

So how do our actions relate to our character? When can we ourselves be judged? How do we reintroduce more robust, complex notions of character to replace the oversimplified black and white childish one we so standardly operate with?