Backing away from judgment and letting people walk their own path is the post-modern moral paradigm, a way of holding back from full engagement with ideas. This may be due to a deeply held though personally hidden concern that one’s own ideas haven’t actually been thought through all that well. However, being uncertain about one’s own ideas is not a valid justification for withholding judgment.
Notice that the fundamentalists of political and religious ideologies have no concern for passing judgment, there’s quite often a fanatical gleam in their eye as they engage in a favorite pastime. Baseball, apple pie and fire and brimstone, it’s the new recipe for nationalist pride that often walks hand-to-heart with religious zealotry. True, often these crusaders have thought through their ideas about as much as a child caught with hand in cookie jar has considered possible excuses, but the felt belief is decidedly the opposite, hence the internal justification for passing judgment on anything that isn’t them.
Here lies the difference between the skeptic and the fundamentalist: the ability to recognize, accept and dwell in a world that constantly shows ideas to be forever tentative and constantly in need of revision. There’s little wonder that the fundamentalist of any kind is far more prone to violence than the skeptic or liberal. When faced with a world that doesn’t match their vision, the skeptic asks more question whereas the fundamentalist begins flailing about in externalized frustration.
Remaining silent, as the fundamentalist is often shrilly noting, is tantamount to acceptance. Despite the opacity of many of their ideas, this point really should be considered. First, let’s be honest, it’s not as if the judgment isn’t happening, it’s just not being expressed for others to hear. Second, given the inevitably tentative nature of all knowledge claims, refusing to voice truly is a form of tacit approval. In a world of a billion voices, the person who screams loudest isn’t always the winner, rather it’s the person who keeps talking well past when others have stayed silent. Being uncertain is less about not being able to judge and more about accepting that such judgments could be, with more inquiry and future expanded understanding, deemed wrong, in part or in entirety.
At the heart of declaring one’s belief in not declaring judgment is the inability to see that such is itself a judgment, not necessarily about the belief in question, but about the ability to interact with reality. Beliefs are the means of interaction with reality at a personal level, the lenses through which our behavior manifests within and as experiences. If all beliefs are even remotely possible to have equal footing in relating accurately with reality, then non-judgment is a legitimate enterprise. Fortunately, this is not the case, as even a couple of examples can attest. Take the notion that a hot burner will cause damage upon touching it. An accurate belief certainly, but saying to someone who believes otherwise that their belief is perfectly alright since it’s their journey to go down seems at best irresponsible and at worst sadistic. Another example: the belief by someone that walking down an alley is perfectly safe, but you know information about a murderer who is lying in wait. Again, if all beliefs are inherently equal then of course you’d not say anything, but frankly any decent moral inquiry will determine that by not telling the person you have condemned them to pain and suffering otherwise avoided.
The difficulty with not wanting to judge or “honoring all paths” is one of false equivalence and conflation. The phrase has two distinct potential definitions: 1) an acceptance that due to knowledge being tentative, we should refrain from absolute judgments as to the entirety of belief structures and 2) all beliefs are inherently equal such that even contradictory statements from two or more people about reality cannot be determined as having a greater or lesser degree of accuracy.The first accepts that there is a singular reality and multiple perspectives that open up various aspects of it, rather like viewing through a window that is only partially clean in spots. The second says that there is no shared reality and any attempt at communication is based on this false assumption. Clearly the second cannot actually be lived as we go about our lives with the embodied acceptance that some views of reality are more or less false than others. If you doubt this, remember the burner.
Which leads back to the moral issue. Declaring all paths are equal in kind, in that they are all beliefs is one thing, but declaring all paths equal in dealing with shared reality is quite something else altogether. Saying this is, as noted above, tantamount to abdicating all morality. A moral system is of little use if actions, of which ideas are the progenitors, have no consequence. A shared reality means social interconnectedness, it means that what one does is indeed a variable in determining the actions of others. Frankly, the notion of non-judgment is often found in people who have not faced the horrors of bad beliefs or think that they shouldn’t have to. Female genital mutilation, throwing acid on the faces of raped women to signify their un-cleanness, flying planes into buildings, blowing up abortion clinics, beheading apostates, denying services to the poor and downtrodden, etc. These are all examples of beliefs that have effects beyond the personal, there is simply no way of referring to oneself as a moral person if non-judgment is the course of action when faced with such atrocities.
To say “don’t judge” may in fact be worse than the beliefs themselves, at least those shouting such horrors are willing to stand in the full passionate fervor of their self-righteousness. Non-judgment utterly lacks any conviction for caring for others. Instead, the refusal of judgment is promoted as being in some fashion better than attempting to diminish the very real pain and suffering of those succumbing to the bad beliefs of others.
Judgment, assessment, coming to conclusions, however one might refer to it as, the lack of it is not morally superior. Judgment does not necessitate going down the path of zealotry. Truly it is the zealot who has given up judgment, as it requires constant engagement with reality. What the zealot has substituted is ideological dictatorship, a despotism of the mind where reality has no sway. We move forward in the world, as individuals, as social groups, as a species, not by ignoring reality, whether through zealotry or abdicating judgment. Rather, progress of any kind requires the active engagement with the world and each other, which at times may mean, even as we keep ourselves open to further questions, noting how some ideas are simply not helpful and even wrong.
© David Teachout