So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.
In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?” Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say?? I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.
Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.
And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.
There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.
So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.