“A right judgment draws us a profit from all things we see.” – William Shakespeare
In my current thinking, it seems that judgment is comprised of five related and dependent components in a process which is usually and largely (for most of us) unconscious. The parts are as follows:
Component #1: Assessment
Assessment is about content (facts). It is a process of scanning, surveying the situation, information-gathering.
Without a complete picture of the relevant facts – the reality, the information – it is impossible to come to reliable or valid judgments. This first step of the process is also where so much judgment goes awry; we base our judgments on incomplete, partial information, missing key facts or definitive context.
“Premature conclusions are the death of understanding.” – Mike Peiman
Component #2: Analysis
Analysis is about context; correlating the pieces of content (facts) in a larger picture to gain a larger relative understanding.
I’ll open with one (crude and fictional) fact or claim about facts: A man screamed a curse at his wife.
Context is definitive; “Did you scream a curse at your wife?” asks for one fact; assuming the answer is “Yes” (and we could drill down to more detail on that fact as well to identify sub-facts; but it’s not necessary for this example). A judgment from ignorance would ask no further questions and desire no further information. “Bad and wrong! Never do that!” But this is missing some essential context: “Yes, but she stabbed me in the back and was twisting the knife at that moment!” Oh. That fact #2 changes things a little (actually, it changes things radically). This example, while simple and crude, is a potent example of how context is definitive.
Component #3: Evaluation
Evaluation is about relating the facts and the overall context to values.
This step requires clarity on what our values and standards are, and the relative priority of those values – because they cannot all be equally weighted, it just doesn’t work that way. So, what are our values and their priority? To descend from general and objective to specific and subjective, I think it’s wrong to scream at people. But I think it’s far more wrong to physical assault people, especially puncturing their body with a weapon. This is evaluation; the relative valuing of things.
Component #4: Judgment
Judgment is about the meaning we ascribe to our evaluation. It is a conclusion as to relative right and wrong, pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of the object or situation being judged.
So, in the balance of all the facts, and all the values and standards in play here, what do we conclude? Again, this depends on our particular hierarchy of values and thresholds of standards (or, in a court of law, those of our society and legal cannon). Bringing it once more back to the subjective and personal – though I reckon, hopefully, that most people reading this will agree – the wife in this fictional scenario is wrong. The husband did no wrong, effectively, because being stabbed is ample justification for yelling, especially in the moment of excruciating pain, terror and betrayal.
Component #5: Response
Response is what we choose to do based on our judgment. Ideally, this is done with a cool head and with the fullest of wisdom and perspective.
This is post-judgment, but included here for practicality – we do not simply consider issues and form judgments, but we respond, we act and react. One important consideration for choosing how to respond to our judgments is perspective – it is a common human failing to react disproportionately to an input or stimulus. This is where, after we are aware of our judgment, have reviewed it to find it as valid and useful as possible, we take a step back to look at the bigger picture and make sure we don’t overreact.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
So, that’s a little overview of my current thinking on judgment. But I want to enter one essential caveat: what is reality, and which reality are we referring to? You see, there are two main categories of reality, and between two people, three main realities to consider.
The first category is outer reality: external, shared reality; 3D, physical reality. Distance, time, and space. What happened, where, that can (theoretically at least) be measured. This is an essential reality for us all to be aware of; as Jill Bolte Taylor describes in her famous TED Talk about consciousness (HIGHLY recommended), in describing her brother’s schizophrenia that drove her motivation to study neuroanatomy:
“Why is it that I can take my dreams, I can connect them to my reality, and I can make my dreams come true? What is it about my brother’s brain and his schizophrenia that he cannot connect his dreams to a common and shared reality so they instead become delusion?”
Without being connected to a common, shared reality, our thinking, our dreams, our inner reality becomes delusional; and delusion can be very dangerous, to ourselves and others. Imagine you can fly and take yourself over a cliff, for example. Gruesome examples abound in the media, especially in relation to mind-altering drugs and pharmaceuticals; lesser examples also abound in everyday life.
Physical reality is what it is; it is the final arbiter, and does not bow to our wishes, opinions, or delusions. The best we can do is form the most accurate perception and relationship to it as possible. The more accurate our perception of outer reality, the more our conception of it correlates to the thing itself, the more true or valid we can say it is. It is possible to be very true to reality, or very false; highly valid, or highly invalid. And whether we perceive it truly or not, our claims about external reality may be more or less true (ie. we can be wrong, exaggerating, deceiving or lying).
This brings us to the second category of reality: inner reality. This is our experience of outer reality, and our experience of ourselves. This is our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. They are definitely related to external reality; but only to a greater or lesser extent. Not tightly coupled, and not with a reliable, irreducible, unchangeable causality. In the same manner as with external reality, our inner reality is true and valid, to the extent that it is an accurate reflection of that reality. However, our claims about our internal reality can be more or less true – we can be out of touch, un-self-aware, biased, confused or deceptive.
As mentioned, between two people there are now three main realities:
- My reality (experienced, interpreted)
- Your reality (experienced, interpreted)
- Reality (physical reality, what actually happened free of all interpretation and narrative)
There is much confusion about reality in our society. On the side of external reality, some people seem to have forgotten it exists – some people actively deny its existence. There is a type of magical thinking characterized by the Law Of Attraction new-age movement which tends to not understand the nature of physical reality, or to value it much. And don’t get me wrong: I think there is value in consciously cultivating our mindset, essentially in applying the LOA principle, the practice of choosing our thoughts and shaping our emotional response and relationship to external events. I just think it is often misunderstood and misapplied.
On the side of internal reality, some people seem to mistakenly believe that it is the same as external reality, or even somehow superior to it. Neither of these is the case. There is also a common misunderstanding (or self-serving justification) that “My inner reality is whatever I say it is; it is indisputable truth!” Well, this would be the case if three conditions were met:
- That we had complete and perfect self-awareness
- That we had the ability to articulate our truths perfectly
- That we lacked the ability to deceive ourselves or others
None of these three requirements are true, so while we should be properly respectful of people’s inner reality and experience of life, we should also be properly skeptical about the level of accuracy of said claims – just as we do (or should do) be respectful but skeptical of claims about physical facts.
Now that we have covered those distinctions and possible pitfalls, let’s address an important question:
Why do people have negative associations with judgment?
Often, because of experience where judgment was expressed to us with negative (scary or unpleasant) emotional expression, or at least that we had that experience. This may be entirely internal – the egoic drive to survival transfered to identity and threatened by anything saying that we are not (doing/being) good enough. This may be true external reality – the person judging was expressing or projecting their own emotional reaction, as we are often unhappy/angry when we judge people’s behavior/results to be beneath our standards. Note that this is not necessarily unreasonable: standards can be essential, they can be the difference between triumph and disaster, between celebration and tragedy, between life and death. Sometimes when people’s work or standards of behavior are not good enough, it really fucking matters and they should change, for everyone’s sake.
But despite this potential and common dynamic, judgment itself is not a negative process; it is essential. We must have standards or there is no right and wrong; there is not even any “good enough”, and anything goes, including the most deficient, dangerous or abhorrent behaviors. We must make choices in life, and having a coherent and valid set of values and standards to evaluate against is much more useful than evaluating every single situation de novo (not truly possible to achieve, or practical to attempt). Therefore, judgment. It is innate to our navigating this physical environment, and therefore innate by extension to navigating our social environment.
Should We Judge?
I consider this question sufficiently answered – it’s not a matter of “should we”, but rather a recognition that tn the reality of being human, where we are possessed of (possessed by?) ego-identities that are tasked with keeping us alive at all costs, judgment is an inherent and essential capacity and tendency. Let’s be respectful of its right use, cautious of its misuse, and above all – learn to use it better. However, the question of “What should we do with our judgments?” is a much thornier problem, and will have many answers across many situations and contexts. Sometimes it may be best to keep them to ourselves; to file them away, to dismiss them, or to act on them independently. Sometimes it may be best to communicate them; but how? And when? These are not easy questions to answer. I think having a good handle on judgment, having a healthy and effective relationship with the innate faculty of judgment we all possess, marks a substantial part of wisdom.
To answer the question with which I opened, in the title of this article: No, judgment is not bad. When it comes down to it, right use of judgment depends entirely on our motivations, our self-awareness and our wisdom.
“Judgments fester in the shadows, and should have the courage to see the light of day, or be dismissed.” – Mike Peiman