Truth and Judgment

In PeaceAble on July 25, 2014 at 4:48 pm

We all do it. And when the people we do it to do it, we declare that it is a terrible thing and no one should ever do it. Perhaps it is simply a vestigial trait from our evolutionary past. Perhaps it is one of the things that make us unique in the animal world. Perhaps it is essential to our survival and perhaps it is the thing which may ultimately cause our extinction.
We judge.
Now let me clarify for a moment. Judging, as I mean it here, is not the same as assessing or evaluating. If we look at a person’s actions and perceive those actions to have some fault, and we can address that fault in terms of the action itself then we aren’t judging, we are assessing. An assessment or evaluation may be wrong, but we should be able to somehow express the basis for it. A judgment applies the standards of a personal moral code to the assessment and, simultaneously, to the person or entity whose actions we are assessing.
Moral codes are an essentially human trait. As far as we can reasonably tell, no other creature besides the human has or needs a moral code. But we do have and need one. Because humans have the capacity to ask abstract questions about things like purpose and motivation and intent; questions about possibilities and consequences; and questions about the nature of our own existence and our relationship to each other and the rest of the universe; we need to have some set of standards to guide us in finding answers to those questions and acting on those answers. Some of us have highly personal codes and others have codes that more closely align with the moral/ethical teachings of some agency, institution, group or system of belief outside of ourselves, but nobody has a moral code without uniquely personal aspects.
The problem with moral codes is that they have elements that we believe so strongly that they are treated as Truth (note the capital “T”), and these truths are the core of our moral code. When we encounter others who do not share these truths, we feel threatened by that, and the only way to protect ourselves and our truth is to decide that the other person is wrong. So far, so good. There is no harm in that. But we also have to ask ourselves how the other person cannot see the truth that is so clear and so important to us. And the answer often is that they are somehow lacking something we possess; some ability or insight or sensitivity that allows us to see the truth that they cannot see. And that is the beginning of judgment because it is the beginning of self-superiority.
None of us is immune to this. As I sit here writing this, I am reminded of my very short career (one day) as a door-to-door salesman. What I realized after that one disappointing day was that I was completely unable to convince myself that anyone else actually needed what I was selling. But I am writing a blog and posting links to it because I have somehow convinced myself (though not without regular bouts of uncertainty) that other people might have some need for my ideas . . . for my truth. Also, I must confess that my ability to see this truth and express it make me feel somewhat superior to those who cannot see what I see. Also, the moment I proclaim that I am, at least, able to see and admit that I am so self-aware and honest, I set myself apart from those poor folk who still struggle in the darkness of their own self-ignorance.
I used to tell my students (only somewhat facetiously) that self-help books were designed to tell us exactly how flawed we are and how our awareness of our flaws could help us become more nearly perfect human beings. We could than go forth and tell everyone else what we had learned about not just our own flaws (which we were working hard to correct), but also theirs (which they clearly were not working on); and if they told us that we were mistaken we could triumphantly declare that they were in denial. We, you see, knew the truth.
As our country and our culture struggle through this time of significant social and political polarization, we are seeing people struggle to find some truth of sufficient size and power and certainty to help us feel safe. And there is no such truth. There are too many gods (or, if you prefer, ideas of god) for any one or two of them to provide that truth. And the actions of those who most loudly proclaim their adherence to some godly truth are often so clearly wrong to everyone else that the truth itself is called into question. Science and reason provide one kind of truth, but it is a mundane, manageable truth, lacking the grandeur and mystery and transformative power of (for want of a better word) spiritual truth. We want something more than the assurance that the world makes sense. And we want some reason to believe that we’ve got it right; that more than just the universe, our lives, our very existence makes sense.
I believe that we will only learn how to really listen to one another, really work together to make a more peaceable world, learn to love one another, when we really understand that our truth can imprison us; but it can also set us free. I am not, by the way, saying that we should tolerate one another’s truth. I dislike the idea of “tolerance” as a way of dealing with human differences. Tolerance suggests superiority. We tolerate what we believe is inferior, but we can live with it. I am suggesting acceptance of each other’s truth. We need not and should not, however, accept or tolerate harmful acts of any kind based on anyone’s truth. We need to learn, I think, to evaluate the impact of our actions and the actions of others so that we can mitigate the harm those actions cause, but to reserve judgment.

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