being judgmental: imprudent and vicious

People seem to like to claim that they aren’t judgmental. Especially the hip, young, urban, liberal people who I encounter regularly. What’s wrong with being judgmental, anyway? There are at least two aspects to it, I think which maybe get conflated.

On the one hand, sometimes the badness of being judgmental gets explained something like this: “Well, when I first met Bob, I thought he was stupid and annoying, but I gave him another shot. And now he’s my best friend! So we shouldn’t be too judgey about people.” This view is really about what’s prudentially wrong with being judgmental: you sometimes judge wrongly, causing you to miss out on valuable relationships and experiences.

But there’s still something morally wrong with being judgmental: it’s vicious to have negative attitudes towards others, in certain cases. No reasonable person would go so far as to say that negative attitudes towards others are always wrong to have – attitudes like resentment play an important role in our moral-psychological lives. So to be “judgmental” in this sense must have something to do with having unwarranted negative attitudes towards others. Our judgments are unwarranted when they are based on too little information about another person, such as a single encounter with them or just going by their appearance.

There are probably some ought-implies-can issues here, in that our attitudes may not be under our rational control. I actually think that’s true, and as a result people should be cut a certain amount of moral slack for merely having negative attitudes towards others. But they should refrain from acting upon those attitudes when they are in fact unwarranted.

But notice that not being judgmental, on this account, is completely compatible with making informed judgments about the qualities of others’ characters and deciding to associate with them (or not) on that basis. One need not refrain from making any social discriminations in order to avoid charges of being judgmental. In my opinion, it is neither morally required nor prudent to behave as a kind of equal opportunity socializer – our time is limited, and we should spend it with certain people (and not with others) for good reasons.


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