Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Justice of Thy Plea

Why are we so willing to judge other people? Where does this urge come from - this need to sit in judgement over our fellow beings - to sum them up in a phrase, a word, a life sentence. If I gave you a gun and said you could shoot anyone you wanted to at point blank range would you do it? Yet everyday, we press the barrel of our judgements against the beating heart of total strangers and have no compulsion in pulling the trigger.
Understand that this is not a screed against personal judgements. I do not believe in the naive notion that all people are equal or essentially the same, I am quite happy to make snap judgements about people. All I object to is the elevation of these judgements to a moral plane - an elevation that leads inexorably to intolerance and prejudice. Oscar Wilde once said "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written." (very few people realise this, but under all that sparkling wit, Wilde was both a very serious thinker and a truly moving poet). I believe the same should apply to people. People are either interesting, or they are not (or put differently, since all judgements are subjective anyway, people either interest you or they don't). You're welcome to decide that you have no desire to interact with another person, without having to prove that he's somehow wrong / evil.
What, you may ask, is the difference between personal judgements and moral ones? First, personal judgements are less emotional - you do not hate someone because he's uninteresting or annoying - you may avoid him, but you wouldn't kill him*. The danger of moral judgements is precisely that they give sanction to actions that would otherwise be unjustifiable, as the bombings of the recent weeks will testify (most people miss the point about these bombings, btw, the real issue is not whose moral judgements are right - who's good, who's evil - the real issue is that people should not be allowed to kill others in the name of moral judgement - this applies as much to the US invasion of Iraq as it does to the bombings in London**). Second, moral judgements are more static and absolute - you can like this or that about a person (and you can change your point of view the minute new information comes to light), but you don't necessarily make a judgement about his / her character as a whole. Third, personal judgements are judgements of the individual and as such are seen as being opinions, while moral judgements take the form of universal truths, so that we feel compelled to get others to agree with us.
(Ghalib writes:
"Haan, voh nahin khuda parast, jaao voh bewafa sahi;
Jisko ho din-o-dil aziz, uski gali mein jaye kyon?"
"Yes, he (she) is not god-fearing, Yes, he (she) is faithless;
But if you care so much for faith and honour, why do you go to visit him (her)?"
Sorry. He doesn't translate well.)
An Error of Judgement
Why do I think that moral judgements are wrong?
First, because I feel that they take too dispositional a view of human beings. We are all creatures of circumstance, all products of an infinite combination of social forces and individual events in our past. This does not mean, of course, that we should be allowed to evade responsibility for our acts; only that even as we condemn the act we must recognise that it is not the result of some 'character flaw' but merely the logical outcome of a sequence of situations stretching way into the distant past. This is one reason why personal judgements are easier to change - we are willing to make room for the possibility that under different conditions the person might behave differently***.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, moral judgements see the individual as a single entity, rather than as the vector of different qualities that I believe people truly are. Suppose, for instance, that someone you're close to and whose company you enjoy hurts or betrays you in some way. This is good reason not to trust that person again (assuming of course that there were no extenuating circumstances) but it's hardly good reason not to continue to enjoy that person's company. Yet a moral view of the world would instantly condemn this person as being immoral (or a jerk) and would suggest that you have nothing more to do with him / her.
Third, I feel that many moral judgements arise out of a confusion between causes and consequences; between intentions and outcomes. Moral judgements tend to focus on a person's intent rather than on the effect of his actions. In the absence of the ability to read human minds, however, the intent itself can only be inferred from action (or from statements, which are ultimately a form of action themselves)****, and such inferences are merely a way of obfuscating the truth of what we see / experience and introduce considerable opportunity for subjective manipulation and error. More critically, however, the use of intention rather than outcome as the relevant metric seems illogical - what do I care why the person is doing something as long as I know how it makes me feel and am reasonably certain of being able to maintain it? So on the one hand people will continue to carry on with unhappy relationships because they feel that he / she means well. On the other hand, there's this person I was having a discussion with the other day who said that he really enjoyed poetry but had stopped reading it because he felt that it was all just egoism on the part of the poet. Both of these points of view are just stupid.
Fourth, implicit in all moral judgements is the incredibly arrogant idea that there is one single answer to the universe, one 'right' moral code and that it happens to be the one that you believe in. To begin with, it's not clear that there is such a thing as a moral code at all - whether life has any meaning whatsoever. Even if there is a solution to the system of equations that life represents, it's not clear why that solution is unique - there may be many paths to salvation. And finally, even assuming that there is one path, what are the odds that you happen to be the one person among some 6 billion who understands it? I'm quite willing to live with the possibility that everything I believe (including everything I've said in this post) is error - but since I have no way to prove / disprove this (or any other assumptions I were to make) I figure I may as well carry on with these assumptions as long as they make me happy. I'm quite willing, therefore, to let other people have their own lifestyles, as long as they don't inflict them on me. I'm never going to have any respect for people who listen to hip-hop or spend time watching football on TV, but I'm willing to make room for the possibility that they're the ones going to Heaven (assuming there is such a place) and I'm the one on my way to Hell (although, of course, you could question why I would want to go to heaven where everyone sits around drinking Budweiser and discussing the latest score).
My final argument against moral judgement comes straight out of the Bible - remember that bit about 'he among you who is without sin casting the first stone'? Only if we are willing to have moral judgement passed against us, should we be ready to judge others the same way. Or, as Shakespeare puts it (Merchant of Venice, IV.1 - the source that the title of this post comes from) "Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice none of us / should see salvation." You could argue, of course, (and rightly at that) that one may be willing to live with the absence of salvation, may be willing to condemn and to be condemned (I've always wished someone had done that in the Bible - said, "let me stone this woman to death and afterwards you can do the same to me. I don't mind") but that's not usually the point of view of those who make moral judgements.
Why do we do it?
Why then do people make moral judgements so readily?
First, moral judgements are a logical consequence of a bad habit of sense-making that we are all afflicted with. Because we need to believe in a) human agency / free will and b) a coherent universe, we have no choice but to ascribe meaning to everything and classify the world into categories - of which good and evil, right and wrong are merely a subset (Nietszche argues in the introduction to Beyond Good and Evil that the history of philosophy is the history of the search for the answer to the question what is right or wrong, without ever questioning why the distinction matters). We need to believe in a consistent, unequivocal world; and discrediting other people's certainties is the surest way of becoming more certain of our own.
Second, I believe (conveniently enough) that moral judgements are a sign of insecurity - they are both a way of seeking external validation for our ideas by breaking them down to crude values that allow us to connect to other people, and a means to lash out at other people and thereby express our superiority over them. In other words, they are a means to self-justification; the more we judge others the more we cry out to be judged and accepted, the more we cry out to connect to those around us, even as we withdraw (ironically) further and further away from them.
Third, moral judgements may arise out of sheer reciprocity. Not passing moral judgements is hard because even once you recognise that they're meaningless, it's still difficult for you to always be the bigger person and let others judge you without judging them. Sooner or later, like a child who's been pushed around too much on the playground, you push back.
Finally, moral judgements are easier to integrate into the larger social system. Society recognises moral judgements, provides templates for them (this is virtually the entire point of religion, for instance). To shy away from such judgements is to require a concentration of imagination and intelligence that few (if any) of us are capable of. Moral judgements are easier because they numb us, make us animals who will docilely follow the herd. To forge our way out alone into the world, without the mob to steer us, is more than our courage is usually capable of.
Not, of course, that I'm anyone to judge. :-).
* Of course, Durkheim would argue that it's precisely this emotional nature of moral judgements that brings society together - human collaboration is made possible not by love or by rational benefit but by the outrage we hold in common between us.
** Amos Oz writes (I misquote, but whatever) "In a conflict between the right and the right, the only value that matters is life itself".
*** This links closely to the notion of fundamental attribution error - the idea that people will blame their own faults on circumstances and the faults of others on their dispositions - he's always late for meetings; I just happened to get stuck in traffic.
****Always assuming that there is such a thing as intent at all. Behaviourist theory would argue that we are all merely emitters of conditioned, unthinking responses; Karl Weick argues that rationality is retrospective - that we act and then make sense of our actions, rather than the other way around.


e of b said...

Re intents vs. actions - I think perceived intent tells us whether we can count on the same actions in the future as well. Also becomes important in non-transactional relationships. Of course, if we were self-sufficient enough to always be ok with transactional relationships or not have any expectations from others, we wouldn't need to read intent behind actions - but that's a place that's tough to get to.

Falstaff said...

Correction - perceived intent tells you what you want to believe about whether you can count on the same actions in the future as well. Nothing more, nothing less. The trouble is precisely that you can kid yourself into believing anything - haven't you ever met these sad women who keep thinking their boyfriends will come around because "deep in his heart, he really loves me"? You don't need to be self-sufficient to be ok with transactional relationships, you simply have to be realistic enough to realise that only the present exists and everything else is just a fiction in your head.

Auden says:

"Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic, boring cry.
Every farthing of the cost
All the dreaded cards foretell
Shall be paid; but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought
Not a kiss, nor look be lost."

- W. H. Auden 'Lay your sleeping head my love'

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