Judge and Be Judged

You’re in charge of your judgments, which you have to make to live on Earth, so get good at making them. Don't shun them out of a misplaced sense of propriety.

In everyday conversation, “to judge” and its derivatives have a strong halo of negative connotation—many people use the word “judge” as a synonym of “morally oppose.” Not surprisingly, one of the most common ways to encounter the word is in requests not to do it: “Don’t judge me,” “Don’t be so judgmental,” “Only God can judge me,” and so forth.

Part of the reason for this is that people are bad at judging; they mete out quick condemnations and shoddy approvals.

But the culprit here is bad judgment, not judgment itself. Unfortunately, people conflate the two.

Imagine if, in response to the presence of poison food, someone said “don’t eat the food.” But people then proceeded to voluntarily starve, avoiding both poison and safe food. The same kind of cognitive error that’s being made there has been baked into a cultural norm about judgment: “don’t judge” is leveled at bad judgment and proper judgment alike, to the extreme detriment of all.

Judgement is a necessary part of human life, and cannot be avoided. Your choices are not “judge” or “not judge.” They are “judge well, consciously, and thoughtfully” or “judge poorly, unconsciously, and inexactly.”

But it’s easier to judge well if you’ve explored the concept more fully.

What does “to judge” mean, actually?

“To judge” means “to evaluate, the end result of which is approval, neutrality, disapproval, or some combination of the three.”

But to judge—or evaluate—something properly, you need to have a command of the right information, and that comes in at least five different forms1:

  1. Time horizons: judging the success or failure of a rocket launch can take just a few minutes. Judging the success of an entire space program can take years. Keep in mind how long you’d need to observe something to evaluate it effectively.

  2. Completeness: sometimes you only need a little information, sometimes you need all of it. If you want to judge the market value of a car, you need more information than the tire brand. But if you want to know its color, you just need one bit of information. Make sure you have all the information you actually need.

  3. Importance: our time and attention are precious, and our judgement should be too. Don’t invest a lot of time (or any) judging someone’s preference for chocolate or vanilla, or the trivial details of strangers’ lives. It doesn’t matter. Things that do matter: your health, your happiness, your relationships, how you spend your time. Train your evaluative powers on these kinds of things primarily.2

  4. Contingency: everything in life is subject to change, and our evaluations (our judgements) should be as well. Most of our judgements should not be of the “set it and forget it” variety. People redeem themselves. Job markets shift. Our bodies change in what they can and can’t tolerate. We learn more. We make mistakes and misunderstand the world. So adjust your judgements about everything as necessary, and know that it will often be necessary.

  5. Scope: people often judge the whole character of a stranger by one action they observe, but would insist that that kind of judgment for themselves is woefully lacking in context. If you judge someone or something, resist the urge to expand the judgment beyond your actual information levels. Often we know remarkably little.

The key to judgment: the standard

If “to judge” means “to evaluate,” then the implied question is “evaluate against what?”. The answer: a standard.

A standard is a designated unit (physical, spiritual, or ideological), against which things are compared. Without a standard of some kind, you cannot judge anything.

In the case of measurement, standards are inches, feet, meters, moles, etc.

In the case of character and behavior, standards come from ethics.

In the case of a physical good, the standard is its intended use.

You get the idea.

Standards can be universal, as with measurement, or they can be highly contextual, as with behavior. Although the method of deriving a standard changes depending on domain, the need for them is everywhere.

Unfortunately, people don’t often have a clear view of what their standard is, or that they might have a different one than someone else.

This doesn’t usually happen in the realm of measurement. Everyone knows that the standard is units of length, and everyone uses the same tools to measure those.3 The standard is clear and agreed upon.

This does often happen in fields like ethics, politics, and *cough* public health. People have completely different standards (what is a good man, what is good government), and they make no effort to acknowledge or reconcile them; they just caps lock at each other ad infinitum.

The common problem isn’t having standards—it’s not clarifying and reconciling them.4

How to judge when you lack information? Extrapolation.

But sometimes we don’t have all the information we need! Either we lack information about the thing we need to judge, or we lack information about the standard we need to use. What to do?

Well, since we have to live in the world and often make decisions with incomplete knowledge, we do our best to fill in the gaps with extrapolation.

Say you’re on a date with a guy and he says/does several things that immediately throw up red flags: he’s horrible to the waitstaff, he gets overly drunk, he didn’t put on deodorant, he keeps interrupting you and he monologues the whole time.

You can’t possibly know for certain whether a series of improbable factors came together to produce this horrible first impression, which might otherwise be contrary to his nature. To really know who he is as a person, to judge him properly, you’d need to spend a lot of time with him—operate on a long time horizon.

But your time is limited, and this isn’t an advisable dating method for a variety of reasons.

You can probably guess, based on your experience on Earth, that this is close to his general nature. You can say, probably, when you observe a cluster of red flags like this on a date, that you aren’t compatible with the man. You also don’t have to go ahead and expand the scope of that judgement to be “he must be a bad man.” Keep it to the relevant realm for which you have information: “He is incompatible with me.”5

But beware: although extrapolation is necessary, it has an easy failure mode. Since it’s essentially making information up, based on what could be the case, it’s really easy to go ahead and make up anything to fit our convenience, either about the thing we’re judging or its standard.6 In fact, I’d say that most of us default to extrapolating incorrect things, unless we train ourselves to avoid it.

So, clarity of judgment requires three things then: (1) knowledge of your standard, and (2) knowledge of the thing you’re judging, and (3) an ability to meaningfully compare them. Without these things, your options are extrapolation until you have them, or suspending judgment pending further information.

How, therefore, shall I judge?

Good judgment requires good knowledge, good standards, and good extrapolation skills. If you’re fuzzy on any of these, your ability to judge—to evaluate—will be fuzzy as well.

So I say, keeping this in mind: judge and be judged.

You’re in charge of your own judgments, which we have to make anyway, so get good at making them. Demand good judgement of other people as well, especially your friends. Don’t let a societal decree of “don’t judge” excuse your personal discomfort with making tough calls, facing your own character flaws, or calling people on their bullshit.

And recognize that when people say some version of “don’t judge me,” that phrase can mean multiple things. It can mean “you don’t have enough information to make a judgment here, and what little you do have would mislead you if you extrapolated from it,” but in practice it often means “I’m doing something I know is bad for any number of reasons, and I don’t want you to note that.” In other words, “don’t judge me” often means “don’t disapprove of me.”

But it’s not all “get good at judging so you can face crap head on.” Proper judgment is also essential for happiness and self-esteem.

If you are clear about what judgment means, and what it requires, a lot of good things come about:

  • It’s easier to ignore negative judgments about what you do, who you are, and what you think, if you know that others are misjudging you, and that their whole system for judgment is bonkers anyway.

  • You can see the good in yourself! That means you can recognize your own worth! That means you don’t need someone else to validate you! You become both your standard and yourself—you love yourself as you are, while also reaching for a future version that has continued to grow.

  • You’re a better decision maker, and you can forgive yourself when you make errors in knowledge. You recognize that you’ll have to extrapolate to the best of your abilities sometimes, and that you’ll inevitably get something wrong. But that’s OK, that’s all in the nature of judgment. Improve and be better for next time.

  • Contrary to the popular image of “a very judgmental person,” which really just means “someone who judges really badly, usually by inflating the importance of the wrong things and getting the scope of them wrong,” being properly judgmental allows you to be more chill. You let the small things go, and you revise your estimates of people and things willingly.

  • You can show compassion and bring people back into the fold. Sometimes people hit rock bottom, but a proper judge knows—keeping time horizons and scope in mind—that rock bottom doesn’t have to be a permanent state. Often it isn’t, with the right support.

The upshot: recognize what judgment is, how it works, and why it’s a vital skill you should embrace, not shun out of some misplaced sense of propriety. Defend your judgments and your judging in the face of a squishy culture that would rather you not. If you want to know how to develop good judgement, well, heavens. That’s the whole of philosophy! And needless to say, that’s another essay.7

1

There are a lot of ways to style this list; I just chose some information types that I think are especially relevant. If you think something vital has been left out, I’d love to hear about that.

2

Of course, what is important changes wildly based on worldview. For example, some people would say that someone’s sexuality isn’t important when evaluating their character. Others would say it’s vitally important. But what is important and how is outside the scope of this essay.

3

If you are a scientist or engineer, please ignore how the particulars of your field complicate this statement and be chill. I’m talking about, like, measuring tables at Ikea or something.

4

“How do I develop proper standards” is a question for the field of ethics. And “How do I develop a proper ethical framework” is a question for the larger field of philosophy.

5

We have to extrapolate all the time for much more consequential decisions than a second date (military deployments, company layoffs or expansions, starting a business, etc). But I’m keeping it light!

6

In the case of dating, it’s often quite common for people to have an impossible standard for a man to meet. Often people don’t even realize they’re sabotaging themselves with these incorrect standards, and that’s because extrapolation, like fire, is a useful tool and a fearful master.

7

But you can ask my opinion if you want. I have loads of recommendations. Can’t go wrong with some Brené Brown books to start with. If you keep walking down this road, you’ll meet Aristotle!