How can you judge people’s actions and not judge the people?

I don’t think it is logically possible, and even if it were logically possible I submit that it is not humanly possible.

It’s not logically possible because when you believe that someone’s actions are “sin,” you have judged a human being’s actions as sinful. To judge a person’s actions is to judge their motivations and reasons for the actions. To judge motivations and reasons, which spring forth from character, is to judge character. To judge character is to judge a person.

What does it mean to “judge”? When we accuse people of “judging,” we accuse them of making (negative) judgements about what kind of person someone else is–of negatively judging reasons, motivations and character. If you believe that it is wrong to steal, you will make better character judgements of a person who does not steal than of someone who does. Therefore, judging the person’s actions is the same as judging the person.

Christians often say “who am I to judge?” But saying “who am I to judge” is highly offensive when you judge anyway. The crime is not always the judging, but the lying to oneself and others about the judging.

Let us suppose that it is possible to judge a person’s actions without judging the person. That is: “I think what you did was wrong, but I don’t think you are any worse of a person for doing these wrong things” (so what makes someone a worse person, then? Bad motives? Am I not right in assuming a link between bad motives and bad actions? Nevermind all this for a second). Even if this is a logical possibility, it is an inhuman hypothesis. Nobody is capable of this type of thinking. When you see people around you engaging in behaviours that you believe are sin–transgressions against the most holy God–and when you yourself are not participating in this sin… you will perceive yourself as “better” than them.

It doesn’t matter how much you intellectually deny this. It doesn’t matter how many pieces of paper you sign under oath that everyone is “just as much of a sinner.” Because you don’t actually feel this way. You feel better than them. You feel cleaner than you would feel if you did those things, and hence, you feel cleaner than the people who do those things.

I felt cleaner than those people.

To some extent, I still do.

The only difference between me and you, fellow judgemental human being, is that I no longer pretend.


8 Responses to “Judgement”

  1. Ben Mordecai Says:

    The main difference for me is that I genuinely do think that sinners are terrible people, but likewise I think that I am a sinner.

    The Christian admonition not to judge refers to holding others to a standard of judgement that you yourself will not pass. This boils down to hypocrisy.

    Ultimately, since the whole point of Christianity is that our righteousness has to be 100% the good works of Jesus, Christians actually do have a standard that they can live up to without hypocrisy. That standard could be stated as follows:

    “People who do bad things are bad people. Bad people have hope only in the reckoning of Jesus’ works as received by faith.”

    How else could you even have a standard that you yourself could keep? If you say you should not steal, but you find yourself stealing you are a hypocrite. But if you say “Thieves are bad people, of whom I can be numbered, but anyone who trusts in the merit of Jesus is himself counted righteous,” then you can accurately make a “judgement” without being “judgmental” in the negative sense.

    Is this what most Christians mean when they say, “who am I to judge?” Probably not, but this is why Christians should seek the gospel all the more and continue to be trained in the scripture.

  2. I agree. Thinking that we’re all terrible and judging us all, including oneself, avoids certain criticisms that I was levelling in this particular post. It also affirms the crucial points I was making, so thank you.

    Actually, I just reread what you said, and it isn’t quite that simple…

    When you re-frame the standard (in the quotes), you’re trying to create a new standard that you can hold others to, but pass yourself. What is it? It isn’t clear from what statement–but I would infer that it’s: “Receive Jesus Christ in faith.” That’s what you expect from other people.

    When other people fail to live up to this standard, you judge them. Not “their actions,” but them, the people. It’s almost impossible not to. That’s my main point.

    • Ben Mordecai Says:

      Well, not quite. I think that I am acknowledging a standard that is already set in Christianity. I’m being self-deceptive if I lob myself a softball as a standard, but then go on judging others who don’t live up to that one.

      There is a sense where you make a statement like “Lying is evil” objectively, regardless of who is or isn’t a liar. Once this standard is set in place, you can apply it to deem who is or is not a liar and therefore who is or is not evil. If I’m understanding you correctly, would agree with you on this point. There is no substantial difference between someone doing evil and being evil.

      The problem is that once you establish the standard, in one form or another, it will end up applying to you.

      So the effect of Jesus’ teachings on judgment, such as in the sermon on the mount, is that when you make yourself out to be a judge and say, “He is an evil person because he is a liar” and you begin to treat him with disdain, you can be totally oblivious to the fact that you yourself are a liar and are worthy of that same disdain.

      Similarly with the man who tries to get the speck out of a brother’s eye while a log is in his own. They both need to be saved from their wood-in-the-eye condition, but it it presumptuous to attempt to rescue another when you yourself are need that rescue even more.

      So this comes back around to the standard of judgement. What is a livable standard? How do you honestly recognize truly horrible behavior without feeling holier-than-thou? It isn’t easy. We just have to continually remember forgiveness and Jesus’ righteousness imputed to us on the basis of his death on the cross. It is almost like if the man with the log turns to the man with the speck and says, “I know someone who can help us both see straight” So Jesus himself becomes the standard as the only righteous man, and as the one who gave up his life so that he could be generous to you.

  3. I do understand this, and I understand why you’re saying it.

    You seem to agree with the point that motivated me to write this post, so I’ll discuss the extended implications of it instead, which we can safely disagree on.

    A Christian and a Heathen do not always agree that the speck and the log exist. However, the Christian must judge the other person’s actions (and thereby the person), even if they are only wrong by Christian standards (and nobody else’s). This affects things in people’s lives. It is irrespective of any holier-than-thou business that may go on.

    The Christian must judge–self included, self excluded, mortified, redeemed, holier-than-thou, struggler-like-thou, or otherwise. I don’t have to judge anymore. If someone is doing a terrible thing by my standards, I can nonetheless accept that they’re doing what they think is best. I don’t need to believe that they deserve punishment for being mistaken. I can even entertain the possibility that my own standard is flawed.

    I can search for a way for us to see straighter, but I don’t have to feel like we’re guilty for having these specks and logs in our eyes in the first place.

    There’s a tangible difference between believing that we’re all terrible creatures who deserve eternal condemnation, and believing that we’re all confused and troubled creatures who are trying, with varied amounts of success, to help each other navigate this incomprehensible existence that none of us asked for. To someone who truly prefers the former to the latter, I have nothing to say.

    I remember someone I know once objecting to the Our Lady Peace song “Innocent,” with the simple Christian complaint that… “we’re not all innocent.” On principle, I forced myself to agree. But now I’m done with that. I’m done with–as Stephen Law aptly called it in one of his comment threads–this shitty view of humanity.

    On a side note, I do find it interesting that you have left a seamless trail of occasional comments (six in total) on here over the past two years, despite there being a gigantic seam in the middle of this blog over that time.

  4. Ben Mordecai Says:

    Yes, I subscribed a while back and have read pretty much every post I see you right as it shows up in my reader. I really appreciate you as an author. You posts are honest, and i think you really seek to treat other viewpoints fairly, without imputing false motives even on those you disagree with. It is very enjoyable to interact with you. Obviously, I would love for you share in the faith like myself and I was sad to see that seam tear.

    So back to the topic of judgement, I think that your viewpoint can come full circle and end up proving too much, more than you would be comfortable with. You end up with a choice between several unlivable philosophies:

    1. If you decide that you will just judge absolutely no actions as being wrong, then you have to live in conflict with yourself as you witness injustices every day. You can convince yourself that specks and logs don’t exist, but you still have to wrestle with the pain of getting something in your eye. When you hear about prison camps that starve, and gas people to death before burying them in mass graves, you have to convince yourself that the tremendous sense of injustice is not legitimate. With absolutely no moral standards, you can’t even say that this is bad. You can’t help but call it evil, just like it is. It’s an extreme case, but if a philosophy can’t handle these kind of cases, it shows the illegitimacy of that philosophy.

    2. If you assume, that there may be some standard out there, but everyone is trying their best, you have to square that with people who clearly are not trying their best. My wife had a check stolen from out of a car, and the thief used it to pay for a $300 TV bill, and had prior convictions for gang rape. I don’t think it is reasonable to say that he was merely confused and troubled. Sure, he was probably confused and troubled, but isn’t there legitimacy in deciding not to soften the blow and just call what he did “evil?”

    3a. If you decide that morality is a matter of personal opinion with no objective reality, you end up in the in the same problem as philosophy 1. If someone has their own opinion that capturing, starving, gassing, and desecrating the bodies of other people, the best that you can say is, “In my opinion, that’s wrong.”

    3b. You can slightly modify this and say that morality changes with the time or culture. Defeating this argument is just as easy, for the same reason that you can’t look at the historical figures who committed the said atrocities and attribute it to their historical conception of right and wrong.

    4. You can attempt to enumerate an objective moral standard with certain things that are required and certain things that are forbidden. Once you do, you will find that you can’t live up to your own standard. Invariably, you have to judge others when they violate the standard and excuse yourself when you do. This is hypocrisy. Living this way is the very essence of being “judgmental.”

    5. You can judge only the motives of a person without minding the actions themselves. The problem is that actions always have motivations. If you desire something for yourself and unfairly cause harm to someone else in order to get it, you do have bad motives. I think that most people expect this much of others, and it’s why children will cry, “It’s not fair!” without having to be taught this by anyone. Furthermore, you’re left again with the fascist problem. You can’t say that genocidal behavior has good motives behind it.

    My wife is yelling at me to come to bed. I’ll leave it here for tonight.

  5. Thank you. I appreciate that.

    1. I didn’t say that I don’t believe in the specks and the logs; I said that I don’t feel like it’s humanity’s fault that we’re born with them (to be distinguished from any particular action). I also don’t think I can believe in punishment for punishment’s sake. I think that every human action happens for a reason, including the punishment of people who commit crimes. I think things are wrong, but I don’t know if I think people are wrong.

    If you try to make me uncomfortable by pointing out the suffering in the world, you will succeed, but I don’t believe that Christianity solves this problem. Far from it. It would take me a lot of text to expound my thoughts on moral responsibility, but I do not think that Christianity is the only possible way to justify a moral framework. I will agree that we need to *try* to believe in an ontologically real morality of some sort. Some people don’t think so, but on this point I will side with you.

    2. We can call it evil. But why did he do the evil? Why isn’t he trying his best? We make exceptions for people who are affected by externalities that we can quantify (told at gunpoint to do it, affected by medication, etc.), but for people whose motives are mysteries to us, we condemn the person on a more intrinsic level. I doubt that there is such a distinction; I think that the extent to which we blame people is simply a function of how clear, or unclear, the causes are to us.

    3a. I would like to believe in some kind of a real standard. I see no reason to disagree with you on this unless I want to get suicidally depressed.

    3b. Actually, I think this is a pretty sound argument. Morality does change with time and culture, but it can still refer to a standard that transcends the changes. You’re fighting an uphill battle here, because you have the Old Testament to explain. There are all sorts of atrocities and rules of conduct in there that we now consider dead wrong.

    Morality refers to the consequences of actions, and the consequences change quite a bit depending on what the social norms are, and what people expect of each other. This does not necessarily excuse atrocities, the sacrificing of one’s daughter due to a rash promise to God, etc.

    4. Why do I have to excuse myself when I fail my own standard? I agree with applying the standard to everyone. In this Christian view, you are deserving of eternal judgement unless you get 100% (and nobody gets 100%). It’s a very Asian Parents way of looking at it. I’m fine with having a standard that even I fail at times, but for the most part am able to live by.

    5. I don’t see why I have to disagree with anything you said here. But I would like to point out that some truly awful stuff happens that *is* nobody’s fault, and as much as we hate it, we have to accept it. People with schizophrenia get knives and kill the children next door because they believe their souls need to be set free. Even if people have bad motives, it is another matter to explain what should happen to them for finding themselves in possession of these bad motives.

    All this religion has royally screwed up my chances at finding someone to yell at me to come to bed. But I too need to sleep.

  6. Ben Mordecai Says:

    The world is a sad place, there is no denying that, but the point of the suffering that I brought up was to directly link a weighty moral evil to the disgust you feel in the soul over it. Furthermore, if a philosophy of morality can’t definitively call the most significant moral atrocities in history “evil,” then it points to the weakness of that philosophy. All this to prove the insufficiency of the various philosophies I listed about morality to result in one that is internally consistent and livable.

    I think your reference to the Old Testament is helpful at this point. I don’t believe that our view of Old Testament morality has changed due to becoming modern people with a different cultural understanding of morality. I think you would probably agree that the morality of the Old Testament has to be taken on its own terms. By that I mean, you can’t attribute evil to the Old Testament view of morality divorced from its fundamental assumptions, namely that there is one God who exists ontologically and is perfect in every attribute, and therefore worthy of praise.

    So take a common example of this supposed immorality of the Old Testament: the conquering and slaughtering of the tribal enemies of Israel. An atheist could look at this and (uncritically in my opinion) blame religion for violence. The unbeliever has not done his due diligence, because *if* there is a God who truly is all glorious and worthy of worship, it becomes injustice for someone so worthy to be robbed of the glory due to him. Due to the supreme gloriousness of God, such an injustice must match in weight with a fitting punishment. Due to his own mercy, he is long suffering with them. He allows them to go on robbing him of glory (knowing that this glory will be recovered and magnified in the death and resurrection of Jesus). But finally, for the vindication of all that is good and right in the universe, God’s name must be vindicated and people must undergo the judgment they deserve. Deciding to be exceedingly merciful, he elects a people group to set his love upon in a special way, and scandalously decides to use them as a means to exact his judgment against the unjust.

    Notice that these facts just follow from the premise: that an all-glorious God actually does exist. So when such an atheist decries the violence of the Old Testament, all the really is saying is that he doesn’t believe in God, and really… we already knew that.

    Likewise the situation with Jephthah’s vow must be taken in its context: that Jephthah was actually disobedient in sacrificing his daughter. The law explicitly forbids human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31) and even makes provision for atonement of sin regarding a hasty vow that would result in sin (Leviticus 5:4-6). Ultimately, we just see that Jephthah was a fool like most of the Jewish judges in the book of Judges. It sets the stage for the culmination of the foolish enterprise: the demand of the Israelites to dethrone God and anoint Saul as king. God works all of this together to show his mercy in setting David on the throne, and promising the eternal king from the line of David: Jesus where God recovers his throne as the king of Israel and gives his people rest.

  7. I agree that a philosophy has a weakness if it cannot call certain things evil. However, this admittedly does not mean it is incorrect; merely that it is unsatisfying. Personally I would still like to call certain things evil and hold a view that allows this.

    I don’t think you need one God who exists perfectly in every attribute for things to be evil, though I concede that you probably need something.

    I agree that blaming religion for (ancient) violence is severely misguided. Mostly.

    No, absolutely not–when an atheist decries the the Old Testament, he is saying that this God is not consistent with our moral intuitions, or even with logic. These moral intuitions are the ACTUAL basis for most of the morality that we all employ in life. Presumably, if there is a God, he endowed us with them! What the atheist is really saying is that the Old Testament casts severe doubt on the existence of Old Testament God, because such a God doesn’t make sense and doesn’t seem right.

    This description of God that you’ve laid out there is a consistent, Christian description, and if you ask me it requires the suppression of emotion, intuition and human reason. It is something that is rationalized after the fact (or after one is taught it as a child, say)–it is not a selling point for people who don’t already believe it. Even new converts accept the good parts before rationalizing the bad parts. There’s a reason why people always try to give you the NT and the Psalms. They don’t want you to swallow the whole package; they just want you to swallow the bait and the hook.

    When we see certain people groups (who will not be named) doing violent things in the name of a different God, we use this as evidence that they must be mistaken about God because “God would not be like that.” They could just as easily answer that “Ah, but that’s because you don’t believe in [Him] and his standards, which we already knew. By HIS standards, and by ours, he is quite just. Are you saying you’d know what God would be like?” Yes, I am. That’s how I decide which god to believe or not believe in.

    I can’t stress the circularity of this enough. You cannot say “these things God does are moral, if you just accept that he exists and decrees that these things are moral.” It is true, but it is trivially true, because it applies to any belief system.

    Yes, but why does Japhthah KEEP his hasty vow? Presumably he thinks God wants him to keep it, even if it was a mistake. That’s the way God’s character is perceived at that time. There are two kinds of people on earth–one (reasonable, relational) who would say “Oh, don’t do that; that’s a terrible thing to do, and you made a mistake making that vow,” and another (unreasonable, authoritarian) who would say “Chinese rules. You made the vow. You pinky swore. Kill the child.” Who voted in this God who resembles the latter picture, I don’t know.

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