Judge we must
One of the debilitating features of modernity that has sadly taken strong roots in Guyana is the propensity of many among our elites, especially in the business and religious communities to suspend judgements on the depravities that are overwhelming our society from “on high”.
This has to cease if we are to ever progress. A few years ago, Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Centre for Ethical and Political Thinking and Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College offered what we believe is a salutary perspective.
“We must face our unwillingness to judge. This fear of judgment is all too recognizable—the political thinker Hannah Arendt was writing about it in the middle of the last century. In her essays and books, Arendt gave voice to what she called the “fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame—especially, alas, upon people in power and high position.”
Pointing to many examples involving indicting the Nazis of her time, Arendt was struck by the “huge outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular person instead of blaming all deeds or events on historical trends or dialectical movements.” Instead of judging the wrongdoers, the people judged those who had the temerity to judge.
At the root of our problem with judgment, is the undeniable victory of relativism over truth. Judgment requires, above all, what Kant called disinterestedness and what Arendt called enlarged mentality, seeing the question from another’s point of view.
While it is singular, judgment is not mere personal taste or preference. To judge is to speak the truth, a truth that must always appeal to a common sense beyond one’s own prejudices. At a time when tolerance trumps truth, judgment’s claim to the truth leaves it vulnerable to mockery and derision.
Our unwillingness to judge is also part and parcel of liberalism itself. To worry about our impact on our planet and expose corporate irresponsibility shows farsightedness. But to hope that politicians will solve the problem while we drive our SUVs, swim in our heated pools, and run our air conditioners reflects a profound unwillingness to judge ourselves and those around us.
The rise of social science is yet another ground for our crisis of judgment. The more that social events and personal actions are understood to be calculable, predictable and manipulable through norms and rules identified by sociologists, economists and political scientists, the less responsible, people are for their actions. To say that someone commits a crime because he grew up poor with alcoholic parents or has a genetic predisposition to violence is to challenge the very assumption of personal responsibility that underlies judgment.
Finally, the retreat from judgment is a corollary of the overwhelming belief in equality that marks the modern era. Judgment, as thinkers like Arendt and Friedrich Nietzsche remind us, presupposes pride, or what once was called the dignity of man. Only one who believes oneself right can judge another; thus judgment presupposes a certain authority and superiority. The judge must possess a feeling of distinction, what Nietzsche called a “pathos of difference,” in order to arrogate to himself or herself the right to judge. Proffering reasons for one’s judgment—the mark of rational judgment in modern times—is a sure sign of weakness, an admission that one suffers from a feeling that he or she lacks the right to judge another.
From the fact of such a deeply ingrained distrust of judging, Arendt drew an essential lesson: namely, that morality in our times cannot be taken for granted. In the absence of judgment, and amidst doubt about the possibility of justice, she argued that we need to foster, support, and embolden morality.
To keep the idea of justice alive does not require curricula in ethics or a return of the catechism. Morality, as Immanuel Kant wrote … cannot be taught through rules in a classroom. Only by example can one be inspired to emulate moral action. Examples, as Kant saw, “are the go-cart of judgment.””