What Does It Mean to Be “Judgmental”?

Legitimate, rational judgment is the exercise of forming and holding opinions about individuals and situations based upon objective observation of the facts of reality, including generalizations based upon consistent observation of those very facts.

The extent to which you allow emotions (detached from facts) to contaminate your objective judgment is the extent to which you are being judgmental. Emotions are fine as consequences of rational, fact-based judgments; emotions should not, however, serve as the basis for judgments.

If you have emotions, your mind is making judgments whether you care to call them judgments or not. The question is what you do with those emotions.

If you know a young man who uses drugs every day, misses half of his college classes and shows no evidence of ambition or goals, you are right to judge him as a troubled, aimless individual who is going nowhere fast. On the other hand, if you conclude that another young man is a drug user merely by the school he attends or his choice of major, you are being judgmental.

If you determine that a businessman is sleazy and dishonest because he lies to his clients and shows a consistent record of selling shoddy products, then you are making a rational judgment. If you conclude that a businessman is sleazy and dishonest merely because he is a businessman, however, then you are being judgmental.

If you meet a black woman with a young child and immediately conclude that she is a welfare mother, you are being judgmental and arguably racist. If you meet any woman, of any race, and discover that she collects welfare checks, makes no effort to work, and repeatedly becomes pregnant, lying to her sexual partner that she is using birth control, then you have reason to judge her as a freeloading parasite.

Once you judge someone using rational standards, then you have earned the liberty of expressing an emotional reaction about him. If the facts tell you the individual has integrity and intelligence, you allow yourself to feel warmth and admiration. If the facts tell you the individual has no integrity and does not use his talents well, you allow yourself to feel dislike and disgust. To the rational person, emotions are the result—not the cause—of objective observation and analysis.

If you experience emotions without a factual base, this fact does not by itself mean you are irrational; you are irrational only if you let the emotion affect your conscious evaluation of the situation one way or the other. If you meet someone for the first time and notice a sense of like or dislike, you are not irrational. You are irrational only if you claim to know something about his intelligence, worth or moral character based solely on this initial ‘gut’ feeling. It is not the presence of feelings that makes you judgmental; it is what you do with these feelings, consciously and through action, that counts.

In today’s subjectivist-mystical cultural climate, psychologists and educators discourage rational judgment altogether. They inappropriately lump judgmentalism into a package deal which includes legitimate judgment as well as irrational judgmentalism.

Not a week goes by in my practice, for example, where a client does not say to me, ‘I hate to sound judgmental, but….’ I often interrupt the client and ask him to define ‘judgmental;’ almost invariably, the definition is dangerously vague and shows traces of the false package deal. Consequently, the individual feels guilt-ridden not because he acts on irrational judgments, but because he seeks to make judgments at all.

Failure to distinguish between legitimate, rational judgment based upon observation of the facts of reality versus judgmentalism detached from reality can lead to unhealthy false alternatives. You will come to feel that you must choose between (1) Pollyanna-like phoniness and pretension, in which even obvious facts must be ignored so as to be ‘sensitive’ to others; or (2) hostile, hateful rejection of facts in favor of whatever prejudice or whim suits one’s fancy of the moment.

It is not judgment itself that you should avoid, but judgment detached from objective facts and logical arguments. Rational judgment is a necessary component of human survival and happiness.

Choosing the right marital or business partner requires judgment. Buying the right car involves judgment. Even deciding how to cross a busy highway at the appropriate time entails a judgment. Rational judgment is good and necessary, and is not the same as judgmentalism.


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