I’ve never done anything the law or most people would recognize as unforgivably bad. I’ve said mean things to or about some people, sometimes to the point of emotionally bullying them. I was rude to my parents. But I don’t think I ever engaged in violence against anyone.
I deserve no praise for that. That would be like praising someone else for not being a serial murderer. And such praise wouldn’t account for the way I sometimes hurt people through sins of omission: I’ve withheld affection to those who needed it and I sometimes haven’t helped others when I could or should have, or I’ve helped them condescendingly and without a sense of charity.
But I am thankful that I have seldom been tempted to do worse. If I had–if had been inclined or had the opportunity to do greater harms–I cannot honestly say I would have chosen to do the right thing. In fact, the few temptations I have had don’t augur well for my willingness to make the right choices. I won’t go into details. They were more on the venial side of the ledger of wrongs, but they still make me uncomfortable about what I’d choose if tempted to do worse.
I’m not saying right and wrong live on a sliding scale. I’m enough of a moral relativist to believe something can be right in one situation and wrong in another, but I do believe that in any situation, there is often a right and a wrong and that what is right or wrong in one situation points to an underlying principle of rightness or wrongness that is probably universal.
Instead, what I’m saying is, it’s hard for me to justify judging others. I’m not saying I don’t judge others. I do! But it’s hard for me to justify the act of judging. What right do I have to judge when I can’t say with any confidence that I wouldn’t be guilty of the exact same thing under similar circumstances?
Here I run into a difficulty. The verb “judge” has many different meanings. The two that seem relevant to my concerns are:
- Assess the worth of another person’s soul.
- Discern one’s likely intentions and future actions.
The easy answer is to say that given what I know (and don’t know) about myself, I am forbidden to judge in the first sense, but that I have the prerogative, even duty, to judge in the second sense. In practice, though, it’s very hard to do the second without doing the first.
Much of what I’ve just said neglects the perspective of victims. Maybe as someone who has never really been victimized, I am slighting a victim’s prerogative to judge when I insist on too neat a distinction between assessing another’s soul or discerning intentions and actions. And of course, I judge victims, too, just as most (I suspect all) of you do when the victim is someone who isn’t particularly sympathetic by your lights.
So I come back to my first principle: I have no right to judge people in the first sense I discuss above. And yet I’ll continue to do so, even if I try to favor discernment over moral judgments. And there will likely be many, many times I won’t even try. We must discern. We must protect ourselves and avoid placing or maintaining people in positions of power over others. Perhaps we also have an obligation to “bring wrongdoers to justice” or punish people because what they did merits punishment- although I’m not sure I really know what that means.
I’m just thankful I haven’t been tempted to do worse, because I don’t know what I’m capable of.