On Criticizing and Judging Others

Yazz Ahmed asked me what I thought about judging others.  Is it wise? Should we engage in it?  Here’s what I answered his excellent question:

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with fair criticism when it is informed as much as possible by deep understanding of the reasons that motivated the behavior. Often we judge too quickly without knowing all of the facts and it turns out that our judgments were too hasty and even false.

Moreover, even when we make criticisms, it is wise to remain open-minded. Criticisms flow from particular kinds of beliefs, opinions, or knowledge that we have. All of these are necessarily limited and subject to change in light of new evidence and stronger reasons. Therefore, since it is wise to hold our beliefs only provisionally and not firmly (since we never have perfect and infinite knowledge of the facts), we should thus remain open to the idea that our criticisms may not be fully warranted.

In fact, I’ve criticized others for making certain decisions and then, a few years later found myself in the same situations making the same decisions. Experience can reveal that criticisms that once seemed so obvious are less founded or at least more complicated than we initially believed.

Another point that is important to bear in mind when criticizing others is that we are equally fallible. We also make mistakes. We also make bad decisions. I believe it was Confucius that taught me a useful maxim: “when notice see the virtues in a person, strive to emulate them. When you notice the faults in a person, examine your own character.” Noticing faults in others offers us a good opportunity to examine our own character and our own failures. This brings about humility as well as ethical development.

A final point is the importance of compassion in making criticisms of others. We really need to see that others suffer just like us and that their suffering matters. The actions we disapprove of might have been desperate attempts to cope with great suffering, they might have grown out of harsh lives and really devastating experiences, they might be signs of a person who is deeply hurting. We should care about that. We need to be careful not to reduce a person to their actions; a person is not defined by their mistakes and bad decisions. There is always more to them than that. I do criticize people, but I try to keep mindful of their suffering and their right to be respected as fellow human beings as well.


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