Judgement and Discernment

Judgement and Discernment article header image
Judgement and Discernment

Absurdity and inconsistency mark the no-judgment era. Values and virtues previously accepted fade, no longer vogue, and slapped with an unacceptable label. The no-judgment ideology appears progressive, given humanity’s ugly history of bigotry. But a nation, society or individual with no accepted values teeters on chaotic destruction. The non-judgment dogma easily spreads—it sounds good, so we pass it along. But when someone violates the creed and makes a judgement, we jump to action, pointing out the flaw, for they, we judge, committed an unforgivable sin. “You judge,” we condemn “you’re terrible.”

Complexity and Over-Simplified Labels

We live in information overload. We are constantly bombarded with information. Every notable personality in sports, entertainment, and politics are targets. Twitter wars are reported by mainstream media. It’s exhausting.

The cognitive demanding work of judging has become so complex that we just skip the whole non-sense, follow predetermined beliefs of good and bad and move on.

Hopefully, we see the destructive force this has when we apply it to human beings. However, we also apply it to concepts. We slap a label of good or bad on a concept and cheat ourselves of mindful choice. Judgement is a victim of poor all-inclusive labeling.

The practice of judging has many benefits and some glaring flaws. A flourishing life must judge many things and make difficult decisions based on those judgments.

“When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.”

~​Stephen Jay Gould

Judgement is Necessary

​Life demands evaluation between healthy and unhealthy, supportive and unsupportive, safe and unsafe. We must choose; and the act of choosing requires assessing facts, evaluating costs, and predicting rewards. Before a mindful choice, we must evaluate many factors, including assessing others—their intentions, strengths and weaknesses.

​When a person asks to borrow money, we must evaluate their money management skills and integrity. Evaluating pasts, we make inferences about the future. This cognitive skill protects against carelessly squandering money to swindlers, marrying psychopaths, or from divulging sensitive personal information to gossipers.

Memories and Emotions Role in Judgements

We rely on cognitive resources by assessing memories to predict the future. But thought alone is not enough. Undetected emotions powerfully influence action. The flow of energy creates impressions that motivate action. These impressions push to avoid the suspicious stranger, forego trips to the ATM during late hours, or deny permission for a child to spend the night at little Sammy’s house.

We don’t know for certain these events pose danger; we only suspect the possibility and act defensively. Some risks are not worth the gamble; so, we judge.

The judgment process discerns differences, attaches meaning, and predicts. Sometimes judgment is cognitive based; but often unconscious and automatic. Judgment taps multiple brain functions, integrates information and then motivates behavior.

Reason and Judgement

The problem with judgements, although they are necessary, is that they always integrate more than the facts. This usually out of necessity because we never have all the facts in a complex world. We often, to protect ourselves, must make a judgement on other peoples future behavior. For example, we may judge that the man standing in the shadows near the ATM machine will rob us if we withdraw money at night. Our judgment is based on some known facts and then combined with probabilities.

David Hume explains, “truth is disputable; not taste: what exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgement; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment” (1983). Our judgement that the man in the shadows has ill intent is based on a sentiment or feeling given what we know. This is different than a truth. As Hume puts it, “propositions in geometry may be proved, systems in physics may be controverted; but the harmony of verse, the tenderness of passion, the brilliancy of wit, must give immediate pleasure.” We give life to our judgments, act on our sentiments, really without ever knowing is our discerning of facts was true or false.

In the case of the ATM precaution, it is a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. We don’t get our cash and we don’t get robbed. Our judgements appears to be correct. However, we may never know.

Unfortunately, these processes are subject to error. Predictions of character, patterns of events, and personal experience occasionally fail. We draw a definitive conclusion from limited information. Life is too complex, and we know too little.

“Judging others is so effortless that most people don’t even realize they do it. It’s human nature to be alert and in-tune with the things around you. You were built with survival instincts.”

Power of Positivity

Individual Judgements Can Be Unfair

Judging isn’t bad; but individual judgments can be. Inhumane, unjust, and criminal behavior flow from bad judgment. Unconscious and automatic actions conserve mental energy—act now, justify later. These actions are swayed by invisible biases. Human atrocities live here, justified by self-righteous biases, ill-conceived labels are created from isolated and unreliable facts. Fear of differences, painful histories, and ego protection frustrates the judging process, interjecting misguided beliefs into the delicate equation.

“Striving to see the best in people is a quality with plenty of benefits. It’s probably one reason why agreeable people tend to be happier in their relationships and more satisfied with life.”

~Juliana Breines Ph.D.

Status Judgements

​While any judgments are derailed by misinterpretations, status-judgments are misguided from the start. Status-judgments have a bitter narcissistic flavor. 

Status-judgments rarely have definable utility; they are concerned with social positioning, addressing social anxieties and insecurities. Instead of examining complex causes of feeling affect, the simpleton projects a cause upon someone or a group of someones, escaping the task of complex examinations. From the uniformed lazy mind, hate infiltrates reason. The twenty-year old boy plows his car into the protesters, the sniper kills police officers—more fear, more hate, more destruction.

“…experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience as being a part of that client… It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of “I like you only if you are thus and so.” It means a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term. It is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude — “You are bad in these ways, good in those.”

~Carl Rogers

The unjust status judgments down ranks others with a hope of raising social position. Often the single voice is strengthened by a chorus, the masses of fools seeking confirmation for their hatred. The hurtful tune unifies a common unjust cause, viciously condemning an entire group of people. Racism, persecution, and scape-goating breed here. These zero-sum judgments—I win, you lose—lack forward-thinking utility.

Evolutionary tendencies and cultural reinforcements encourage status-judgments. They provide immediate gratifications at the cost of significant long-term damage. Relationships suffer, societies destabilize, and fear expands. The obsessive fear driven actions impedes pursuit of healthy personal and societal goals—dignity, justice and compassion. Dignity shouldn’t be subject to competition.

“Enthusiasm for a cause sometimes warps judgment.”

~​William Howard Taft

Erroneous Judgement

Life is complex. Choices are difficult. We never can gather enough facts to eliminate the possibility of error. We must make choices with limited information. Consequently, our judgements are subject to error, containing unfair inferences, harmful status-judgments, and self-excusing justifications. We still must make judgments for safety and opportunity but we must do so while simultaneously guarding against hurtful biases that trample the dignity of others. ​

“​Judgemental behaviour serves many functions in human society, but among the most critical is the purpose of sharing information about priorities and concerns, and to rally a community together in a co-ordinated fashion to deal with possible threats. “

Ella Alexander

Judgement and Discernment 

A history of deplorable judgments stains the ‘judgment’ concept. The word has a negative connotation; to separate bad judgment from good judgment, a new word has been inserted—discernment. The problem with linguistics is a new word doesn’t solve the complexity. No matter which term we use, we are still subject to cognitive shortcuts that interfere with fair assessments. I worry that by discarding the word ‘judgment’ and replacing it with ‘discernment,’ we only masks the underlying problem. Consequently, we make a poor judgement, label it discernment, and excuse our biased judgement because we see it as a discernment.

We christen the new word as divine, easing ourselves of the burden to monitor and evaluate. We say we are discerning; but still fail to detect misguided, incomplete and dignity-denying labels. In an odd paradox, we rely on subjective judgements to determine whether we are judging or Discerning.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

To protect judgments from error, we don’t need a new word; we need more attention, watching for the dangerous pitfalls of bias. Through compassionate mindfulness, we un-tether judgments from social competitiveness. Our growth enlightens true causes of anxiety, allowing for a more targeted cure. We must continually examine harsh judgments, asking do they motivate positive action or simply boost social status by down-ranking others? If a judgment and following action doesn’t accomplish personal and social goals, challenge those judgments.

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Hume, David (1751/1983). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hackett Publishing.

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