To Judge Or Not?

Judge not that you be not judged. For with what judgement you judge, you shall be judged.
- Jesus Christ

Conflict I received the impetus to write on this topic after a disagreement with my father about the need to judge people. Since I was unable to justify my stand, I began to collect arguments. I didn't realize what a big, difficult and messy topic I had taken on. After all my efforts I have merely licked the surface of the subject. I started out writing about the inadvisability of judgement, but discovered that conversation is impossible without it.


A judgement of a person is any evaluation, estimation or opinion about them. Whenever we put a label on someone we are judging them. It is worth noting that judgements are rarely neutral, though they can be positive.

Negative judgement has a spectrum of fine gradations, beginning with evaluation, leading to finding fault, culminating in condemnation and shame. Of course it is possible to criticise without condemning, but it is often hard to stop the process of judgement once it is begun. Bertrand Russell's conjugation comes to mind: "I am firm, you are stubborn, he is a pig-headed fool."

How it feels

When I think I am being judged, this gives me an awful feeling. I feel small, belittled, insignificant and weak. Few behaviours alienate me more than a strongly negative judgement of me, especially if I think it's undeserved. There is no come-back to a harsh judgement. Judgement is one of the main causes of separation and distancing between people. In particular, every form of labelling is alienating, as it reduces one to a simple category or object, e.g. 'technocrat', 'intellectual', 'sexist', 'smoker' - not to mention dismissive terms like 'bitch', 'fool' or 'user'.

To say, "She smokes" is not the same as, "She is a smoker". The first merely describes the person's actions, the second identifies the person with the activity of smoking. The example of smoking is a trivial one, but compare, "He is a killer" with, "He killed someone". The first of these statements is likely to make us think, "Why isn't he in goal?", the second is more likely to prompt the question, "What happened?"

Reading a book of sexual fantasies I was struck by the number of women who fantasized having sex with another woman. Yet many of them were horrified by the thought that the label 'lesbian' or 'bisexual' might apply to them. I found a corresponding reaction in myself: I had no feeling of distaste reading about two women caressing each other, but if I read "I met a lesbian," then I had a mildly negative reaction, though I'm not homophobic. This shows the destructive power of labels. Why do we need the labels 'gay' and 'straight'?

Positive labels feel as restrictive as negative ones: 'hero', 'genius' and 'selfless helper' take a part (often actually a projection) for the whole person. Even if they are flattering, labels are felt as constrictions by those who receive them. Even neutral labels like 'hobbyist', 'jogger' and 'tourist' restrict the way in which we see the person concerned, making them appear one-sided. No-one wants to be perceived as being one-dimensional.


The power of labels calls to mind the fear of pre-literate people that a photograph will capture their soul. In a similar way, we all fear that a label, especially if it seems justified, captures a part of our being and makes it artificially permanent. At the same time we feel falsified because there is more to us than any label can describe. In particular, the opposite of a 'true' label also describes a part of us, as in "the boldness of the shy". If Rogers is right that "becoming a person" means gaining the awareness that we are a process, not a product, then labels are major obstacles in our way. Note that if I truly see myself as a process, then I can never be defensive, because I have no fixed image of myself to defend. Imagine how wonderful that must feel!


If I notice that I am judging or categorising someone I am counselling, I need to start seeing things from their perspective, put myself into their situation, until I stop judging. It is not possible to be simultaneously empathic and judgemental. For example, if I am talking to an alcoholic, it does not help me to understand him if I simply diagnose him as being weak-willed.

Secret judgements

Even if I keep my judgements scrupulously secret, it is a moot point whether this is actually possible. Inevitably, any judgement I hold will influence my thinking about a person, and my thinking will be reflected in what I say to them and in how I say it. As with any other form of dishonesty, I always run the risk of being caught out. It also stops me from being genuine, which undermines the counselling process. If I think that the other person is a twit, it's unlikely that I'll take their concerns fully seriously.


Judgement is linked to a common pitfall of counselling - giving advice. As soon as we judge another, we are putting ourselves in a position to give them advice. When we judge we set up an unequal relationship in which we are higher and wiser than the person we evaluate. This is even true of self-judgement, when a part of us acts as an authoritarian parent, chiding another part (the ego) as if it were a wayward child. This is clearly unhealthy and does not result in growth.

Judgemental challenging

An irresponsible challenge (i.e. a judgemental one) does not look at the whole context and the reasons for why things are as they are, for why a person behaves as they do. It narrows the focus. Above all, it ignores feelings. In so doing it is unrealistic, as the emotional side of our nature has the greatest bearing on our behaviour. A responsible and therefore realistic challenge is far more helpful than any amount of moralising. Thus if an unemployed person is doing little to find a job, it is more worthwhile to explore the reasons why they are disinclined to look for work than simply telling them they are lazy. Moving from irresponsible to responsible challenging, the difference is between criticism and supportive exploration. It is also the difference between judgement and acceptance. While judgement is disempowering, acceptance can make it easier for the other person to change. It is of no help to tell an anorexic woman that she is neurotic about gaining weight. Progress is dependent on her gaining perspective on her feelings, not on having them labelled and dismissed. I was recently guilty of accusing a friend of having a phobia about something. This only made her angry: she dismissed the charge and went on the attack. My judgement sabotaged communication between us.

It is safe to assume that the person being counselled will soon notice a judgemental attitude, however indirectly this is expressed. Trust and rapport are then lost, making counselling, as opposed to lecturing, impossible. Counsellors know and apply this in their practice, but what about judgement in daily life - what is the effect and meaning of judgement here?

Why we judge

Firstly, why do we judge others? There are many reasons - because they are different; because of our prejudices; to show we are clever or discerning; or because we feel separate. Another reason is that we want to confirm ourselves in our beliefs about what is or isn't acceptable behaviour. All through life we are conditioned to judge, discriminate, evaluate and make distinctions. We are conditioned that being critical is a sign of cleverness, that being uncritical is naivete. Oscar Wilde expressed this with his usual wit, "Children start out loving their parents. Then they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them."

Parents judge and criticise their offspring because they want to correct and improve them and to give them guidance. In many cases they hope their offspring will be better versions of themselves. As a result, our parents can make us feel inadequate within ourselves. We have the notion that others are OK because we don't know how they feel inside. Hence we are apt to judge them to bring them down to what we perceive to be our own level. My suspicion is that almost everyone who arrives at adulthood does so feeling inadequate, but believes others feel OK. Judging people is our way of compensating, a strategy to make ourselves feel better. Because we find it so hard to accept ourselves, we do not accept others either.


Another important cause of our inclination to judge is that uncertainty or suspended evaluation is uncomfortable. Few of us want to emulate the anonymous graffitist who confessed, "I used to think I was undecided, but now I'm not so sure." Bertrand Russell hit the target when he observed, "Men want certainty, not truth." (Presumably he thought the same about women.) Though people may tell us that confusion is a 'higher state', leading to new insight, it certainly doesn't feel like it at the time. Instead of being unsure, we prefer to think we know what other people are like. Judgement involves saying more than we have the right to say.

Snap judgements

If we see a sumptuously dressed woman at the supermarket we may immediately form an image of her, e.g. that she is spoilt, has a luxurious lifestyle, and holds conservative views. All this could be totally off-beam. She could even be wearing these clothes as a joke. At a party, we may quickly evaluate the strangers we meet - this one is interesting, that one is too old, this one snobbish, that one is a joker, this one looks boring.

The instant and arbitrary nature of judgement is clearly seen in the way we view accents. Most of us consciously or unconsciously believe that in our native tongue the accent of the particular group we belong to is the 'correct' one and that all others are distortions.

The sweaty little ego

Above all, I find I become judgemental if my 'buttons' are pressed. When my ego is triggered - especially in annoyance or anger - judgement rushes in. It acts as an almost automatic defence of my self-image. When a family member wanted me to, act as her taxi-driver, as I saw it (she has a car), I immediately judged her as being comfortable.

One of the most unjudgemental people I know became quite judgemental when he heard that I had been to a tarot reader. He said this was a deeply retrograde thing for me to do. I interpret this judgement as being caused by the triggering of his ego, since my action was in conflict with his cherished belief in rationality. Many people are quick to label another driver as an idiot if they do something unexpected. Judgement is a measure of reactivity. The more calmly we survey a situation, the less prone we are to making strong judgements about it. We are then more likely to conclude that, "Much could be said on both sides".


What do we gain, or think we gain, by judging? Judgement is a mental shorthand, allowing speedy orientation in a situation, saving time. If we categorise a person in our minds, this restricts how we interact with them, simplifying our relationship. Judgement may cause us to dismiss a person as being of no interest to us - which greatly simplifies our relationship with them! Making a judgement allows us to avoid thinking further about an issue. In this sense judgement is a sign of mental laziness.

Myriad opportunities

We make so many judgements of others without realising it. The car a person drives, the clothes they wear, the newspaper they read, what they do for amusement, how much TV they watch, the sort of music they like, the kind of food they eat, even where they live - all these can prompt judgements in our minds, whether positive or negative. These judgements arise full-blown with lightning speed, often after just a casual glance at a person.

My partner and I idly watched a house-guest leaving a neighbour's house. Looking back on our conversation, I was amazed at how many judgements we had made about this girl, whom we had never seen before, just by watching her getting into a taxi. Because she kept the taxi waiting for a while, we surmised that she was from an affluent background. Since she had a lot of baggage we speculated that she had not travelled much. This is a trivial example but it illustrates how easily we leap to conclusions based on scanty evidence. Sherlock Holmes lives in all of us!


I believe that none of us manages to go through life without acquiring a multitude of prejudices. This is what conditioning does to us. Although many of these prejudices may be relatively harmless, others are not. Racism is perhaps the clearest example of the negative power of pre-judgement. A person who believes that black people are sub-human has formed this evaluation based on ignorance and fear. How many of our judgements are similarly based in ignorance?

One way of looking at our task in the second half of life, is that as thinking adults we need to examine the results of some four decades of conditioning. This accumulation of mental baggage comprises our prejudices and beliefs, including the limiting self-image called 'ego'. The challenge is to see how much all this corresponds to truth, and whether it is still useful to us. In other words, we need to critically examine our own conditioning. In the process, we are bound to increase our self-knowledge. It is sad to die still holding onto our prejudices, it is even sadder that they are passed onto our offspring. Unfortunately, judgements are easily picked up and assimilated from one person to another.

Group judgements

Politics is an area rife with snap judgements: "fascist!", "red!", "eco-nut", as well as the milder labels: 'left-winger', 'right-winger', 'wet', 'dry', 'green'. Most cultures, the Anglo-Saxon one included, feel superior to all other cultures. The recent diplomatic kafuffle between Australia and Malaysia has a lot to do with judgement. What incensed the Malaysians was their perception that Australia judged their country as being undemocratic and hence uncivilised.

It is implicit in both patriotism and nationalism that other nations are judged as inferior. The same is true of religious beliefs, unless they are tempered by a large measure of tolerance. Many, if not all, religions are dismissive of other religions, believing their own creed to be the exclusive way to truth and salvation. Hence the aggressive and high-handed efforts by Christian missionaries to convert people of other cultures.

A soft option?

There are those who think that being non-judgemental is a soft option, betraying a fear of taking a stand. Sometimes this is so, but it can be equally hard to refuse to take sides (e.g. in an argument between one's parents) because one has a wider perspective than the antagonists. It is comfortable to dismiss people because their problems are of their own creation (whereas ours are due to bad luck). It is tempting to be moralistic, smugly believing we are above doing certain things, such as drunken driving or taking what isn't ours. Judgement gives an easy (and unearned!) feeling of superiority. Conversely, if I don't judge someone, I am acknowledging that I could be in their position. It seems to me that the essence of humility is not so much lack of pride as a consistent refusal to judge others.

I have found it of enormous value when I permit myself to understand another person. The way in which I have worded this statement may seem strange to you. Is it necessary to permit oneself to understand another? I think that it is. Our first reaction to most of the statements which we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation or judgement, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling or attitude or belief, our tendency is, almost immediately, to feel, "That's right"; or "That's stupid"; "That's normal"; "That's unreasonable"; "That's incorrect"; "That's not nice." Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of the statement is to him. I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change. So as I say, it is not an easy thing to permit oneself to understand an individual, to enter thoroughly and completely and empathically into his frame of reference.
- Carl Rogers

I recently experienced what Rogers means, in a small way. An old woman was explaining to me that a vegetable salad is tasteless if you don't put sugar on it. As I listened empathically, I suddenly sensed the danger of being convinced of a view I found repugnant.

The other side

What is on the other side of judgement? The answer is acceptance. But "What is acceptance?" you ask. It is not to be confused with resignation, indifference, fatalism, or even tolerance. For these are all psychological reactions against what is. Acceptance is not any kind of defence or attempt to cope with an uncomfortable reality. It is simply the acknowledgement or coming to terms with things as they are. We know we are accepting of a person or situation if we feel no resistance, rejection, denial or judgement. A person with an accepting attitude extends to people the kind of understanding they have of inanimate matter. Just as they do not rail at stones for being hard nor blame water for being wet, they don't fret because people are as they are.

Self-acceptance includes accepting all of our own feelings and emotions. This means not labelling emotions such as anger, envy or sentimentality as wrong or silly. No emotion is right or wrong, nor can it be stupid or clever. It just is. Only thoughts can be judged as one or the other.


Judgements are bulky weights that hold down our understanding. Every judgement is nothing but a limitation our minds place on reality. Whether we say that aboriginals are all caring, Italians are extroverted, or prostitutes are victims, in all cases we narrow our perceptions of those people. Once we make a judgement we stop being open. The case is closed; we enquire no further. Even when a person has changed, we tend to hold onto our prior opinion of them. It happens to many of us that if we return as adults to the scenes of our childhood, we notice that things are not as we remember them. This is both because of defects of memory and because of changes that have happened. Yet we don't usually make allowances for people to be different from how we remember them. This is illustrated by a joke. Two friends met after three years. The first said, "Here is the $5 I owed you." The other replied, "It's not worth it to change my opinion of you for $5."

As long as we are resisting, reacting or making judgements about a person or situation, we are not focusing on the object of interest. Instead, we are dwelling on the thoughts and feelings it arouses in us. It is only by allowing something to be, seeing it as it is, without judgements or emotional reactions, that we become aware of it. We can never understand something that we reject, deny or dismiss. We cannot hope to understand something that we have already judged. Thus if I want to find out what astrology is about, I will get nowhere if I dismiss it as mere superstition. Another example: if we have assessed someone as being cruel, we will probably miss their gentle side.

In cases where I think that I understand why someone acted anti-socially (e.g. stole because they came from a broken home) I will be less judgemental than in others where I can't see any 'justification'. In other words, my understanding or lack of it determines the measure of my tolerance. It means that I see people's actions in terms of my own autobiography: if I can imagine myself doing X in circumstance Y then I'll be indulgent, otherwise not. Kierkegaard wrote, "We should strive to be objective about ourselves and subjective about others."


Judgement is not information. I am reminded of this whenever I ask someone what they think of one of my articles. Whether the response is 'good', 'excellent' or 'rotten', it is equally useless to me, since it tells me nothing from which I could learn. Only the reasons behind the evaluation are useful to me. (Sample: "You show insufficient respect for the Queen," or "I like it because it is so devoid of poetry.")

Is John stupid?

The following example clearly illustrates how judgement prevents understanding. If I say, "John is stupid," do you think this is a statement about John?... Or is it a statement about me, about my thoughts and judgements concerning John? If you think about it, the statement is actually saying, "My perception of John's behaviour is such that it matches my ideas of what I consider stupid, and hence I've formed this opinion of John." So can I say I am aware of John's nature as another human being? It seems I'm merely treating him as an object to be compared with my pre-existing notions of stupidity or intelligence. My judgement that John is stupid effectively prevents me from seeing him as he is, from moment to moment. If I hold onto this judgement, I can interpret every of his actions in its light, so that I'll never see John, I'll just see a stupid person. My judgement of him isolates me from John because it acts as a barrier to my perception, as well as causing me to look down on him.

We tend to think that a judgement is justified provided it is true, e.g. we say, "He is lazy," about a person who does nothing all day. But what is the truth of such a statement? It is no different from the "John is stupid" example. It has no information value, merely showing a correspondence between our ideas of laziness and our superficial observation of this person's behaviour.

Krishnamurti explains how our conditioning affects our perception:

We always look at things partially. Firstly because we are inattentive and secondly because we look at things from prejudices, from verbal and psychological images about what we see. So we never see anything completely. Even to look objectively at nature is quite arduous. To look at a flower without any image, without any botanical knowledge - just to observe it - becomes quite difficult because our mind is wandering, uninterested. And even if it is interested it looks at the flower with certain appreciations and verbal descriptions which seem to give the observer a feeling that he has really looked at it. Deliberate looking is not looking. So we really never look at the flower. We look at it through the image... We see the tree through the image which is the symbol of the tree, we see our neighbour through the image we have about him. Apparently it is one of the most difficult things for a human being to look at anything directly, not through images, opinions, conclusions, which are all symbols... When you say, 'I know my wife and my friend', you know only the image or the memory, and this is the past. Therefore you can never actually know anybody or anything. You cannot know a living thing, only a dead thing.

Anyone learning how to draw soon discovers the difficulty Krishnamurti is referring to. Most of us find drawing difficult not because we are unskillful with a pencil but because we don't really see what is before us.

The tyranny of opposites

Judgement is a thorny topic. Firstly, it is well-nigh impossible to avoid making judgements about things. Every choice we make is implicitly a judgement of some kind. Any action that is not instinctive is based on an evaluation. In addition, the most innocent statements also turn out to be judgements. To say, "She is unjudgemental," is already a judgement. Further, even positive judgements are potentially problematic, since every positive judgement carries with it the complementary negative. For example, good is meaningless without the complementary concept of bad, beauty has no meaning without the possibility of ugliness to offset it. If we single out one person for praise, we diminish others by implication. If we compliment someone on their hairstyle or mode of dress, then this positive judgement is negated when that person changes their hair or clothes.

Positive judgements

There is a more basic reason why positive judgements are unhealthy. If I say to a colleague, "You did that really well," this seems innocent. Yet implicit in this judgement is the assumption that I have the right to evaluate the other person's performance. In other words, regardless of whether a particular judgement is positive or negative, it invariably sets up an unequal and therefore unhelpful interaction.


Positive judgements are problematic for additional reasons. If my positive judgement has any meaning then it follows that I have the right to make the opposite judgement as well. In other words, my colleague can assume that had they done their work differently, my attitude could have been critical. So it is not sufficient to cull all negative judgements from our speech - the potential negative judgements cling like shadows to our positive ones. As Jung pointed out, "The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow."


I often have mixed feelings when someone praises me. The stronger the praise, the more I feel the onus of wanting to live up to it. It makes me feel unfree. Living up to a positive evaluation can be burdensome. This is evident in the case of the world champion tennis player, who must struggle to stay where they are, and for whom the only way open is to go down. Standing on top of a pedestal is not comfortable - as so many women in stilettos have discovered!

What's left?

If even positive judgements are to be denied us, then what is there left to say?! One answer is in statements of the kind, "When you said/did this, I felt..." Thus I could say, "I was pleased to hear how you handled that." (This is sometimes referred to as an 'I statement', which I think is most unfortunate, since, "I feel you're a shit!" is also an 'I statement'. I have observed that in roughly 86.2% of cases where a person is asked how they feel, they answer what they think, even though they often use the word 'feel' in their reply.) Even a statement like, "I was pleased to hear..." hints at judgement, since it could be taken to imply that I am a person whom the other person should try to please. I once complimented a feminist colleague on how terrific her legs looked in a mini. I was shocked by the vehemence of her angry reply. She felt insulted and demeaned by my sincere compliment. She said she didn't wear the skirt for my benefit, a point I readily conceded.

Perhaps a better way of giving the other counsellor positive feedback might be, "I have trouble with this kind of client; I can learn from what you did." I'm not happy with this formulation either, as it changes the meaning.

A paradox

The conclusion that praise diminishes people instead of raising them up is paradoxical. For it is easily seen that people thrive on praise, which can help raise their self-esteem and hence encourage them to make more of themselves. We all want to feel good about ourselves, but this feeling cannot come from outside us. If we rely on another person to give us our direction or our worth this is ultimately disempowering. On the other hand, we need other people to keep us sane. They help us maintain things in perspective and to avoid extremes.

Internal vs external

Rogers speaks about an internal locus of evaluation. This is a cumbersome phrase, but it is central to Rogerian psychology. It means that each person needs to evaluate their experience using their own feelings and internal criteria. The opinions of others hinder this autonomous way of functioning. So long as a person accepts and acts on judgements made by someone other than themselves, they avoid taking responsibility for their own person.

If I say to someone, "You are a very good person," this is presumptuous. What right do I have to talk about the essential nature of another? How can I set myself up as their arbiter? Being so treated can make us feel like children. I think the resolution of the paradox is the old middle path: positive judgements are OK, provided they are made with sensitivity and in moderation. Again, it is better to praise the action than the person.

Boomerang effect

Worse yet, judgements are by nature boomerangs. They inevitably reflect as much on the person who makes them as on their object. This is clear in the case of the compulsive gossip, who derives vicarious pleasure from the troubles and weaknesses of other people. Ken Wilber points out that, "If you want to know what a person is really like, listen to what they say about other people." This is because, "Those things which most disturb us in other people are usually unrecognised aspects of ourselves."

Judgement is often reciprocal. If I see someone as a hippy, they may see me as a yuppie. If I think someone is careless with money, they may think me stingy. If I dismiss someone as superficial, they may brush me off as an egghead. How we see others depends a lot on how we are ourselves. A modern proverb echoes a similar idea, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail."


This leads to a key point: when I make a judgement I am unwittingly focusing on myself, on my beliefs, ideas and memories. Krishnamurti explains, "The moment I begin to think, to have ideas, opinions about a thing, I am already in a state of distraction, looking away from the thing I must understand." Take a comparison such as, "This city reminds me of Melbourne". When I say this I am mentally turning away from where I am now, diverting my attention to past experience elsewhere. Likewise, if I seek to understand a thing by analogy with something else, then my mind distracts me, so that instead of seeing the particular thing before me, I see instead its similarity to the other thing. In so doing, I reduce the complex and specific to the simple and abstract.

Seeing ourselves in others

If we are honest with ourselves we will rarely encounter an instance of offputting behaviour in another person that doesn't remind us of something that we have done at some time. If someone makes a remark that hurts our feelings we can cast our minds back to a time when we said something thoughtlessly that may have hurt another. If we get angry at our neighbours for being loud late in the evening, we can ask ourselves whether we have always been quiet at night. The same applies to instances where another motorist does something foolish; to someone betraying a secret of ours; forgetting to do something they promised; arriving late for dinner or bumping us accidentally in the train. So what is the point in labelling such people as silly, indiscreet, unreliable or careless?

Paper houses

People who live in paper houses are better off not throwing heavy missiles. As Christ pointed out, we are all vulnerable to error because we are human. Interestingly, the original meaning of the word 'to sin' was 'to miss the mark'.

A hard look at ourselves

According to Jung, the entire human potential is contained within every one of us. The consequence is that each of us carries a Hitler, a Yorkshire ripper and a Saddam Hussein inside us. If we dismiss these historical figures as monsters then we not only forgo any attempt to understand them and how they arise, but we also avoid looking at our own dark side. In addition to learning nothing from history we learn nothing about ourselves. How can we hope to eliminate the causes of pathology in ourselves and in others, if we do not seek to understand it first?

The madness of war

Take the war in Yugoslavia. How are we to understand this apparently senseless carnage? It is easy and tempting to think that the Serbs and Croats are cruel barbarians and that it could not happen here because we are civilised. Serbs and Croats are people just like the rest of us, though they live in different circumstances with a different history. How do we know that we Australians would not behave the same? What entitles us to think ourselves superior, when we have not been put to the test in a similar situation? These questions are deeply disturbing and no comfortable answers are likely.

Evil aggressors

What about the Khmer Rouge or the Indonesians in East Timor? Should we call them evil, and in so doing put comfortable distance between them and us, or do we avoid judging them? I suggest that we gain nothing by labelling these people as 'evil'. Let us oppose, by whatever means are available, those who murder innocent civilians. We know that the Khmer Rouge leadership is responsible for murders on a mass scale. In a world where justice prevailed such people would be tried and sentenced. In the world as it is, we are forced to accommodate ourselves to their existence and continuing power. To call Pol Pot a mass murderer is a statement of fact, to call him evil is something different. It gives us no more knowledge. On the contrary, it prevents understanding. For if we write off the Khmer Rouge leadership as evil monsters, then how are we to explain that they still lead the most numerous guerrilla group in their country? Even a purely pragmatic approach requires us to know our enemy. Judgement aborts that already difficult endeavour.

Moral outrage

What about moral outrage at atrocities and other extremes of injustice, isn't this a good thing? Moral outrage is a powerful emotional reaction, as such it is the enemy of rationality and realistic solutions. It can also be manipulated by demagogues and unscrupulous populists. In some cases, moral outrage can turn into murderous rage, leading to a vicious circle of violence, as is now happening in Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Israel. Identifying others as evil justifies all further evil against them. James Baldwin: "It is a terrible, an inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own."

Avoiding moral discomfort

I notice that I feel far more comfortable if I can categorise one side in an armed conflict as the aggressor, oppressor or imperialist, and the other as the defender, the innocent party, or underdog. It can be most uncomfortable to balance the views and grievances of both sides. In so doing we are forced to undergo the pull of opposing and apparently irreconcilable forces. Hence as bystanders we are tempted to dismiss one or both parties in any violent conflict. When we yield to this, our compassion is anaesthetised.


Another reason why it is better not to judge is that judgement is always reductive. It reduces that infinitely complex being with emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions, called a person to a set label. In this sense judgement is fundamentally dehumanising. Not to mention that a negative judgement diminishes the person.


Part of the beauty of life for me is that I find it impossible to be consistent. Not just that my behaviour is inconsistent with my beliefs and attitudes: my various beliefs and ideas are also inconsistent with each other. This used to bother me a lot in the days when I saw myself as fully rational. Nowadays I take a certain pleasure in noticing inconsistency in myself. Someone wisely observed that only children and madmen are consistent. It is hard to be judgemental while embracing the inconsistency of life. Perfectionists give themselves a hard time trying to be consistent.

Maps vs reality

We never have access to truth. The squiggles that are reality, especially the human psyche, are more intricate and twisted than we can ever imagine. We always deal with maps, never with the territory. As cartographers we are all subjective. If I am learning anything from all my reading it is that there can never be an unequivocal answer to the question, "How should we live?", or to any of the other basic questions. There can be no single answer that will apply to all human beings. Life and the psyche will always confound explanation. Not just rational explanation, but any attempt to reach truth. Life is too complex, rich, unplumbable, deeply paradoxical, ever surprising and unpredictable. One can never say, "It is this". To quote Walter Bellin, "When you think you've got it, you can be sure that's not it." It is only when we are certain of our knowledge, and mistake our maps (opinions) for the territory (reality), that we feel the right to judge others.

Judgements are only opinions; the problem is that we tend to treat them as though they were facts. To the extent that we do so, our judgements act as a screen isolating us from people and things.

Essential ignorance

We can never know all the facts of another's situation. "I think I know what the other person's problem is," amounts to presumption. Likewise, we never have enough knowledge to judge anyone. No-one ever knows what is happening in another's mind. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do, and if we could understand their emotions, motivations and limiting beliefs, i.e. fully enter into their frame of reference, we wouldn't blame them. Thus if we knew that a person was feeling timid and shy, we might not mistake this for aloofness. Some people who are actually hyper-sensitive can appear unfeeling because they are unable to show their intense vulnerability.

All judgement of people is essentially pre-judgement. This is true for two reasons: one, that we never really know another, and two, that a person is a changing entity, always capable of surprising us.


Above all, judgement causes us to miss the essential in a person by focusing on the outward. To understate it grossly, judgement hardly fosters love. Balzac wrote, "The more one judges, the less one loves." Judgement precludes unconditional love.

Doing vs being

It is essential to distinguish between what we do and what we are. Though it is sometimes appropriate to judge the behaviour of other people - it would be absurd to condone rape and murder, for example - it is not appropriate to judge another person. No-one is bad or evil in their essential nature, though their actions may be. We need to love the sinner, not the sin. In a restaurant where we received bad service, I remarked, "She is a bad waitress." I wish I had said instead, "I don't like the service she gave us."

If we call someone 'stupid', it means we think their behaviour in certain situations is unrealistic or self-defeating. The catch is that, even if our evaluation is correct, i.e. it does not arise out of our own inadequacies or faulty perceptions, it can apply to certain circumstances only. More to the point, it is an evaluation of the person's behaviour, not their nature.

Judgement involves saying more than we have the right to say. Thus if someone says they didn't like a story because it had too much fantasy, I can judge that person as being prosaic and unimaginative. The ego pretends to act as an amplifier of information. In truth it distorts, adding noise, since it filters data through our cherished views, likes and dislikes.

Inference vs evaluation

There is an important difference between judgement in the sense of inference and judgement as evaluation. Thus if I infer that a middle-aged man is trying to pick up a teenage girl, this is quite different from seeing him as a 'dirty old man' or even child-molester. It is only the latter kind of judgement that is harmful. Inferences apply only to a person's actions, not to their inner nature.

Appropriate judgement

There are cases where judgement is called for. A teacher marking essays needs to determine whether each one is good enough to pass - though Rudolf Steiner and William Glasser would disagree. Similarly, a quality control worker needs to check products in a factory. An employer wants to know whether a prospective employee has the skills and qualities needed for the job. There are numerous other instances where objective tests are applied to determine whether goods and services meet requirements. The point to remember is that all these tests relate to what people do, not to what they are. This is an essential distinction but one we easily overlook, especially since we tend to identify with what we do, and with how well we do it.

Here is an example to give the flavour of this. Two counsellors who know each other well and hold each other's skills in high regard, are discussing a bad session the first one had. The second counsellor says, "Boy, you really blew that one!" Neither counsellor would interpret the remark as being a criticism of the first counsellor.

As for judging people's actions, one possible approach is to reserve judgement for acts that are clearly harmful and destructive of others. This is a difficult path since the boundary between harmful and innocuous behaviour will always be fuzzy.

Vicious cycle

Judgement often runs in circles. I once read a radical feminist article which I thought made harsh and unwarranted judgements. It moved me to pen a reply, which as a friend pointed out, was itself highly judgemental. Then my friend realised she was herself being judgemental of me. Obviously one can go bananas trying to avoid judgements altogether.

The point (at last!)

To avoid all judgements would be absurd. It would restrict us to making elementary statements of fact. Even to say, "It is warm today," is to express a judgement. So it's not worth getting hung up on avoiding judgements. The fundamental point is that any judgement we make of a person's behaviour need carry no implication of judging the person themselves. Such an attitude goes counter to our conditioning, but it can be gradually attained.

One author judging another

I found that even as innocent an act as reading a magazine can get me into trouble. Reading an article that seemed silly, I thought, "She is stupid to write such an article," about the author. I caught myself and decided that it was enough to think the article stupid. But could I do better, could I avoid judging the article as well? I think not, because if I decide to not finish reading it, or that it is not worth thinking about, then this is unavoidable judgement. Otherwise there would be nothing to stop me reading the Yellow Pages from cover to cover rather than a novel. Perhaps the best I can do is to decide that the article is not of interest to me.

Judgement and conflict resolution

I once described a friend as being materialistic because she was buying a large house. I could instead have said that what she was doing was part of her general pattern of behaviour. This is still somewhat judgemental, but of my friend's actions, rather than of her personality. If I were to be completely non-judgemental then I would not be able to comment along these lines at all. Avoidance of judgement can make one's speech woolly and convoluted. Avoidance is practised by people who follow the conflict resolution discipline, whereby every challenge is expressed in the form: "When you did, I felt..." The strength of this is that it can't be disputed, since only we know how we feel inside. It is also impossible to more than hint at judgement when speaking in this way. By contrast, circumlocutions and delicate formulations do not avoid judgement. They merely conceal it and leave it up to the hearer to infer what is really meant. Thus if I had said, "She also wants to have a million dollars," this would imply much the same as, "She is materialistic."


A character in John Williams' book, "Augustus" writes: The moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgements rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgement is easy and knowledge difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgements reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world.

Note that this person is himself highly judgemental! It is worth distinguishing between moralistic judgements and morally neutral evaluations. Clearly, it is the moralistic judgements that are by far the most hurtful and alienating. They are so hurtful because they purport to describe a person's essence.

Expression of our negative judgements to others can spoil things for them, eg "I don't like your blouse". What is gained by such a remark?


As for self-judgement, it is just as destructive as judging others. In fact more so, since it is an inside job. Most of us are our own harshest judges. I have observed both in myself and in other counsellors, the presence of a double standard, whereby those being counselled are given empathy without judgement, while the counsellor does not extend this to themselves. It is a case of "Doctor, heal yourself!" While self-judgement limits us and keeps us stuck, self-acceptance is needed for personal growth. We can only love others if we love ourselves first, which is not possible if we judge ourselves harshly.

One common habit of mind that betrays a judgemental attitude to oneself is the use of the phrases, "I must", "I should", "I need to" about oneself. For example, "I must ring Mother," is judgemental because of the implication that I fall short if I don't ring her.

I stress I am not talking about diminishing personal responsibility. Each one of us is responsible for our actions and even our attitudes. Avoiding judging ourselves is not to deny that responsibility but to uncouple it from blame, shame and guilt, which are useless and destructive. Not judging actually makes it easier to take responsibility, because it is easier to own up if blame is not attached.

Deep waters

Questioning the validity of judging people leads to a deeper enquiry: "Do we need morality?" Moral prohibitions pertain mainly to violence, theft, lying and adultery. Does a mature and responsible adult need rules to tell them not to harm other people or their property, and not to deceive? Such a person will automatically act in accord with morality. In the same way, children don't need to learn the rules of grammar in order to speak English correctly. Nor do we need to be able to accurately define a word in order to use it precisely. Someone with an intimate knowledge of English knows when it is appropriate to break the rules. It seems to me that morality, meaning a system of principles that distinguish right from wrong behaviour, is only needed by those who lack maturity, awareness or sensitivity. Only people lacking in understanding fail to see the reasons for these rules. It is the reasons that are important, not a blind application of the rules, which in some cases may actually contravene their spirit. Even The Golden Rule is a regulation rather than a spontaneous way of behaving.

Are people good?

The question of whether to judge people also raises a philosophical issue. If we see the human being as essentially good then judgement of people as being 'good' or 'bad' is not an option. If instead we take the view that human nature is inherently neither good nor bad, but that each person has a particular mixture of both, then the situation is different. A world view in which each person can be described as being either mostly good or mostly bad inclines one towards judging others.

Deeper waters

Since any judgement of a person or their actions is essentially just an opinion and vice versa, saying something judgemental is equivalent to expressing an opinion. Our question becomes, "Should we have opinions at all about people?" If not, is it possible to avoid having opinions? Note that being open-minded simply means having few opinions. How broad-minded do we want to be?


Yet more radical is Krishnamurti's assertion that all belief and opinion is not only unnecessary but actually harmful. In a short and brilliant dialogue (pages 262-266 in "The Second Penguin Krishnamurti Reader") he asserts that all belief is based in fear and represents an attempt to escape from reality. Elsewhere, he wrote, "After all, a cup is useful only when it is empty; and a mind that is filled with beliefs, with dogmas, with assertions, with quotations, is really an uncreative mind; it is merely a repetitive mind."

Roger Woolger adds, "Unfortunately, any philosophy, theology or metaphysics can all too easily become an ego defence against the shadow sides of the personality."


Judgement has many forms: it may be made directly to a person, to a third party, or in the privacy of our thoughts. It may be about a person, about their actions, about things, or about oneself. In all cases we need to be aware what the effect of judgement is. Whether positive or negative, judgements of people set up an unequal relationship, which diminishes the person being judged, whether that person is ourselves or another. This hinders the personal growth of all concerned, as well as creating separation (not to mention ill-will) between people. Judgement is superficial, quick, reductive, and is usually triggered by an emotional reaction. It misses the essence of a person (what they are) for the external manifestation (what they do). Judgement prevents understanding. Ultimately, each judgement says more about the judge than it does about its supposed subject.

All statements can be divided into assertions of fact and interpretations. The latter are judgements. It is pointless trying not to say (or think) opinions about people. A more realistic aim is to judge - as much as possible - in moderation. If I do judge, I want to judge the action, not the person.


PS. I hope the foregoing does not give the impression that I am a person free from judgements - far from it! It is another case of my attempting to teach what I most need to learn. I wrote this article partly because I frequently catch myself making judgements about people. These words cost me much struggle. In particular, I have striven to convince the moralistic part of me that it is wiser not to judge. I hope I am convinced!

Parents judge and criticise their offspring because they want to correct and improve them and to give them guidance. As a result, our parents make us feel inadequate within ourselves. We have the notion that others are OK because we don't know how they feel inside. Hence we judge them to bring them down to what we perceive to be our own level. Because we find it so hard to accept ourselves, we do not accept others either.

Tad Boniecki

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