Judging for the Common Good

When I read Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ at the age of 16, I fell in love with the novel. Set in New York City in the 1920s, the novel centers around Howard Roark, a young architect who aspires to design architecture in his own style. When he refuses to compromise his values to comply with the architectural norms of beauty, he is mocked and made an outcast. Bowing neither to public shame nor pressure, Roark stands with an unflinching commitment to his values, creating masterpieces that are later recognized for their brilliance. I greatly admired Howard Roark (my mother soon regretted giving me this book).

In Fountainhead, Ayn Rand was painting a world where Roark, an individualist, reigned supreme over collectivism. Today, her world has arrived. Removing the constraints of community, the individual has been emancipated from conformity. But this has come at a cost, as inequality reaches new heights, as humans become each other’s greatest threat and as we recklessly damage the earth, the individual has lost the duty of communal morality. We need to bring it back to solve the communal problems we face today and for this, I believe, we need to judge and shame. It sounds harsh, I know, but let me explain.


Judge ye not

‘Judging’ is rather unfashionable nowadays. The adjective has negative connotations of a holier-than-thou person making snide remarks and critiquing others without understanding their situation. When judging my friends’ actions I have been quickly rebuked, ‘friends are supposed to support each other without judging’ (something I still strongly disagree with). This is a remarkable cultural shift from our origins of small tribes that depended on the social pressure of judging, gossip and shame to bind people together to a shared vision, system and action.

This general absence of judgement from society became evident to me at university. Cambridge gave me a wonderful, but narrow, education. An education of books and theory but bereft of the future and our role to play in it; from the simpler realities of cleaning up after yourself to the crucial choice of career or path. Cambridge’s mission statement is ‘to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.’ The question of ‘what contribution’ and ‘to whom’ is considered irrelevant. Judging from the many alumni who become leading bankers, lawyers and consultants, one can assume that contribution is towards self-enrichment.

We were never spoken to about our privilege to receive such an education and how we *might* care to use our abilities to help others. What we chose to do with our Cambridge education was irrelevant. I posed this question to my tutor: Was this absence of judgement motivated out of a belief in ideological neutrality? As academics they were not neutral, they had made a choice to use their abilities to pursue the truth, improve policy or perhaps just live like a ‘don’. Regardless, they had chosen not to directly pursue self-enrichment. My tutor’s response was saddening, she concluded this absence of judgement was just apathy. When had our morals stopped caring about the world?

From no rags to riches…

Judge the individual, not the community

And yet, in our society, we do still judge. But we judge individuals based on their individual rather than communal morality. Individual morality consists of the idea that the individual is sovereign, an end in herself, and thus the fundamental unit of moral concern. The individual morals we most strongly hold are now enshrined in law: freedom of speech, murder, discrimination. Communal morality, by contrast, has the group as the basic unit of moral concern, and the individual is of value only insofar as she serves the group. Examples of morals for the common good are equality of opportunity, fairness, helping your community, protecting the earth and other animals. This dichotomy between individual and communal morals is not as neat as I draw it, many morals we hold fall in both camps but it is the communal morals that we are sadly lacking most.

This is evident today in how we judge. We judge people’s aspirations for how high they are but not what direction. We judge their success but not the destruction they have laid in their wake. When Cambridge Analytica chose to enrich themselves at the cost of democracy, they were not judged as a part of a system that tolerates and encourages such behaviour, but rather as errant individuals. When scientists’ pursuit of knowledge led to a hydrogen bomb in Hiroshima, we judged their ingenuity but did not hold scientists accountable.

We also judge where it is easiest: the abstract, the extremes, the outliers. We judge the poor for being poor, or having been born poor, and the criminal for taking from those who have a lot more. We judge prominent historical characters as wholly ‘good or bad’ and the politicians as evil. But we do not dare judge ourselves or our friends. We do not judge the friend who works as a banker, helping none other than those already helped, and themselves. We do not judge the friend who works for an oil company in the name of ‘learning new skills’. We do not judge the big philanthropist who has profiteered from and caused the inequity he now wants to address with his eponymous grant. And today, as AI engineers tap away on their keyboards with talk of great ‘disruption’, we do not judge their desire for mass unemployment because we choose to consider automation inevitable. It seems, in our society, we no longer dare to judge humans for how they will impact upon others and future generations.

Listen to the powerful lyrics!

Why did Communal Morality go?

Morality is taught and learnt in the context of others, in the recognition that one’s decisions impact others (alive or otherwise). To teach morality to a child requires judging their actions and shaming them accordingly. For individual morality, it requires the parent to say, ‘I am the judge, this was right and this was wrong’. For collective morality, it requires society to say the same and historically this was led by a different teacher: God(s). Spiritual leaders represented the will of a greater being and cast the moral judgement on behalf of God, “God is a righteous judge”. Following the verdict, the onus fell on communities to follow up and shame. Communal morality, just like individual morality, was taught and upheld through judging and shaming.

With secularisation, we have lost both the religious and spiritual leaders who made such judgements and yet do not have the confidence to make such judgements ourselves. As individualism championed over collectivism, the community gave way to family, the family in turn, to nuclear family, and the nuclear family, the individual. In this way, we lost the societal tools and structures which judged and shamed to maintain communal morality.

There was also a growing aversion to societal judgement in the hope of building greater tolerance for others and their points of view. Judging and shaming has been a form of persecution, be this to homosexuals, women or religious groups, and thus there has been a push back. However, rather than stopping judging and shaming, the persecuted have become the persecutors. To uphold the freedom of these previously persecuted groups, we have judged and shamed another: the homophobes, sexists and racists. We are happy to judge and shame in this case because we think it is justified (although this is what the homophobes, sexists and racists also thought). Today, one can see the rise of ‘politically correct culture’ as a sense of communal morality around what is and is not acceptable to say. And, unlike how it is portrayed, Identity politics can be a force for good not evil.

Keep your Morality to Yourself

Many believe an individual can still act morally without ‘judging’ or imposing such views on others. In fact, we are taught to not judge one another – “Judge not, that you be not judged”. You see strands of this in Buddhist philosophy and the distinction between monks and missionaries. The belief is one never fully understands the context and background of someone’s decision and is therefore not in a position to judge…right?

I think this is faux neutrality. Under such criteria, who is therefore in a position to judge? Only the omniscient God? We feel happy to be the judges when it comes to cannibalism or infanticide or politics and most certainly when we have been wronged. Such judgements are natural because we are humans, to hold opinions is to judge. I posed these questions to a thoughtful writer & blogger called Colin Wright, he kindly responded here and here are some choice snippets.

Although it can be tempting to decide that our beliefs are applicable in a universal, absolute sense—not just for us or in some circumstances—there’s an excellent chance that someone else from somewhere else is doing the exact same thing for exactly the same reasons and coming to entirely different conclusions.

This is true of all decisions, not just moral ones. We make choices in the context of limited information. We should be open to changing our moral position or opinion but confident that we have made the best choice in the face of such uncertainty. It could turn out to be wrong but we must operate on the basis that which we think is right. Much like my choice of atheism vs agnosticism. This applies equally to the morals we choose to live by as the ones we would advocate for, there comes a point where we have to ignore the remaining uncertainty and doubt. For if we feel that we cannot judge others on morals which might not apply in the fullness of time, how can we judge ourselves by those standards?

It’s possible to get to know someone who behaves in ways that are antithetical to your understanding of moral correctness while still recognizing that they are moral people; it’s just that their morals are different from your own.

This is a critique of a form of judging rather than making judgements. It is very important to distinguish between judging someone’s actions from judging the person themselves. An act can be wrong or right without indicting the actor. My contention is less that we have different versions of morality but more that our lives are largely devoid of communal morality. We do not judge others’ actions by the lens of morality, only, by the lens of rationality – the sacred individual morality of the day.

And finally, I tell myself regularly that it’s not my responsibility to convert anyone to any particular way of thinking…. I’ll happily put my thoughts and perspectives out into the world for others to do with what they choose.

I think ‘putting my thoughts out there’ consists of having opinions on the actions of others and sharing them. We are in a position to judge others and we ought to apply if because if we truly believe in the importance of moral choices or consequences, we are obliged to try and persuade others likewise. If not for them, for those affected by their decisions. We see this in the case of homophobes, sexists and racists but why not for the avarice banker or oil company?

Reclaiming the Power of Judging

Arguably, the best objective judge of human morality would not be a human being, but an alien. I would like to imagine what an extraterrestrial creature would guess our morals to be? Values of knowledge, truth, peace, safety, innovation, individual freedoms would stand out. As would gross inequality, materialistic obsession, disregard for non-human lives, loss of community and destruction of the source of all life: earth. The alien, I think, would conclude we have individual morality but not communal morality.

It is with this in mind that I think if we feel shocked by a reality in this world, in all likelihood we are not sufficiently shocked by it for if we were, we would not have let it get to this. Society’s norms are a reflection of our moral standards, therefore one can assume those that persist must be condoned or tolerated. Slavery, child labour, wars, rape, for instance, are vastly less common today because public opinion has shifted. By contrast, income inequality has never been higher.

Why is this so? Because our morals and culture are tolerant of it. As capitalists, we applaud such inequality as a sign of success. We laud the rich with prestige and admire their achievements and ignore the destruction they reap to earn it and the people they leave behind. When they move factories across the world from the communities that supported them, we consider it basic business sense. How can you blame them for raising margins? We do not judge because we do not seek to be moral in our society; instead, we seek to be like them, rich.

A Tentative Conclusion

The power of movements like Gandhi’s Satyagraha and Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement has risen from using nonviolent resistance as a tool to judge and shame on a communal level. Today, this sense of communal morality is sorely lacking at a time when, or as a result, our greatest problems are inherently communal in nature. The recent successes of Extinction Rebellion in the UK and Identity Politics in the US, however, are reassuring proof that judging and shaming remain powerful today.

If we believe in our communal morals, it is not enough to act as moral individuals. We also have to rebuild a culture where we judge and shame for the common good; starting with ourselves but including those closest to us.

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A hypocrite who enjoys engaging with ideas, challenging my own and exploring new ones.

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