"You are so judgmental." As an ethicist who writes about sex, I get this comment from time to time.
There is a problematic psychological disposition that is aptly called "being judgmental." It is getting a kick out of making negative moral assessments of other people. It's enhancing your own sense of moral worth by comparisons with the (supposed) lesser moral status of others. It's finding satisfaction in seeing others fail because it shows you are better than they are. People who tend to feel morally inferior feel relief when they see others fail; by comparison that they are not so bad after all. People who lack appreciation of their own potential for moral failure enjoy having their false sense of moral superiority reinforced. Those who are judgmental are invested in one-up-manship.
What are the signs of being judgmental? Here are five:
- Making a lot of negative moral evaluations of others.
- Having a moral rating system that is skewed in your own favor.
- Jumping to negative moral conclusions about others; being inclined to believe the worst.
- Moving very quickly from judgments of the form, "This action is morally wrong," to ones of the form, "This person is morally corrupt." (See Don't Be Judgmental, Be Discerning.)
- Acting as if you can know that what so-and-so did was wrong even though you know much less about the context of so-and-so's action than so-and-so.
Being judgmental distorts our perception of other people, of ourselves and of what matters most in living a well-lived human life. It feeds on and engenders a lack of sympathetic understanding of others. It is often linked with other related character flaws: hypocrisy, self-righteousness, malice, insensitivity, and the enjoyment of destructive gossip.
We should all try to avoid being judgmental. However, when people say, "You are so judgmental," they need to think hard about whether they are exhibiting this defect themselves. Thinking that everyone who has a different moral view than we have must be judgmental is jumping to a negative moral conclusion about them. This may be especially tempting in cases where the other person's views on a subject are more conservative than our own.
Someone who makes a negative moral judgment—even a mistaken one—is not necessarily being judgmental. The judgmental person is one who enjoys making harsh judgments of others out of a sense of moral one-upmanship. Automatically labeling a person as judgmental who disagrees with us about the moral status of pornography or casual sex (to take two examples) short-circuits intellectual evaluation of alternative views. We cannot conclude that it is they, rather than we, who need to change our views until we do that hard intellectual work.
We should avoid jumping to the conclusion that someone who makes moral judgments with which we disagree is judgmental. And that's true whether they are more socially conservative or more liberal than we are.