Sound judgement is a weapon against moralising

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Good judgement is not only the key to making good decisions but, by promoting and protecting it, the best way to ensure a society values its component parts: evidence, reason, logic and principle. Very often the urge to moralise about an issue means these important ideas are forgotten and, instead of trying to understand something, in order to best respond to it, we merely condemn it out of hand, the result of some unthinking emotional impulse.

Sound judgement is a weapon against moralising

By: Gareth van Onselen

30 April 2012

Sound judgement is built on the considered application of principle. It is the ability to use a system of thought to make sense of something’s nature and, from that – using reason, logic and evidence – to determine one’s response to it. In other words, judgement is the mechanism through which rationality expresses its decisions. The better someone is able to bring together its various elements, the better their judgement.

Judgement – the determinations one arrives at – influences attitudes and behaviour and, depending on which principles constitute one’s worldview, a person’s moral code. Indeed, the more influential the person making a judgement, the more powerful its impact on a society. Thus, morality shares an important relationship with judgement and principle.

A moral verdict is a value proposition: a determination as to what is right and wrong, and one can only develop an understanding of what is right and wrong, good and bad, when one has a reasoned frame of reference – in order that one may properly locate something on a moral spectrum. In the best case, if a society embodies democratic principles, its morality will be so informed.

Keeping these two things properly aligned is often a counter-intuitive exercise; a clash between the head and the heart. Anyone might experience some selfish emotional impulse, categorising the developments that define their world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, without reference to what reason and principle have to say. For emotion cares little about rational thought. In this way, prejudice is constantly trying to usurp good judgement. So, just as one has a duty carefully to reason before making a judgement, so one has a duty not to moralise. In other words, not impose one’s personal and subjective convictions onto others or evidence, without any thought as to the integrity of those beliefs or facts.

For those victims of bigoted compulsion, the least they can do is recognise they have a special obligation in this regard. Alas, so powerful their inner urge more often they willingly submit to emotion’s pull in the other direction and abandon introspection. In this way moralising is the enemy of sound judgement, for it is unthinking and subverts the relationship between principle and a moral code.

The reason is as follows: any attitude can be mapped on a moral continuum – at one extreme good, at the other, bad. For the prejudiced, those ostensibly ambiguous issues – ambiguous if one does not have a set of guiding principles – abortion, prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, etc, constantly need to be definitively categorised as ‘bad’, as if to reassure themselves of their innate evil. For a moraliser, who knows only the absolute world of good and bad, there is no room for uncertainty or the possibility their deep seated impulse might be wrongheaded. Ambiguity fuels their low self esteem, for its forces them to question themselves. And their response is to be fundamental and unthinking.

And so often they react absolutely, each seemingly ambiguity unequivocally defined, without reference to reason or principle. Pushed for an explanation, it will inevitably be irrational or even circular (it is good, because it is right), but rarely considered and, rarer still, grounded in principled thought. Indeed, when morality is evoked without reference to principle, one can be sure you are dealing with a moraliser. Moralisers attempt to give the veneer of rationality to nothing more than intolerance and insecurity, often with the purpose of enforcing uniformity and always with a view to control.

One can see how moralising lends itself to narrow-mindedness, for absolutism is no way to understand a world marked by subtlety and difference. But moralisers do not stop there. Not content with their own determination, they feel compelled to enforce it on others, extending their autocratic attitude from a position to the people who advocate it: their opponents do not simply hold an opinion that is ‘bad’, they themselves are ‘bad people’, and moralisers take much pleasure in making that case, with self righteous anger and indignation.

Judgement, by contrast, is able to disaggregate between the veracity of an argument and the nature of the person proposing it; and it does not assume from first principles the two are in anyway related.

At the extreme, when moralising is not only detached from its principled moorings, but principles and ideals crushed completely by moral imposition, what is right and wrong becomes entirely subjective, an ostensible judgement enforced by the people with the most power. Consistency, difference, independence, tolerance, understanding and many other critical democratic ideas are outlawed, and with them, judgement in turn.

It follows that moralisers are unable to distinguish between private and public attitudes, and often advocate legislation designed to regulate and control private behaviour in the name of the ‘public good’. This is moralising at its worst and any society should safeguard against this conflation. In this regard, judgement has an invaluable role to play, primarily in ensuring that a society’s moral code is well grounded, in democratic principles and the moral judgements that flow from them.

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