Who Are You to Judge?
“Who am I to judge?” Nothing like a papal quote to validate and finesse the judgmental pontifications of relativists of all shades -- whether believers or nonbelievers.
The latest “who am I to judge” incarnation comes from 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa in his article “Coming out of Barbarism” (“Salir de la Barbarie,” Spain’s El País and Peru’s La República, April 20, 2014). After a scathing attack on the Peruvian Episcopal Conference’s statement on the same-sex civil union initiative before the Peruvian National Congress, he praises Pope Francis’ “who am I to judge?” remark as “promising.” According to Vargas Llosa, the Bishops’ statement, a summary of the Catholic Church’s position on natural marriage, is a “troglodyte” (“cavernario”) message of “gross ignorance” and “aggressive obscurantism.” He describes current legislation on natural marriage as “discriminatory” and typical of “backward and uneducated” (“atrasados e incultos”) countries. Vargas Llosa, a self-proclaimed agnostic, blames “religious fanaticism and machismo” for the misfortune of minorities and criticizes the Catholic Church’s “adherence to an intolerant and dogmatic tradition.” A dogmatic enactment of the “who am I to judge” mantra?
A “pastorally” minded Christian philosopher, on the other hand, recently claimed that the term “moral judgment” is “obsolete because judgment implies judging” and words should “attract and not reprimand.” Is this judgment, albeit under the guise of nonjudgment, a reprimand? A colleague plagiarizing his latest manuscript or a burglar sacking his home will surely awaken the dear philosopher’s moral judgment instincts. So too will even minor transgressions of any of the commandments of political correctness by which he seems to abide. That these behaviors are wrong will not then be labeled “reprimands,” but fair moral conclusions.
Usually suppressed from the carefree “who am I to judge?” iterations is an important caveat. During the very same press conference held on July 28, 2013, Pope Francis underscored that “If they [homosexual persons] accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?” These words are a judgment insofar as they impose conditions on human action and intention, as required in moral judgment. They show that a chastising tone is not essential for moral judgments and that a positive framing does not necessarily detract from them. It would be contradictory for a person to “accept the Lord and have good will” while engaging and rejoicing in conduct at odds with the universal and objective natural law written in our hearts and minds, knowable by reason and common experience.
“Live and let live,” the relativist may add. Not so fast. Our neighbors’ actions affect us. As taxpayers, for instance, we also shoulder the economic and social costs of moral malaise. The direct victims suffer the main wounds in body, mind, and spirit, but we all bear the cost of the medical and other services required, of the lost workdays, of the talents and abilities cut short, of the beauty and the joy that we could not share. The experiences that they could not live are not just their loss, but ours as well.
Doing as we please with our lives is neither a human right nor a human good. Drinking until dropping may perhaps be pleasurable for some, but the consequences for both the agent and other parties are significant. Even under the illusory assumption that such consequences are unlikely, the act would go against the person’s human dignity and intrinsic value. Many people suffer today the physical and emotional devastation resulting from perhaps pleasing but disordered behavior. These consequences scar their own lives and the lives of their spouses, families, and neighbor -- now and in the future.
Judging an act of moral import does not mean insulting, humiliating, manipulating, shaming, or belittling people. It is not a pronouncement on their salvation or condemnation, on their innermost core of thought and being. Neither should it be based on false, irrelevant facts, nor on wrong, arbitrary, or inconsistent criteria.
Quite the contrary, judging an act of moral import entails the proper dispositions, fair criteria, and right facts. Such judgments, made with love and out of love, are expressions of a truth-informed conscience, and intend human flourishing. Intellectual and moral virtues are thereby nourished.
Who are we to judge? Human beings with the intellect, the free will, and the duty to do so because of our own dignity, wellbeing, and the common good. Consequently, we will judge ourselves as well. Why? Because we can and we ought to. Because the very conclusion “who am I to judge?” is, in itself, a judgment. And, besides, because the good life is at stake.
Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.