You can’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. So says the conventional wisdom, and this is a (rare) case where the conventional wisdom is right. This proverb understands the truth that to understand someone’s behaviour we need to understand their experiences: their history, joys, traumas, motivations, hopes and dreams. As it happens, this ability to see other people’s perspectives is an important developmental milestone and a skill that we can continue to cultivate throughout our lives. And it is a critical component of this week’s VIA character trait, Judgment.
The word ‘judgment’ is a little misleading in this context, and perhaps for this reason, Ryan Niemiech and Robert McGrath have given it the subtitle “critical thinking” in their book, The Power of Character Traits. The idea of judgment as considered here is less about deciding on moral right and wrong than about looking at various perspectives, weighing their merits and drawbacks, and discerning the best path forward.
According to the VIA Institute, “If Judgment is your top strength, thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.” They add, “Judgment is a corrective strength in that it counteracts faulty thinking, such as favoring your current views or favoring ideas that are considered the dominant view, and therefore giving less attention to the less-dominant view. It is the willingness to search actively for evidence against your favored beliefs, plans or goals and to weigh all of the evidence fairly when it is available.”
Niemiec and McGrath also associate it with cognitive flexibility and versatility, and avoiding cognitive distortions — those tendencies we have in our thinking that lead us to jump to (often negative) conclusions.
Judgment as defined this way is strongly reminiscent of the perspective-taking that’s at the heart of integral thinking. To review, this perspective-taking has two main elements: the first is that to understand anything, we have to look at it from as many sides as we can; and the second is that we also need to look at it from as many people’s perspectives as we can. (Last Spring I looked at how to use this approach in Scripture reading.) As the integral psychologist R. Elliott Ingersoll notes, “The more you embrace [i.e, the more perspectives you can see], the broader and deeper your sense of self becomes. The more you push away the greater your chances of experiencing alienation and the greater the chance that what you are pushing away may be an aspect of you” (Integral Psychotherapy, 10).
As important as judgment is, it isn’t a trait that has been encouraged by the Church. This shouldn’t be too surprising or even disappointing, since most traditional cultures are far more about obedience and safety than development and growth. And yet, there are examples of judgment being understood as wisdom in the Scriptures. One famous example is King Solomon’s ruling in the case of the two women arguing over the same baby: He understood that the child’s true mother would be motivated by love and desire for the child to live, whereas her rival would be motivated by jealousy. This is a great example of judgment at work.
A negative example would be the prophet Jonah’s simultaneous refusal to empathize with the Ninevites and to get on board with God’s compassion. God has sent him to give them an opportunity to avoid destruction, but Jonah is too caught up in his own narrow and hateful perspective to see this grace as a good thing. While he does end up fulfilling his duty, he becomes a rather pathetic figure in the end, left sulking at God’s mercy under a withered vine. If Jonah had looked at the issue from more sides, he would have been able to see God’s mercy as the gift that it was and that the best thing for his own people too was to have this powerful city as allies in life rather than as destroyed enemies.
For the most part, when the Bible talks about judgment and perspective-taking, it’s to set aside our own perspectives in exchange for God’s perspectives, to, in Pauline jargon, “put on the mind of Christ.” The (not unreasonable) assumption is that our perspective is too narrow and caught up in our own concerns to be trustworthy. And this was indeed the case with Jonah. But I think the Jonah example also shows us how this “exchange our own perspective for God’s” idea isn’t the cop out from judgment it first seems to be. For, if God is love, as the New Testament clearly teaches, God’s perspective will always be bigger, broader, deeper, and more open than ours. It will always lead us to increased empathy and an expanded circle of awareness. The more we see, the better — and naturally more empathetic and wise — decisions and judgments we will make.
When we are deficient in the character strength of judgment, we become singlemeninded, open to prejudice, liable to confirmation bias and cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing and generalizing. This is to say that a narrow field of awareness in our decision-making and beliefs causes us to make bad decisions and believe things that aren’t the whole truth. The true road may be narrow, as Jesus taught, but if it’s indeed a true road, its truth will only become more and more apparent the more we see and experience.
But like all of the character strengths, there can also be too much of a good thing. Seeing many perspectives helps us make good decisions, but if we aren’t careful, it can create analysis paralysis and make us indecisive. Similarly if judgment isn’t used wisely and courageously, it can end up as wishy-washiness and a lack of conviction. And, as I’ve written about before, taking other people’s perspectives can become harmful if we go too far and don’t take our own experiences seriously too.
With all this in mind, how might we grow our strength of judgment? Here are three ideas:
- Think of a major political issue facing your community and try to make a compelling case for the side you don’t believe in;
- When faced with an idea or argument that runs counter to your own beliefs, ask clarifying questions before dismissing it;
- To broaden your own inner perspectives, try the Inner wisdom circle sacred practice when facing a decision.