Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Aquinas on the sin of rash judgment

Christ famously taught: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).  As Aquinas points out, Christ by no means intended to rule out all judgments about another person’s actions or character.  Rather, he was condemning judgments that were defective in certain ways, for example:

In these words our Lord forbids rash judgment which is about the inward intention, or other uncertain things, as Augustine states… Or again according to Chrysostom, He forbids the judgment which proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart. (Summa Theologiae II-II.60.2)

Similarly, in the same article, Aquinas says that when a judgment “lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter… then it is called judgment by ‘suspicion’ or ‘rash’ judgment.”  He goes on in the two articles that immediately follow to say a fair bit about the nature of the suspicious frame of mind that leads to rash judgment.

First, Aquinas identifies three causes of this frame of mind.  One of them is “long experience” of the kind that older people have, and Aquinas indicates that in this case the resulting judgments can have less of the character of mere suspiciousness insofar as experience yields greater certainty.  However, the other two causes involve “perversity of the affections.”  These sources of the suspicion that leads to rash judgment are:

First, from a man being evil in himself, and from this very fact, as though conscious of his own wickedness, he is prone to think evil of others… Secondly, this is due to a man being ill-disposed towards another: for when a man hates or despises another, or is angry with or envious of him, he is led by slight indications to think evil of him, because everyone easily believes what he desires.  (Summa Theologiae II-II.60.3)

In such cases, “suspicion denotes a certain amount of vice, and the further it goes, the more vicious it is.”  The sin involved can be venial if a person merely too rashly doubts the goodness of another.  However, “when a man, from slight indications, esteems another man's wickedness as certain [then] this is a mortal sin, if it be about a grave matter, since it cannot be without contempt of one's neighbor.”

Even if left unexpressed, this judgment is sinful.  “From the very fact that a man thinks evil of another without sufficient cause,” Aquinas says, “he despises him unduly, and therefore does him an injury.”  But public expression is, naturally, worse still: “Since justice and injustice are about external operations… the judgment of suspicion pertains directly to injustice when it is betrayed by external action, and then it is a mortal sin.”

Second, Aquinas teaches that a morally healthy frame of mind requires that we afford others a presumption of innocence, as it were:

From the very fact that a man thinks ill of another without sufficient cause, he injures and despises him.  Now no man ought to despise or in any way injure another man without urgent cause: and, consequently, unless we have evident indications of a person's wickedness, we ought to deem him good, by interpreting for the best whatever is doubtful about him. (Summa Theologiae II-II.60.4)

And again, “we ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless there is evident proof of the contrary.”  To be sure, we might frequently be misled as a result.  However, argues Aquinas, this is preferable to the outcome that would follow if we did not give others a presumption of innocence:

He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.

Needless to say, the presumption of innocence is not only good morals, it is good law.  And it is, to boot, good logic.  As students of critical thinking are taught, when evaluating an opponent’s argument, we ought to interpret it according to the “principle of charity.”  This says that if the argument can be given a more reasonable or less reasonable interpretation, we should presume that the more reasonable one is what the speaker intended, unless we have solid grounds for judging otherwise.  This is in part a matter of basic fairness to the other person.  But it is also sound methodology.  The point of logic is not to win a debate, but to discover what is true.  If we dismiss an argument too quickly on the basis of an uncharitable interpretation, we might miss some important truth we could have learned from it had we considered it more carefully.

Obviously, one can go too far.  A virtue is a mean between extremes, and just as one can be too quick to attribute evil to others, so too can one be too slow to do so.  Aquinas does not say that we should never judge another to have a bad motive.  He says that we should not do so if we lack sufficient evidence to make a certain judgment about the matter, if our judgment tends to be clouded by dislike of the person, and so on.  But with some people, it is possible dispassionately and objectively to judge from their patterns of behavior over time that they are indeed acting from bad motives.  There is no sin in making such a judgment under such circumstances.  On the contrary, a habitual refusal to do so can be a vice.  As I have discussed elsewhere, Aquinas argues that just as one can sin by being excessively angry or insufficiently affable or friendly, so too can one sin by being insufficiently angry and excessively affable in the face of grave evil.  Dogmatic non-judgmentalism would be a similar moral failing.  It is not Christ’s teaching, but a distortion of that teaching.

All the same, in the context of contemporary mass media, the more common sin by far is that of rash judgment.  Indeed, social media exchanges and political discourse sometimes seem to consist in little more than rash judgment as Aquinas characterizes it – that is, judgment about “the inward intention, or other uncertain things” about another person, which “proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart.”  Opponents are routinely demonized, condemned as wicked rather than merely wrong.  Their claims and arguments are not evaluated by way of a dispassionate consideration of evidence and logical strength, but dismissed a priori as stemming from bad motives.  Policy differences are attributed, not to sincere but mistaken opinions about what is best for the country, but to cynical political calculation.  The very idea that there is a common good transcending partisan disagreements, and shared standards of rationality by which those disagreements might be discussed in good faith, seems to be held suspect as entailing a sell-out to the enemy. 

Naturally, this is not to deny that some people really are wicked.  The point is that partisanship has become so rancorous, and electronic media so central to modern social and political interaction, that many people are unable to see and judge others as concrete individuals.  They form a cartoonish general conception of the beliefs and motivations of those they disagree with, and project this conception onto the particular people with whom they engage.  Because they do not deal with these opponents in a personal way, but only with electronic representations (television sound bites, tweets, blog comments, and the like), the cartoon is difficult to dislodge.  Whatever the other person says, it is assumed that what he “really” thinks is what the cartoon represents people like him as thinking.  And because he is likely to react to this sinister caricature with anger and insults of his own, his behavior will even seem to confirm it.

The failing here is in both the intellect and the will.  It is in the intellect insofar as this way of dealing with others typically involves the committing of several logical fallacies.  For example, there is the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy of pretending to refute what someone says by claiming to identify some suspect motive on his part.  There is the fallacy of poisoning the well, which involves casting aspersions on another’s character rather than addressing his claims or arguments.  There is guilt by association, in which one attributes view X to a person who believes Y simply because other people who believe Y have been associated with X.  There is the abusive ad hominem, which involves simply flinging a pejorative label at a person (“racist,” “fascist,” “communist,” etc.) as if this sufficed to rebut his claim or argument.  And there is what seems to compete with the circumstantial ad hominem for the status of most popular fallacy on social media – the tu quoque, which involves accusing someone of hypocrisy and supposing that one has thereby refuted his claim or argument.

There is a failing here in the will insofar as it is not directed at the good of the other person.  Even if the other person is wrong, charity requires considering the possibility that he is nevertheless acting in good faith, and trying one’s best to interact with him in a way that might get him to reconsider his error rather than harden him in it.  Furthermore, there may be at least some truth in what he is saying, and it is unjust to reject that possibility out of hand out of hostility to him.  Human beings are rational animals, and naturally regard it as unjust when what they (rightly or wrongly) take to be strong rational considerations in favor of their opinions are not addressed.  We sin against charity when we ignore what they actually say and instead impute bad motives or opinions to them that they may not actually have.

Again, the point is not to deny that people sometimes really do have bad motives and opinions.  Nor is it to deny that it is in some cases justifiable to be harsh with such a person, when his opinions are dangerous and he puts them forward in an obnoxious or irrational way.  The point is that this should be a last resort, not the first, and in modern mass media people tend instead to be too “quick on the trigger.”  As Aquinas says, “when a man hates or despises another, or is angry with or envious of him, he is led by slight indications to think evil of him, because everyone easily believes what he desires.”   We like to think that the reason we dislike a person is that he has bad motives or irrational views.  But sometimes we attribute bad motives or irrational views to him precisely because we dislike him.  If we kept our dislike from coloring our opinion of him, we might find that he is not in fact as bad or unreasonable as we have supposed.

A good rule of thumb is that when someone whose opinions you disagree with tries to engage with you in a civil and reasonable manner – or, if he doesn’t, at least will do so after you try to turn the temperature down by engaging civilly and reasonably with him – then it would be contrary to reason and charity not to give him the benefit of the doubt.  There are definitely lots of people online who are not like this – who remain obnoxious and irrational no matter how patient and civil you are with them.  But there are also lots of people who would behave more reasonably if only others behaved more reasonably toward them. 

Another good rule of thumb is to consider, before posting some comment on Twitter, Facebook, a blog, or wherever, how it will look at the Last Judgment, when, Christ warns, “men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37, RSV).

Related posts:

Wrath and its daughters

The ad hominem fallacy is a sin

Social media’s fifth circle

49 comments:

  1. If Jesus didn't forbid all judgment, Paul did.

    "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:12)

    Paul said that every evildoer should be overlooked and the focus be on the evil angels guiding him or her for the worse. Now, in some cases, the cooperation of the person with the fallen angel is so tight that it is extremely difficult to decouple the two, but decouple them you must.

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    1. 1. Paul's admonition is not to think the evil originates in the evil human, but to look further. He does not mean that we should take no steps whatsoever against the evil humans. And taking steps against the plans of the powers and dominions often involves taking steps against those evil humans who are carrying out the evil plans of the cosmic powers.

      And even if Paul were to be, superficially, seeming to say that we should never judge humans, John has Jesus saying the opposite, and he does so clearly and explicitly:

      Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.

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    2. @ Infinite_Growth,

      We cannot stop the sin without punishing the sinner. A person who murders people must be judged of murdering people, by the proper authorities, and stopped. Locking up the murderer, eg, is punishment of the murderer.

      Tom Cohoe

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    3. You're equivocating two senses of the word "to judge." Jesus isn't saying to judge in the sense of appraise people's character. He's saying to discern. He's telling the Pharisees to stop judging by the standards of conventional religion and instead learn the Truth. The theme of John's gospel is that Jesus is the Truth.

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    4. @ Infinite_Growth

      How could I be equivocating two senses of judging when I only spoke of one? Nor was I speaking of any religious sense of judgement. I was pointing out that your reading of Paul must be incorrect since incarcerating a particular criminal involves judgement and punishment of the person, inseparable from the act for which the punishment is due.

      Where does your authority to tell us the meaning of scripture originate?

      Tom Cohoe

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  2. Ed, What you are saying about judgment (not rash judgment) reminds me somehow of the doctrine of probabilism, which I remember from my theology classes when I was a student at Providence College in early 1970s. The Dominican friars were brilliant professors. And Providence, Rhode Island at that time was a great place to be young and full of life.

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  3. WCB

    If rash judgment is forbidden, can we get right winged Christion to stop using rash epithets like, communist, socialist, cultural Marxists, woke, social justice warrior, Satanic ect to smear people who critique societies failures of decent civilization?

    WCB

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    1. To the extent that those labels are inaccurate, such use is sinful. It is unlikely that we are going to get everyone to stop sinning before the second coming, however.

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    2. @ WCB:

      (blah, blah)... to smear people who critique societies failures of decent civilization?

      Roflmao.

      So now the word "decent" has a fixed meaning according to little nominalist. And of course little nominalist and his comrades are on the objective "right side of History". The materialist, for whom morality is an "evolutionary illusion". The materialist, who is the most hypocritical, self-congratulatory, sanctimonious creature to have ever walked the Earth. They are so "decent" that they partake in child sacrifice. Puagh.

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    3. "Communist, socialist, cultural Marxists, woke, social justice warrior, Satanic" These are simply descriptions, that many people actually identify with! There are people who identify themselves as being 'woke', even people who identify as being Satanists. Of course, if someone isn't actually one, then of course you shouldn't call them that. But if someone rejects being labeled as something, like Communist or Socialist, but always uses communist arguments & talking points etc, there is nothing wrong with simply noting that these are communist arguments that they are making, regardless if the person actually identifies as one or not.

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    4. }}} If rash judgment is forbidden, can we get right winged Christians to stop using rash epithets like, communist, socialist, cultural Marxists, woke, social justice warrior, Satanic ect to smear people who critique societies failures of decent civilization?

      Which part of "communist, socialist, cultural Marxist, woke, SJW" do you assert do not apply to something greater than 2/3rds of self-identified liberals?

      As to the "Satanic" part, I've rarely heard it outside of contexts where it fits -- for example, when Texas had an abortion law in the legislature, what, 2013, and both sides descended onto Austin to protest the other side, and the Christians were singing "Amazing Grace"... at least as large a number of liberals were chanting, "Hail Satan!" as loud as they could?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKrfCow6Lyk

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  4. "The case is always the same. We quote words, of which the plain meaning seems to be that their writer believed what we believe, in some point. The definite opponent then tries to strip his words of this meaning… The answer is that, in all cases, we must suppose that a sane man, who uses expressions, means what he says, unless the contrary can be proved." (Fr. Adrian Fortescue)

    ""What does X mean?" "It means Y." "OK, thanks. But wait, wait does Y mean?' "It means Z." "Oh, great. But wait, what does Z mean?" and so on ad infinitum. Even the statements of the authoritative interpreter would need an interpretation, and that interpretation would need one, and so on, so that nothing could ever be communicated!" (Edward Feser)

    https://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2021/06/an-exegetical-principle-from-fortescue.html

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  5. Thank you for this much needed and helpful post.

    @Infinite Growth:

    St. Paul did not forbid all judgement. If he did, he would not have written in 1 Corinthians 5:3, "For I, on my part, thought absent in body but present in spirit have already judged him who has so so committed this, as though I were present."

    St. Paul is referred to a man who is sleeping with his father's wife whom the Corinthians have not rebuked out of a disordered tolerance that is so well described in Feser's post above.

    Some of the distinctions in the post that are also found in St. Thomas are helpful to determine in what conditions a judgement can be made without being rash. One important distinction is between an exterior act (someone's actions which we can see) and an interior act (an inward intention which only God can see). You can judge an act and recognize that it is wrong without attributing to the person malice. The person may be acting wrongly out of ignorance and this is significantly less culpable than malice. In that instance, you could approach someone calmly and explain to them why the exterior act was not moral. This would be an act of mercy that the Church calls "Instructing the ignorant." Again you can do this without assuming that the person is either malicious or an imbecile. In fact, to instruct someone actually presumes goodwill. It presumes that they care about the truth and that if you take the time to explain the truth, that they will be inclined to follow it.

    So, we have to make distinctions about what being judged and this can help us from making assumptions about intentions which we cannot be sure of without knowing someone's character and habits. This does not prevent us from judging the exterior acts of anyone even if we don't know them. Nor does it prevent us from assessing their assertions even if we don't know them.

    It is also important to highlight that we can get to know someone's character and can make judgement's on that. In this, we just have to be much more careful and, again, err on the side of charity for their good and ours. However, if someone habitually steals or commits adultery or lies, we don't have to pretend that they have a good character when it is obvious that they don't.

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    1. The worse someone's character it is, the greater our debt is to bring grace to him or her. God invented salvation for the benefit of evil people. Good people don't need it!

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    2. No one is denying that evil people need salvation so it is very strange for you to bring that irrelevant point into a discussion about whether or not we can judge someone's actions or character. Your first sentence is nonsense and has no basis in reason or Scripture which is why you simply make an assertion without any support through argumentation or appeal to Scripture (not even a proof text). If your assertion were true, we would all be required to determine the most evil people in the world (an impossible task) and devote our lives to converting them (which would entail that everyone neglected real duties to their families and the communities they live in). Perhaps you might lead the effort and work on converting the devil?

      Michael Copas

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    3. Perhaps you might lead the effort and work on converting the devil?

      Angels are extremely simple-minded beings. They lack the mental capacity to perform a complex mental operation like repentance. That's why Satan wanted to kill Adam: out of envy that God gave him cognitive capabilities that he wasn't given. Angels are intellectually superior to humans in some, but not all, ways. If they completely eclipsed humans intellectually speaking, then God would have made me an angel and not a human.

      If your assertion were true, we would all be required to determine the most evil people in the world (an impossible task) and devote our lives to converting them (which would entail that everyone neglected real duties to their families and the communities they live in).

      This is a misinterpretation of what I believe. I understand that each Christian is given people they're assigned to minister to, and I was disarming the excuse many use that "oh, this guy/gal God sent me is too evil to minister to" or the quotemine of "do not throw pearls before swine" to render the Gospel inefficacious.

      Your first sentence is nonsense and has no basis in reason or Scripture

      The entire first half of the Book of Romans. Also St. John Chrysostom's sermon on the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

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    4. The first half of the book of Romans? Could you be any less specific? There is not a single verse in Romans that states that we are more indebted to people the more sinful they are. Again, this is something that came from your (apparently) very active imagination. For that reason, you cannot state a single verse that supports your conclusion and suggest that someone needs to sift through half of Romans to try to discern where in the world you might have committed eisogesis to arrive at your odd conclusion.

      In response to your suggestion that your opinion is found in Romans, I think you should read the Pentateuch, the major and minor prophets, and the Wisdom literature to discover that this opinion is not correct. While you are at it, you should also read the Gospels, general epistles, Pauline Corpus, and apocalyptic literature from both the OT and NT. Let's see, does that cover it. Yes, I think that if you do that, you will see that I am correct.

      Regarding St. John Chyrsostom's sermon on the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: Again, why don't you take the trouble to get specific rather than making broad generalizations coupled with a glib confidence in your own unsupported conclusions. If you have the slightest textual support for the assertion that we are more indebted to greater sinners than we are to lesser sinners, why don't you provide at least one little quote that says precisely that? We are all on the edge of our seats. Otherwise, perhaps you should not place such glib confidence in entirely baseless opinions. After all, a high level of confidence coupled with a high level of ignorance is a fairly toxic combination. Such folks have difficulty learning because they always presume themselves to be the teacher even when their opinions are entirely unfounded and shown to be unfounded.

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    5. Infinite Growth wrote:

      "This is a misinterpretation of what I believe. I understand that each Christian is given people they're assigned to minister to, and I was disarming the excuse many use that "oh, this guy/gal God sent me is too evil to minister to" or the quotemine of "do not throw pearls before swine" to render the Gospel inefficacious."

      This is not an interpretation of your position. It is an inference from what you have stated (viz. that we are more obligated to those who are most sinful) and a reductio from that inference. Regarding the positions that you are laboring to refute: who in the world in this post suggested anything like what you are opposing? If no one has even suggested "oh, this guy/gal God sent me is too evil to minister to" why in the world are you opposing a position that no one in this conversation seems to hold? Why are you swinging your fists wilding in the air at an enemy that is not even in the room (except in that active imagination of yours)?

      Regarding your angelic knowledge, I can only say in wonder: how did you attain such wisdom? Is this something else that is not found in either Scripture or Tradition that we can only attain through serene confidence in your opinions? Perhaps if we had such a high level of confidence in your unsupported opinions, we too could be so profoundly informed as to know the inner working of angelic knowledge. All I can say is that I stand in wonder. Do you think you could devote some time to solving complex problems in astrophysics? I know it would be an inconvenience to devote an afternoon to such activity, but perhaps you could spend some time on it after you spend the morning finding a cure for cancer.

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    6. @Michael Copas

      This is not an interpretation of your position. It is an inference from what you have stated (viz. that we are more obligated to those who are most sinful) and a reductio from that inference.

      I'm sorry, but I don't have any clue as to what you're saying. Maybe scholastic logic is different from the logic I was taught in math class.

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    7. I meant that you laid out a broad principle that linked our obligation to someone based on one factor: how sinful they are. You later added caveats as it was clear that the proposed principle was too broad and insufficient. That it was too broad and insufficient was obvious and I was making the additional point that it was simply a false principle.

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    8. Regarding a "reductio", this is a reference to a reduction to absurdity. When this is done, you show that an implication of some position is absurd. If one wishes to avoid the absurdity of the implication, one must avoid the position that entails this implication. It is a very effective way to show that some position is false. A couple of figures who are exceptional at this are St. Augustine and, in our own times, Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga is the sort of writer who will make you spit your coffee out on the book in laughter with his reductios.

      Also, a book that would be a helpful introduction to a scholastic realist account of logic is Peter Kreeft's Socratic Logic. This has become a standard text and Kreeft is a wonderful writer. It is thorough and would require some work to get through it but I suspect it would be beneficial and enjoyable.

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  6. @Infinite Growth (continued)

    The area that we have to be most careful in is in judging particular intentions associated with a particular act. It is here that judgements are most unsure. Now, we also have to be careful not to completely de-link intentions from the exterior act. (This is a problem that occurred in 20th century Catholic theology. On this point, see Matthew Levering's recent book The Abuse of Conscience). The act is intended by the person and if the act is bad then the intention is bad in some way. However, the person again may be acting from ignorance or confusion or trying to achieve some real good and yet be going about it in the wrong way. In this instance, you can again explain moral principles and why a particular act is not good and this should help to guide their intentions in the future as they realize, for example, that a good end does not justify a bad means. etc.

    However some people are in fact habitually bad. That is, they have bad character. In this instance another work of mercy is called for: Rebuking the sinner.

    Regarding your suggestion that our only enemy is the principalities, this also is based on a partial reading of St. Paul. St. Paul also identifies the flesh as our enemy in Galatians 5:19ff, "Now the deeds of the flesh (Greek: sarx) are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, etc..." He warns that those who practice these things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Flesh is used in multiple and analogous ways in the NT and can be used to simply refer to the body, but here it refers to sinful desires, intentions and acts. So the flesh, in this sense, is also an enemy of the Christian according to Paul.

    If we take a broader focus on the New Testament, we also find that "the world" (Greek: kosmos) is also an enemy of the Christian and this is reflected in the writings of St. John. Kosmos is also used in multiple senses in the NT so this does not entail that each use refers to something bad. However, a worldly spirit that says "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die" (i.e. "this world is all there is"; hence worldliness) is contrary to authentic faith and is another enemy of the Christian.

    It is for this reason that the council of Trent identified three enemies of the Catholic viator: Satan, the world, and the flesh. So, the suggestion that we have only one enemy is based on a partial consideration of the New Testament at the exclusion of other parts.

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  7. I never make rash judgements because I always have good reasons for beliefs. Now those other guys...

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  8. In an internet discussion it seems

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  9. I have a bone to pick with the reasoning given here:

    And again, “we ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless there is evident proof of the contrary.” To be sure, we might frequently be misled as a result. However, argues Aquinas, this is preferable to the outcome that would follow if we did not give others a presumption of innocence:

    He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.


    I suggest: On the contrary:

    “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. (Matt 5:13

    …and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:16)

    If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14)

    No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.
    This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 54:17)

    For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
    speaking against me with lying tongues. (Ps. 109:2)
    But thou, O God my Lord,
    deal on my behalf for thy name's sake;
    because thy steadfast love is good, deliver me! (Ps. 109:21)
    Help me. O Lord my God!
    Save me according to thy steadfast love!
    Let them know that this is thy hand;
    thou, O lord, hast done it!
    let them curse, but do thou bless! (Ps. 109:26-28)


    So, arguably, the mere thought<.i> against a man is not injury to him.

    I don't think it is easy to establish the last statement in "in the latter case, an injury is inflicted, but not in the former." Let me suggest the opposite: As often as you injure an innocent man when you judge him evil, just as often so also you injure yourself or others when you judge an evil man to be innocent.

    To argue this: Let me distinguish: if you judge a man evil when he isn't, but you do not ACT on this opinion in any way, you do not actually injure the man as such. YOUR thoughts don’t affect him directly, but only via some further medium. So, the only actual injury he suffers is when you ACT on that opinion. Now, perhaps the first action you might take is to declare your judgment to others and this WOULD be harm to him (in some sense or other, perhaps), but let's eliminate this: it clearly requires not your mere judgment, but your ACT to tell others. The next most likely downstream (harmful) event from that erroneous judgment is that you won't give him some trust on some matter, and this withholding from trust does actually injure him. Any actual harm requires a transfer from your thought into some secondary vehicle that goes outside yourself and impinges on him. UNTIL you have an occasion (such as this withholding trust) to act on your erroneous opinion, you have not actually injured him. However, there are high prospects that there WILL be some such occasion, and so it is very likely that you will injure him. And perhaps this high likelihood is sufficient to say (as a loose approximation) that you "have" harmed him in making the judgment.

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  10. But the same sorts of thing occur in reverse, when you judge and evil man to be innocent: in respect of the mere judgment itself neither harm nor benefit befalls anyone else, including him. But as soon as you act on the judgment by according him trust as if he were innocent, when he is guilty, you harm whatever project hinged on according him that trust. This usually means harm to yourself (because, usually, you will be a participant in that project), or it COULD be many other people besides yourself. You therefore are JUST AS LIKELY to harm yourself and others in this way as in the first case above. The two are entirely analogous.

    To look at it from a non-personal perspective: in a court of criminal law, regarding penalties that the law might impose, the judge (or jury) applies a standard of "innocent until proven guilty" and a standard of needing guilt to be established "beyond a reasonable doubt". But in a civil suit, the judge applies a DIFFERENT STANDARD: the award of damages or benefits is based on a mere preponderance of the evidence", i.e. wherever the stronger argument lies, there is where the judgment lies. And the judge MUST render a judgment that will be to the detriment (i.e. "harm") one of the two parties. Therefore, he must harm one and benefit the other on the basis of merely whichever is one more probably in the right (has the better argument), he cannot choose to opt out of judging.

    Here's the thing: The "court of public opinion" and personal judgments are similar to each other in this - that they are RIGHTLY not restricted to bringing conclusions only with evidence showing "beyond a reasonable doubt". They both RIGHTLY make judgments based (at least much closer to) on a mere preponderance of the evidence, OR EVEN LESS! And this applies to the vast, vast array of social and civic decisions we must make: I choose not to enter into a repair contract with this roofing contractor because "he felt slimy to me", and nothing more specific than that, is a perfectly appropriate judgment to make. I don't even have to be judging him to be "slimy" as being "more likely than not" (i.e. above 50%), it would be sufficient for me to do it based on a lower scale, like 20% or 30% likelihood, because I can go find another contractor whom I estimate is far less likely to be slimy, perhaps "less than 5%". Thus I "harm" the first contractor based on a very modest basis of evidence, and do so with complete legitimacy.

    You might recast this judgment as being not "he IS slimy" but rather "there is a 30% probability he is slimy", but that doesn't prevent (a) that you made a negative judgment and a negative CHOICE affecting him, and (b) your choice does him harm (in some sense). So recasting it that way still causes the judgment to fall under St. Thomas's stated opprobrium, even though it is manifestly a right kind of judging.

    The only way to repair the argument Thomas gives is to reframe it as: it is wrong to make FIRMER judgments (against) someone than the evidence (you have) allows for. And the certain wrongness here lies primarily in its defiance to the virtues of truth, and not "harm to the person.” The virtues of truth (e.g. prudence) would have you make DUE judgments that the evidence allows for, and WITHHOLD from firmer opinions than the evidence allows, and when you violate that, you harm yourself first, before harming some other. Due judgments may well rely on less-than-solid evidence, if they are less-than-solid judgments (i.e. when they are held as opinions). Withholding from making judgments on incomplete evidence is ALSO a failure of prudence, when a judgment is needed regardless of the state of the evidence. Commanders in battle must often make judgments of the enemies tactical object when the evidence is far from solid, they cannot just wait until they have proof or even something close to it.

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    1. It seems to me that in terms of "judgement", it depends on what exactly is at stake. A lot of the time, it is merely one's opinion of another, that has no huge consequences to it. You might simply think someone is wrong on some issue, and the only consequence is what you might say in order to 'correct' them. Or, someone might be engaging in behaviour that is objectively wrong, but there is nothing really you can do to stop them, or it isn't your place to stop them(many kinds of sexual behaviour, for example). That's different from situations where the person might take advantage of yourself or other people. Such as, deciding whether to lend a large amount of money to someone. If you are the only one potentially affected, you might simply allow them to take advantage of you to a certain extent(Everyone has their limits). If other people are potentially harmed, though, then it is as you describe. It would be wrong to simply let them take advantage of others, so you really have to judge on what is more likely rather than beyond reasonable doubt, because no matter what you do, there will be a 'winner' & a 'loser' in that situation.

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    2. Tony @ 7.19am writes: "But the same sorts of thing occur in reverse, when you judge and evil man to be innocent: in respect of the mere judgment itself neither harm nor benefit befalls anyone else, including him. But as soon as you act on the judgment by according him trust as if he were innocent, when he is guilty, you harm whatever project hinged on according him that trust. "

      I could not have written a more profoundly salient comment about those who follow cult leader DJT.

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    3. Well, that's a rarity: Papalinton agrees with me. I wonder if the Earth came to a standstill when I wasn't looking.

      On the flip side: while I determined, with acknowledgement of incomplete data and room for very much debatable consequences, that DJT is not trustworthy to be upright and act well, I still voted for him mostly because - on the same kinds of reasoning - I determined HRC to be quite trustworthy to be vile, vicious, and evil-minded. I would say that later events largely bore out my rough estimations with remarkable accuracy in the main, but with a significant underestimation of how much good DJT would do even though being flighty, weird, and obnoxious with regularity.

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  11. Dr. Feser,

    This post was very profound. Thank you for giving me ideas that I will contemplate for the rest of my life.

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  12. As students of critical thinking are taught, when evaluating an opponent’s argument, we ought to interpret it according to the “principle of charity.” This says that if the argument can be given a more reasonable or less reasonable interpretation, we should presume that the more reasonable one is what the speaker intended, unless we have solid grounds for judging otherwise.

    When confronting materialists, we have solid grounds to be as uncharitable as possible, because they are unhinged and liars by definition. Materialism does not even deserve to be debated, it has to be literally obliterated. You give these people an inch and they take a whole civilization away. And for the sheer fun of it.

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    1. A bizarre, unbalanced, unhinged and uncharitable statement if ever there was one, as well as a gross generalisation. You exhude your sinfulness, and with evident pride.

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    2. @Uncommon Descent

      I don't think you have understood the account of charity given in this post. Charity or love is to will the good of another person. This is the highest call of the Christian and a fulfilment of the entire law. We are called to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is in this that Christians reflect the image of God who is love itself. It is in this that we show the Spirit of love dwelling within us as "the love of God is poured into [our] hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us" (Rom 5:5). It is this love that causes us to obey Christ's commands as Jesus taught "If you love me you will keep my commands" (John 14:15). The significance of this love for our salvation is that "Christ is the source of eternal salvation for those who obey Him" Hebrews 5:9).

      This love is even greater than faith (1 Cor 13). Even with faith to move mountains, without love we are nothing (1 Cor 13). It is this love that causes our faith to work as what counts is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).

      Again, this is the entire law: to love God and to love neighbor as oneself. Such love is reflected in the 10 commandments with the first 3 being about loving God and the second 7 being about loving neighbor. It is for this reason that Jesus responded to the rich young ruler's question ("what must I do to be saved?") by quoting the commandments and then calling him to an act of love for the poor. It is for this reason that Jesus will separate the sheep and the goats based on whether or not they cared for those without clothes, food, and those imprisoned. We will be judged in the end on whether or not love dwells within us. As God is love itself and this love it poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, it is this love by which we "remain in Christ" as branches remain in the vine. This occurs when we love even our enemies as Christ calls us to do.

      This does not mean that we never correct our enemies or rebuke them. Rebuking a sinner to stop sinning is an act of love. It is a work of mercy. So is instructing those that are ignorant. The key point in the post above is that we should not easily default into thinking that those who disagree with us are malicious. Having that as a default approach is neither reasonable nor charitable and given the centrality of both charity and truth in the Christian life, such an approach is not a Christian approach to discourse.

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    3. @Uncommon Descent

      One other thought: Making a distinction between refuting a position and harming a person is key in all of this. Materialism is self refuting and such nonsense is extremely harmful for a society. For that reason, the position does in fact have to be refuted. If we can does this in a calm way, sincere folks who are confused by materialism will be won over. There will still be those who don't care about the truth and ignore the sound and valid arguments that could lead them to the truth. With such people, we can and should pray that their bad will--which does not care about the truth--might be changed into a good will that does. This of course requires grace for which we can pray for even those who are malicious.

      Going about it in this way with this intention is in fact an act of charity or love for our neighbor and hatred for false, harmful, and absurd positions that they may hold.

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    4. @ Free Thinker:

      A bizarre, unbalanced, unhinged and uncharitable statement if ever there was one

      If you think my statements are "unhinged", you have not read enough atheist/ materialist "literature".

      You exhude your sinfulness, and with evident pride.

      Pride is being celebrated in our decadent society. And the priests of materialism have taught me that all my sins will be washed away in a sea of nothingness. We're all destined to die and rot. Everything is irrelevant. We're just chasing our tails. So carpe diem, Free Thinker. You people should be careful with your gospel. But you don't understand human nature. At all.

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    5. @ Michael Copas:

      I agree with most of your post. But there are limits to everything. Even Christ got fed up and cleansed the Temple. Materialism is an inherently evil, false, cancerous philosophy. These people have converted our society into an obscene zoo. So Carthago delenda est and no qualms.

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    6. @ Uncommon Descent

      I suspect we are basically on the same page. The greatest need now is to show that the dominant, absurd, and toxic positions of our day are in fact absurd and toxic. My central point was that this is an act of love and that it can lead to people of bad will having a change wherein they actually recognize their error and begin to care about the truth. Perhaps most importantly, such efforts to fight error can prevent others from following false, absurd, and harmful opinions. Stopping the spread of the cancer is a good thing.

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  13. Hey guys, happy day of the beloved St. Therese! The Little Therese way of dealing with folks is sure even more helpful nowdays!

    This is sure true of the theme of this post. Another big problem with today discussions is that things happen very fast today, there is aways a new thing that asks for a position, so one is tempted to judge now, which will tend to favor a superficial judgment. Uniting this with the tendency to see the ones we disagree with as enemies and there is a tendency to,as noted on the post, see the exterior acts of the other person or even just her "side" and judge using stereotipes of how our "enemies" are so one can spit a opinion along with others.

    Election year is tomorrow here and division is off the charts! There is rash judgment everywere you look. One is happy for the future World Cup, that tends to unite us more.

    What to do is truly to try to not presume. Even our intentions are not easy to understand, let alone the other ones!

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  14. I'm not a Christian but I respect the rich philosophy underlying Catholicism. Articles like this are very much food for thought, thank you.

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  15. Pretty active on Twitter but not here.

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  16. I saw that this was posted on Catholic World Report. It will do alot of good and help alot of folks. Thank you again and may God bless you for your efforts in service to Him.

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  17. Another good rule is to always publish social media comments with your real name where possible. That can be a barrier to rash judgement and other disordered passions.
    In case my name isn't shown, it is Todd Voss

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  18. Todd, I think there is too much "disordered passion" on social media and it is safer to not to use one's real name. I speak from personal experience.

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  19. Well said. Hate the heresy but love the heretic. Of course, as the post emphasises,not all differences in view are so easy to define. What occurs when the exponent of an uncertain or doubtful view denigrates those who dare to disagree? What to do when such people even take on Gollum-like simpering about poor "picked-on Smeagol"? For some individuals, such carrying on acquires a great share of their identity, and they inevitably find others who will fall for it? Carry on as usual of course, I suppose.

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  20. Of course, my comment above wasn't intended to draw any Gollums or Smeagols into the bright light of day here.

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    1. @Miguel

      I think that this is one of the most important questions in all of this. I think that it can be an act of charity to mock and ridicule absurd positions when people hold to them tenaciously (e.g. the prophet Elijah with the Prophets of Baal). The very fact that they are holding to them tenaciously is a reflection of bad will or malice and the act of mocking such positions gives them the opportunity to reject the absurd position in order that they themselves might not be absurd. This seems to me more in line with "rebuking the sinner" (presupposing bad will) rather than "instructing the ignorant" (presupposing some intellectual error arrived at without malice).

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  21. @Miguel

    It might be framed this way: Under what conditions do we "instruct the ignorant" and under what conditions to we "rebuke the sinner". The simple answer to each of these questions is straight forward. We do the former when dealing with someone who is ignorant (but not malicious) and that latter when someone is a sinner (i.e. malicious but not ignorant; they know it is wrong and don't really care). This entails that we are able to recognize and distinguish malice and ignorance. I think learning to do this effectively is critical for being able to effectively win people to the truth. If you rebuke a sincerely mistaken person for their mistake, this is unnecessary. Such a person just needs instruction. If you give instruction to a malicious person, this is uneffective because they don't care at all about the truth. Such a person doesn't need to be taught, he needs to be rebuked. This lies behind Aristotle's saying that we should not argue with those who deny manifest principles. Such folks need "the rod" and not instruction. Within discourse, having your position subject to well merited mockery is the closest dialectical equivalent to "the rod."

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    1. Michael, I've seen your comment. Yes, that might be the best approach. Mockery does not come naturally to me. May have to cultivate it!

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  22. It seems to me that the whole point of Dr. Feser’s post is self-examination about our judgements of others. It would be absurd to think we know other’s motives when we haven’t even taken time to thoroughly examined our own. To know oneself is biblical, which means that it is clearly for our instruction. We apparently don’t take nearly enough time in that department.

    One can simply ask themself if their motives have ever been misinterpreted by someone else. If so, then it is likely we will do the same with someone else. Walk with caution. Don’t run.

    Great post!

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