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Wed Feb 29, 2012, 06:44 PM

Dancing around judgment of differing beliefs and opinions [View all]

Last edited Tue Jan 29, 2013, 05:56 PM - Edit history (1)

I have serious doubts when many people champion the idea of "not judging" that they're really as free from making judgments about the beliefs and opinions of others as they'd like to appear, or as they might like to believe themselves to be.

Keeping judgments quietly to yourself doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Adding disclaimers like "I could be wrong" doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Avoiding an overlap between judging an opinion or belief in particular and judging the person who holds that opinion or belief in general doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Blithely saying "whatever gets you through the night" is not an avoidance of judgment. You might think you're avoiding judging the character of a person that way, but you're taking what could well be strongly held beliefs and judging them to be nothing more than a coping strategy. I think it's actually much more respectful to treat others as having opinions worthy of debate than to treat them as children in need of a security blanket that you're oh-so-generously trying to not to upset.

Matters of personal taste aside, what is an opinion if not a judgment that some idea or conclusion is superior in some manner, more likely correct, more moral, or more justifiable than differing opinions. Opinions do not exist in isolation from other opinions, they exist in contrast to other opinions.

Consider a non-religious example:

It is my opinion that global warming is a real phenomena, and that human activity is a major cause of it.

I therefore believe that the opposite IS WRONG (gasp! shudder!). Believing that the opposite is wrong isn't a matter of me going out of my way to be judgmental, it isn't some special effort that I could avoid even if I wanted to avoid it, it's simply a totally obvious and integrally connected conclusion, like knowing that if the sun is up, then the sun isn't down.

Am I absolutely, 100% certain that I'm right? No. I consider there to be a very small chance I'm wrong, which means there's a small chance that those who disagree with me are right. Judging myself highly likely to be right, and others highly likely to be wrong is, however, still a judgmental stand on the worthiness of the opinions of those who disagree with me.

If I believe that climate denialism is wrong, then in the one respect, on that one issue, I believe that the people holding that view are wrong, that the denialists are wrong. Yes, I dare to say out loud that I think other people are wrong, and that I am right. One conclusion follows the other. No special effort, no particular penchant for being judgmental is required. A kind-hearted desire for being diplomatic wouldn't change this, even if it might change the carefully chosen words of diplomacy.

Having any opinions at all beyond matters of personal taste inherently implies some kind of negative attitude toward the opinions of others which are in disagreement with your own opinions.

By the way, none of the above has the slightest thing to do with anyone's right to hold differing opinions. That should be totally obvious, but sadly people constantly blur the distinction between respecting other people's right to hold different opinions and respecting those opinions themselves. Criticize X on the internet, and the odds quickly approach 100% the more you criticize X that someone will indignantly cry out how people have the right to believe X if they want to! (And leave Britney alone!)

What was that I said about the sun before? If it's up, then it isn't down? Did I forget that the sun can be up in the sky in one place while being down in another? No, I did not forget that. The question is this: Do you think that this caveat really makes a deep difference about what's right and what's wrong, or do you realize that in many contexts that such caveats are merely semantics games?

While it might often be a good and useful thing to point out that the validity of some opinions depends on unstated assumptions (like that we're talking about the same location on the planet) the fact that one view is right and another is flat out wrong remains, once you make sufficiently explicit any unstated assumptions and conditions. Right and wrong cannot remain infinitely plastic and personalized on all issues in anything but a through-the-looking-glass world, a world in which normal human functioning and interactions would be impossible.

You can try to duck the apparently horrible, unforgivable act of judging the opinions of others by trying to turn all issues into personal issues, as if believing in God or not is no different a matter than preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. I contend that such an approach, however, is itself a kind of judgment, a diminution of the importance of the opinions of others for the people who hold those opinions, a diminution many of those people are not likely to appreciate.

Besides, if you don't treat opinions on global warming as mere matters of personal taste, or as if some weird metaphysics applies where global warming deniers live in an alternate universe where climate change isn't actually happening, why treat issues of religion that way?

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