Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment
If I thought you were crazy, how would you prove your sanity? Would you show me your college degree? Lots of crazy people are rather intelligent. Would you take me to lunch and ask about my family? Clearly you would only be doing that to trick me into thinking you were normal (proving that you’re not only insane, but also deceptive). Would you try to prove me wrong by claiming you were trustworthy? But everything you say is a lie, and since you won’t admit your shortcomings, it’s apparent that you’re also arrogant. How would you prove you weren’t prideful? By working as a janitor for a year? But you’d only be doing that to prove how selfless you were, taking pride in your humility. You’d be faking humility, as does any arrogant crazy person who’s unwilling to admit their insanity.
Humans want to understand the world. Consequently, to keep from being overwhelmed, we look for patterns and form mental structures in(to) which to fit and comprehend experiences. To grasp unknowns rather than be wrestled down by them, we naturally compartmentalize and categorize the people around us as ‘kind’, ‘arrogant’, etc. Unfortunately, once we judge an individual to ‘be’ a certain way, we tend to put them into an inescapable box while we simultaneously place before our eyes a pair of glasses. If we judge an individual as ‘untrustworthy’, for example, everything that person does will be seen through that lens. If we will not give that individual a second chance until he or she earns our trust, that person will likely never succeed, for we will never witness the individual doing anything through our lens that warrants trust: the person is setup for failure from the start (the same logic applies if we deem someone as insane, manipulative, evil, etc.).
When people judge, it’s hard to convince them that their judgment is invalid, for they see lots of evidence through their lens that supposedly validates it. For parents who put too much stock in their children, for example, it can be very difficult to make them think objectively about their kids. Being ‘objective’ is a difficult task for any of us, for all of us are constantly engaged in fashioning subjective systems that justify our perspectives about the world and the people in it.
Facts become evidence when they are directed toward a claim or case. As perceptive pattern-finders, it is human nature to transform phenomena into evidence within a preset complex or hypothesis of our choosing. Evidence is never innocent — it’s never undirected — it’s always drafted into justifying a case of the perceiver’s interest and choosing. Evidence is a ‘fact with toward-ness’, per se. For example, if I off handedly heard you mispronounce a word, I probably wouldn’t pay any attention to it. However, if when I heard the mispronunciation I was already thinking that you were unintelligent, the error would function as evidence justifying my theory. A judgment primes me to be on the lookout for evidence, which makes me more confident in my judgment, even though its foundation is subjective, arbitrary, and perhaps wrong.
Humans build mental systems into which they fit experiences for the sake of comprehension. If we decide people are ‘kind’, we understand all their actions as ‘pointing to’ their ‘kindness’. If we decide football is a bad sport, all the tackles and hoopla function as evidence proving that the sport is a waste of time. What experiences ‘prove’ is relative to the system a person is consciously or subconsciously trying to justify. Data that doesn’t ‘prove’ what a person expects to be the case tends to be ignored or overlooked in favor of data that confirms preset complexes. Also, while erecting a system of, for example, ‘I am stupid’, a person usually doesn’t simultaneously beget a system of ‘I am smart’: a person tends to create only one system into which only one kind of evidence can fit, leaving out data that could invalidate the system. Lastly, data is ‘framed’ in such a way that it is always ‘read’ in favor of and ‘toward’ the reader’s position, and when this tendency is used to view oneself or other people, serious problems can result.
To assess is to identify a phenomenon; to judge, to create a framework in and through which to interpret phenomena. To assess is to identify something an individual did, while to judge is to fashion an identity from individual actions. Generally, if someone lies to you, to say ‘you lied’ is to assess, while to say ‘you’re a liar’ is to judge. Of course, these two sentences, depending on the context, can signify the other: it cannot be discerned from the sentence structure alone if someone is judging or assessing, for that is a matter of disposition, not simply language (though language can suggest an orientation). To christen someone ‘a liar’ is to fashion a framework through which to interpret all that person does and says, while to assess that ‘someone lied’ isn’t to fashion such an identity and corresponding lens.
Judgment and assessment both stem from the desire to define the good from the bad and the perfect from the imperfect, a desire that follows us wherever we go and in whatever we do. We naturally divide, and if we re-synthesize, we can grow from this division; however, if we divide and leave apart, we can lessen ourselves and others. All of us have a concept of how things should be versus how they shouldn’t be, and there is nothing wrong with identifying errors or evils. However, it is misguided to view others through a negative lens, for this is to act as if everything they do is wrong. People, in fact, are a mixture of goodness and badness, and if you engage with them as if they are totally bad or totally good, you engage with an abstraction. To abstract the world is to disembody yourself out of it and into alienation and error.
To be judgmental is to define an individual’s identity from what an individual does, while to assess is to simply take in what an individual does. To jump from saying ‘he did something arrogant’ to ‘he is arrogant’ is to jump from an assessment to a judgment, from identifying actions in of themselves to determining identity from actions. It is philosophically mistaken to confuse what a thing ‘is’ with what a thing ‘does’, and this confusion is where all the trouble starts.
If you think a person ‘does something arrogant’, this will not necessarily result in you seeing everything that person does as arrogant unless you conclude the person ‘is arrogant’. In judgment, your assessment of a person’s being becomes a lens through which you decipher and understand all that person does, while an assessment of single encounters and events unto themselves is simply to engage with reality. There is nothing wrong with assessing that an individual ‘did’ something wrong (assuming that is indeed the case), though there is something terribly wrong with concluding a person ‘is’ wrong.
If I say ‘you are a good person’, I am judging you just as much as if I were to say ‘you are arrogant’. Judgments can be kind, yet kind judgments can be as dangerous as malicious ones, for if I conclude my son is a ‘well behaved kid’, I can cease to be objective about what he does. When he messes up in school, I might overlook it and spoil my son. On the other hand, if I conclude my son is ‘impractical’, when he writes a brilliant song, I might disregard his achievement and encourage my son to waste his artistic gift.
The longer we judge people, the more evidence we feel we have proving that people are indeed how we judge them. But a hundred years of data can never totally justify a system or judgment. At best, in line with the work of David Hume, the data can contribute to a certain probability of how an individual is like, but the data can never confirm the individual is indeed the way we think. Unfortunately, the longer I judge someone and the more supposed evidence I accumulate, the more I become susceptible to the Overconfidence Effect.¹ Also called ‘miscalibration’, the Overconfidence Effect is when a person’s confidence in his or her judgment increases without the accuracy of that judgment growing alongside it. This usually occurs when an individual, especially an expert, is given more information about a subject. The more evidence a person receives that ‘proves’ his or her judgment about another, the more confident that person becomes that he or she is right. As ‘evidence’ mounts and over-confidence grows, the harder it becomes to get the individual to stop being judgmental (for the surer that person becomes that he or she is doing the right thing by maintaining that judgment). Crises caused by over-confidence can be much worse than those caused by ignorance, for the over-confident take more risks, while the ignorant don’t tend to know how to be bolder and remain silent, feeling doubt that there is something to say.
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’, for the tendency to judge others is eventually turned on the judger’s self.² Then, ‘with the measure [the judger used]’, the judger measures his or her self.³
Judgment not only threatens our relationship with others, but also our relationship with ourselves. No one is perfect, so everyone is prone to self-judgment. Upon realizing fallibility, we may experience guilt, spreading and accelerating self-judgment. If someone asks me for a cup of coffee and the person calls me stupid when I admit that I forgot to buy fresh grounds from the store, I will be tempted to think ‘I am stupid’ rather then ‘I did something stupid’. Since ‘I am’ not actually a simple quality, to identify myself ‘as stupid’ is to abstract myself out of the world. Disembodied, I have now created a lens through which to view the world and myself. Consequently, since the mind naturally divides, dichotomizes, and judges, I will likely start seeing lots of evidence confirming that I am indeed ‘stupid’: I’ll start noticing the words I always mispronounce, I’ll realize I didn’t set the table right, etc. — and further fear and guilt will set in. Eventually, I will conclude ‘objectively’ that I have ‘proven’ my stupidity and descend into a self-justifying ‘loop’ of despair.
There is nothing wrong with self-assessment, but self-judgment is a threat to a person’s wellbeing. The line between the two is thin and takes vigilance to keep from crossing, but that vigilance is necessary, for it is dangerous to judge that ‘there is something wrong with me’. Once this is done and the glasses have been put on, the individual will come to see more and more evidence that there is indeed something wrong with his or her self. Primed to be self-critical, when someone asks a girl, for example, why she cut her hair, she’ll be tempted to take this comment as criticism rather than a question, especially if the girl sees any kind of ‘displeased’ look on the asker’s face. Even if the asker was just wondering, the girl who cut her hair may go through the day remembering the exchange as ‘evidence’ that she is stupid. After hundreds of similar exchanges and inevitable human mistakes, the girl may fall into despair.⁴ In this place of depression, if a friend tells the girl that ‘it’s all in your mind; you’re wonderful’, the girl will shake her head, convinced that she has witnessed hundreds of examples of evidence proving her friend wrong.⁵ She won’t listen not because she’s stubborn, but because she believes that she knows substantial counterevidence, that to think otherwise would be to deny reality. Convinced that nothing is gained from ignoring the truth, the depressed girl may be prescribed medication, and if side-effects kick in or the particular medication wasn’t a good fit for her, this will confirm once and for all to the girl that there is indeed something wrong with her — she has the numbers, physical manifestations, and experts to confirm it. She may then enter into a ‘loop’ of medication to treat her ‘emotionally induced illness’ (EII), consequence of a psychological ‘loop’ beget by self-judgment which was fed by criticism (or by what was perceived as criticism). The illness the girl incurs could make it seem as if she was right when she first said ‘there is something wrong with me’, when in fact it was the judgment that lead her down the road to make it so. The words beget the facts before the words referred to facts. In coming to believe a false version of what happened, the girl could fall into self-deception, yet be confident in her incorrect perspective, consequence of the paradox of judgment.
Judgment inherently incurs self-deception, as self-deception incurs judgment. It is to abstract, to do yourself a disservice, but if you’ve judged yourself and others for years, how to do you stop and switch to the state of ‘openness’ and diligence that assessment entails? Judgment eventually becomes a habit, and like all habits, it requires time to break and change. If you want to lose weight and break the habit of eating sweets, then whenever you see desert, you must make a point to resist the craving. If you do this long enough, eventually you won’t even desire sweets, and in fact will be repulsed by the thought; instead, you’ll crave fruits and vegetables. Similarly, whenever a judgmental thought appears in your mind, you must resist the temptation to entertain it with both your thoughts and actions. This will be hard at first, but eventually you will break the habit of judgment, and furthermore come to feel repulsed by judgmental thoughts.
‘And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’
To judge yourself is as abstracting and unhealthy as judging others. It should be noted that Matthew 7:4–5 does not say that you shouldn’t assess the fact that there is a speck in another person’s eye, only that you shouldn’t judge another for having such a speck. To assess is to ‘see clearly’, while to judge is to be blinded by a ‘plank’ (of abstraction or self-deception). To undergo self-deception is to give up your life ‘to the dogs’, and to throw the pearls of your identity before abstracting swine.⁶ Keep in mind that when self-deceived and stuck in a ‘loop’ of despair, you are a swine to yourself. Also note that if a pig were to eat pearls, the pig would die.⁷
You cannot help yourself until you see yourself in the right light: you cannot remove a speck until you remove the plank. Until the speck in your eye is removed, you can only judge and assess yourself wrongly. To judge yourself is to put a speck in your eye: the act in which you attempt to remove a speck is the act that inserts a plank. Likewise, the act of judging another to remove a speck is the act of inserting a plank into your own eye, which renders you incapable of removing the speck, for the act robs you of the capacity to ‘see clearly’. This is because to judge is to be judgmental, which, in being an act that abstracts you out of the world, is wrong.
Until we take the plank out of our own eye, we can never help our neighbor remove the speck from his or hers. We cannot readily help others if we are despairing, and we cannot help others if we only help our ideas of others. It’s loving to remove specks, but it’s harmful to try to help others when we can’t clearly identify with what they need help. A blind person who wants to help you across a busy street can help you but only so much; likewise, a judgmental person is unable to help others, despite how much he or she may want to help. Regardless how well intended, adamant, and loving a blind person may be, that individual is just not capable of helping you cross a busy street. When it comes to helping others, to be judgmental is to be blind. Yet if one doesn’t assess, a person won’t identify the problems that need to be addressed. Assessment is necessary, and keeping it from slipping into judgment is difficult. Helping others requires corresponding self-improvement.
You can only remove specks by assessing situations; you grow specks when you are judgmental. To remove a speck from someone’s eye when there isn’t a plank in yours is to helpfully assess someone, while to attempt to remove a speck while there is still a plank in your eye is judgment. The first act is loving; the second, painful.
If you decide out of good intent that it is your role to remove specks from the eyes of others, you will likely see specks everywhere. You will also see lots of evidence ‘proving’ that you need to remove those specks and that you don’t have a plank in your own eye. Like a reporter whose job is to find stories or a police officer who is required to give out a certain number of speeding tickets every month, you will have put on a lens that will show you what you are out to find. When you go to remove those specks, you will see evidence proving that what you are doing is an act of love and/or wisdom, but such will not be the case.⁸ Having a plank in your eye, you won’t notice.
To judge a person is to fashion an idea of another; to assess an individual is to seek an understanding of their true self. Judgment is stagnant, assessment malleable. Always give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and assume the best. Assess others toward the good, not the bad. Since you must start with some premise, assume the good is the norm, the bad the exception. Never change this premise, though at the same time, never ignore reality. If a person harms you, don’t pretend like they didn’t, nor think that if you acknowledge errors that you’re being judgmental. You can send a person to jail without calling them evil or being hateful.
Humility is achieved when you truly believe you can be wrong about being wrong. Far too often, in the name of love, we judge and gossip under a mask of ‘care’ and ‘concern’, and trap others within inescapable systems of our judgment (which, in turn, can cause others to trap themselves within the systems we’ve outlined for them). The difficulty is that we need to remove specks from the eyes of those around us, yet we are at the same time not to judge. This task requires much wisdom and patience, for we must come to objectively think about our words and actions, while keeping in mind that no one thinks they are judgmental (for if they did, they would stop). That ‘spotlessness’ too can be a judgment and system we erect around ourselves, one which we can find lots of evidence to justify and ‘prove’. We also need forgiveness toward those around us who will try to help us and fail. If we are forgiving toward them, hopefully they’ll be forgiving toward us when we fail too.
Assess reality, but do not judge unless you fashion an abstraction in which you will unknowingly dwell. If we judge, we self-delude ourselves into an understanding of the world and those around us that lacks reality, yet the whole reason we judge is to determine what’s real. Ironically, judgment leaves us in an isolating abstraction.
¹Discovered by Howard Raiffa and Marc Alpert.
²Allusion to Matthew 7:1.
³Allusion to Matthew 7:2.
⁴This is especially likely if the girl is prone to making ‘emotional judgments’, introverted, and surrounded by individuals prone to voicing preferences. To voice a preference is to create a possibility for error, for once voiced, it is possible for a person to not fulfill that preference. If you voice a preference for ‘vanilla ice cream’, it is now possible for a person to get you a flavor of ice cream that disappoints you; had you rather said ‘I’ll take anything’, you would have saved the person with whom you are speaking from the possibility of self-criticism. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have preferences, only that if your preferences aren’t met, smile and be grateful for what you have been given. With a simple statement like ‘but I wanted vanilla’, you may send a person deeper into their loop of despair.
4.1 Self-judgment is especially likely when dealing with for what there is actually no set answer (but which regardless may be prescribed a right answer). If a person is prone to think ‘there is something wrong with me’ upon failing to get the ‘right coffee’, since there is no such thing as the ‘right coffee’, failure was inevitable from the start. Preferences, for example, are subjective and fickle, and if you begin thinking ‘there is something wrong with me’ when you encounter preferences, tastes, likes, etc., it is inevitable that you eventually ‘do something wrong’. However, since preferences are subjective, there is no objective basis from which to conclude ‘I am wrong’ or that a set answer is right. As morality lacks objectivity unto itself (though it doesn’t necessarily lack practicality) self-criticism and even self-exultation lack objectivity. Therefore, to judge oneself as ‘wrong’ is never justified (even though the speaker of the judgment may think the statement is backed by evidence and observation).
4.2 If a person keeps talking about how their heart is broken, eventually it will be broken, and hence it will seem that the person always spoke truly, when it was the speaking the made it so.
⁵We are less likely to remember evidence that opposes a hypothesis of our own making than evidence that ‘proves’ it. If we theorize ‘I am stupid’, we will remember the instance in which we forgot to do something more so than the instances in which we made profound points about Plato. Once we theorize and create a system into which to fit phenomena (thereby changing them into evidence) we naturally disregard the phenomena that don’t fit. The more an individual despairs, the more difficult it becomes for a person to remember what opposes that despair.
⁶Allusion to Matthew 7:6.
⁷Based on a line of thought found in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
⁸If you have a plank in your eye and go to remove the speck from someone else’s, the person you are out to help might be squeamish and deny your judgment. This could prove to you that the person indeed has a speck in their eye and motivate you even more to help them. If the person tells you that there is a plank in your eye, you might be motivated even more.