Responsibility assumes the existence of a rational and autonomous individual. Rationality ensures the individual’s ability to grasp the meaningfulness of his actions whereas autonomy ensures the individual’s freedom from external restraints. In line with this, the presumption of human accountability assumes the existence of human responsibility. Responsibility, in this sense, is best understood as a form of liability for one’s actions. Avoidability thereby is a necessary condition of responsibility.
There are two senses of avoidability. The first one is categorical since it assumes that the avoidability of an act is dependent upon the existence of antecedent conditions sufficient for the non-occurrence of an act. The second one is hypothetical since it assumes that the avoidability of an act is dependent upon the actor’s choice. An action’s avoidability thereby is dependent upon an individual’s lack of capacity and lack of opportunity to perform a particular act.
Within this context, the importance of responsibility in ethics lies in how it sets the criteria for the assessment of an action since to assume that an individual will be responsible for his action involves the assumption that an individual will assess the best course of action in a specific circumstance and hence in the process specify the criteria for the quality of an action and the quality of the judgment of an action.
Jean Bethke Elshtain (1994), in her essay “Judge Not”, discusses the importance of responsibility and accountability in relation to the formation of moral judgments in relation to the maintenance of an individual’s self-identity and sociality. According to Elshtain, the problems of American society nowadays may be traced to the importance it places on popular psychology’s ‘non-judgmentalism’, the manifestations of which can be seen in American society’s prejudicial treatment of issues within both the private and public spheres of life as can be seen in its adherence to the ‘ideology of victimization and self-esteem mania’ (Elshtain, 1994, p. 37).
In line with this, the task of this paper is two-fold. First, it will present Elshtain’s argument regarding the relationship of moral judgment and the maintenance of self-identity and sociality as it is presented in her essay “Judge Not” through the presentation of the different interpretations of judgment and judging within the text and second, it will present an analysis of Elshtain’s aforementioned argument. Elshtain, in her essay “Judge Not”, argues that the problems of current American society may be traced to its adherence to the moral standards set by popular psychology.
According to Elshtain, the moral standards of popular psychology are characterized by non-judgmentalism wherein non-judgmentalism is to be understood as an ethical standard that follows the dictum ‘judge not’. Elshtain argues that popular psychology’s interpretation of the aforementioned dictum as perceiving forming judgments to being punitive or insensitive is a result of popular psychology’s failure to understand the meaning of the aforementioned dictum (Elshtain, 1994, p. 37).
The result of this misinterpretation has been the creation of a prejudiced moral standard of judgment, the evidence of which is apparent in American society’s adherence to the “ideology of victimization and self-esteem mania” (Elshtain, 1994, p. 37-39). The ideology of victimization here refers to the doctrine that victims of oppression cannot victimize other people due to their condition of oppression (Elshtain, 1994, p. 38). The self-esteem mania, on the other hand, refers to individual’s inability to have a realistic account of their capacities (Elshtain, 1994, p. 37).
According to Elshtain, both manifestations of the practice of the moral standards of popular psychology leads to the individual’s development of a self-identity and sociality that fails to recognize and actualize the individual’s relationship to the political sphere of life. This is evident if one considers that by appealing to the ideology of victimization, the individual fails to be responsible or accountable for his actions as he argues that his actions are a result of his oppressive state.
In addition to this, the self-esteem mania further ensures the acceptability of an individual’s ascription of responsibility or accountability to other factors as it allows the lack of correspondence between the individual’s perceived reality and reality as is. In both cases, popular psychology’s moral standard of non-judgmentalism has led the individual to rationalize his failure to be responsible or accountable for his actions. In order to remedy this, Elshtain argues, it is important to consider the importance of moral judgment and the process of forming moral judgments in the political development of an individual (1994, p. 37).
She states, What is at stake is the capacity to make judgments as an ethical issue of the gravest sort, and along with it, the discernment of what it means to judge well. In other words, we need a clear sense of why judging is important and what is involved in the activity of judging, and we need a way to distinguish between rash judging-not judging well-and the kind of judging that lies at the heart of what it means to be a self-respecting human subject in a community of other equally self-respecting subjects.
(Elshtain, 1994, p. 37) As can be seen above, Elshtain perceives the act of forming moral judgments as a necessary requirement for the actualization of one’s selfhood and one’s political membership in a community. Given the importance of forming moral judgments, the question arises as to how the dictum ‘Judge Not’ coincides with Elshtain’s conception of the importance of forming and making moral judgments. Elshtain follows Hannah Arendt’s conception of judgment as the process of “thinking the particular” (1994, p. 38).
The particular is given emphasis in the process of forming moral judgments since what is being considered in the act of making a moral judgment is one specific act which is done within a specific context. Although a moral rule is used in the formation of a moral judgment, the application of this rule to one specific act allows an individual to create further generalizations in line with the application of the rule.
One may thereby note that the act of creating and making a judgment follows the form of an inductive argument as opposed to a deductive one. The reason for this may be attributed to the dependence of the morality of an action on the conditions in which the action occurred. The process of forming a moral judgment thereby requires an individual to practice critical thinking skill as he assesses and discerns the conditions of the occurrence of a particular action. Elshtain states,
(The) formation of a judgment requires weighing alternatives with a generosity of spirit and quality of discernment that makes their subsequent judgments at least plausible if not unassailable…(hence) the ability to make judgments enables an individual to see error and try to put it right. (1994, p. 39) Within this context, the political aspect of forming moral judgments is apparent as it enables the individual to practice his moral obligation towards his community.
In the process of forming moral judgments, an individual upholds and implements the moral standards of his society. In the process of doing this, the individual’s self-identity is developed as he not only affirms his membership within his political community but as he affirms his capability to formulate such judgments. Given the social and political importance of formulating moral judgments, it is possible to show why Elshtain perceives the moral standard of popular psychology to be a result of the misinterpretation of the dictum ‘Judge Not”.
Elshtain argues that the dictum does not necessarily state that an individual should not judge another individual. On the other hand, it should be understood as stating the necessity to practice rationality and justice in the process of making moral judgments. She states, “‘Judge not’ is…not an injunction to spineless acceptance but a caution against peremptory legalisms that leave no space for acts of compassion and witness” (Elshtain, 1994, p. 38).
In other words, the dictum ought to be understood as providing negative conditions for the process of making moral judgments. These negative conditions necessitate an individual to practice fairness [and hence justice] in the process of making moral judgments. In summary, Elshtain’s “Judge Not” provides a critique of current American society’s adherence to the moral standard of popular psychology that may be characterized by its emphasis on non-judgmentalism.
Elshtain argues that the moral dictum of non-judgmentalism [‘Judge Not’] ought to be understood not as preventing the individual from making moral judgments in general but as preventing the individual from making unjust moral judgments. She argues that it is only through the practice of the later form of non-judgmentalism that American society will be able to solve the problems resulting from the ideology of victimization and the self-esteem mania. The importance of Elshtain’s argument as it is presented above lies in its emphasis on the role of responsibility and accountability in the practice of a political life.
By showing the relationship between the process of making moral judgments and the individual’s actualization of his membership within a political community, Elshtain was able to show the dependence of political life upon both freedom and rationality given that the act of making moral judgments and the act of claiming responsibility for a particular event necessitates the existence of a rational and free individual. Elshtain was able to do this by comparing the different meanings ascribed to the process of making moral judgments.
By doing this, she was able to show the effects of language in the formation of the moral standards within a particular discipline while at the same time show that the meanings ascribed to certain concepts within certain disciplines [in this case that of popular psychology] may provide a misleading conception or interpretation of a particular concept or idea [in this case the concept of judgment]. Reference Elshtain, J. B. (1994). Judge Not. First Things, 46, 36-40.