The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

From religion to philosophy to civics to private life, judgment is a recurring necessity.

Despite its Anglo-Saxon-sounding consonants, the word judge (and thus judgment as well) comes to us from the Latin jūdex, which literally means “one who indicates right.” Judgment in this court-of-law sense is obviously a feature of every culture, though the specifics of legal tradition vary widely from one time and place to another, influenced by custom, religion, circumstance, and the like. Whatever form it takes in detail, the general principle of law is essential to all complex civilizations; small groups may be able to get by without formal procedures of law, but most societies larger than a few dozen families have found it necessary to institute officially impartial authorities who can adjudicate disputes—”indicate the right.” As C. Northcote Parkinson put it in The Evolution of Political Thought, “At the root of all legal institutions is the basic discovery that a verdict (whether right or wrong) is better than an endless quarrel.” This is of course complicated slightly by the idea of unjust laws and verdicts, which we have no space to discuss here.

It is from this root that one of the most famous ideas of judgment comes, namely the Last Judgment. This idea is present in many religions originating in the Near East: ancient Egyptian religion, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahá’í all feature some form of final judgment upon the human soul. Details vary: sometimes the judgment in question is individual only, and happens at the moment of death or at some point after it, as in the Egyptian weighing of the heart; Christian and Muslim belief, while accepting this “particular judgment” of the individual at death, also posit a universal judgment, taking place after a general resurrection of humanity, in which every wrong is righted and the world itself is remade. Both particular and universal judgment underlie the Catholic mnemonic device of the “four last things,” death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

You cannot avoid making judgments but you can become more conscious of the way you make them. This is critically important because once we judge someone or something we tend to stop thinking about them or it.

But judgment also refers to the human faculty of thought and discernment, and in philosophy this usage is the more common. While judgment in the court sense is normally connected with justice, when we speak of someone having “good judgment,” wisdom is the pertinent virtue. Judgment in this sense often means the capacity to make intelligent determinations based on limited or uncertain information; since judgment frequently has to do with decisions about the future, other people’s character, or both, limited and uncertain information are, as it were, built in.

Both Aristotle and St. Thomas consider the faculty of judgment to be one of the chief parts of practical prudence, alongside deliberateness and decisiveness. Deliberateness is the power to analyze the advantages, drawbacks, and other qualities of a set of alternatives; judgment is the power to correctly identify which of these are the most preferable; decisiveness is the capacity to put one’s judgment into action.

The distinctions among these three qualities are neatly illustrated by the notorious Judgment of Paris. Paris was asked to adjudicate the beauty, and bribes, of the three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, who respectively promised him imperial power, wisdom and military prowess, and the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. Paris showed deliberation (the ability to analyze the pros and cons of the goddesses’ offers), without which no judgment good or bad would have been possible; he also displayed decision, following through on his choice of Aphrodite. What is dubious is precisely his judgment, since the power and intelligence that Hera and Athena offered would presumably have enabled him to acquire the most beautiful wife in the world anyway, and with a long-term security that Aphrodite plainly did not have to offer; moreover, since he was bound to offend at least two goddesses no matter whom he chose, a selection that offered him some power of self-defense would probably have been wiser!

Suggested reading:
Æschylus, the Oresteia
Aristotle, Categories
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
Marbury vs. Madison
Charles Williams, Many Dimensions


If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like this two-part history of the idea of war or this series on classic literature in the history of Black education. And be sure to take a listen to our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top