Judgement or Discernment? Is There a Difference?

I’ve been talking with my older brother who’s having difficulties from being, in his words, ‘very judgemental’.  Various Eastern philosophies hold that personal unhappiness and ‘suffering’ stems from attachment and having a judging mind.

I’ve been trying to explain to him how he should ‘not judge’ because that is the result of a personal attachment to a situation which is ‘not equal’ (sameness) to his internal expectations.  And how that imbalance is provoking in him emotional ‘unpleasantness’ – anger, frustration, or whatever upleasant experience.  If he had no expectations, then he would be in balance because there would be no mismatch between his internal state (no particular emotional attachment) and the event he’s witnessing.

I tried to use a scenario about his son, my nephew, and said to him: “When [your son] was a baby, did he play with his poo?  When you caught him, did you judge him and think he was a BAD HUMAN because of it? Or did you rather not judge him because you knew that somewhere, some when, you must also have played with your poo when you were his age? See, babies don’t judge , they EXPERIENCE. Poo is just ‘sticky squishy smelly stuff’ – it is what it is – and it’s neither good nor bad. The human body produces waste, and if it didn’t it could die.”

The Utility of Judgement

I then went on to show how medical doctors have to have that same kind of non-judgement.  I brought up the old urban legend of someone who managed to get their pet hamster stuck in their rectum (as an absurd and funny-ish example).  But the point is very serious: if that had happened – the doctor can’t afford to judge. They have a real problem on their hands, and they have to do something about it. Doctors see all kinds of crazy shit throughout their careers. They can’t be successful doctors unless they have that capacity to ‘take abstraction’ – remove themselves (emotions/judgements) from the picture.

Or, for a more unsettling example (if rectal hamsters isn’t enough!), imagine an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician – the first-responders of the medical corps) showing up at the scene of a terrible car accident.  One of the passengers is haemorraging from a severed artery in his thigh.  The EMT cuts off the man’s trousers to gain access to the artery and apply pressure.  Now imagine if the EMT sees the man is wearing a pair of bright red women’s underwear.  Do you think that is in any way important to the present situation? Does an EMT have any room – let alone right – to judge? It’s such an insignificant detail to the present situation that it doesn’t even merit judgement.

Living fully is exactly as ‘immediate’ as being on the scene as an EMT.  Every moment is ‘now’, so judgement is a distraction, and it detracts from the present moment.  So, I told my brother babies experience without judging, and said that kind of innocence can be regained as an adult.  Then I made an interesting parallel by saying that wisdom is also experience

Wisdom or Ignorance or Both?

While I hope that helped him get a better idea of what that kind of detachment and non-judgement means (he’d mentioned the Zen buddhist ‘no mind’ but that’s often too high-flying or just plain bizarre for we Westerners), it has brought up for me a question of distinction: when we think of babies’ innocence and we often attribute that to ignorance, how is it that we also equate a lack of judgement to wisdom? Is there a difference between judgement and discernment? We will say of someone who has acted ‘foolishly’ that they lacked judgement. So what kind of ‘judgement’ are we talking about when someone is foolish?

There’s some fudged lines there somewhere.  It’d be interesting to figure out why we’ve conflated these different types of ‘difference making’ (analysis, rationalising, discernment, etc.) as ‘judgement’.  I suspect that it’s the same kind of non-judgement for a baby as for a wise person.  So wherefrom the wisdom?

What are your thoughts on this?

5 thoughts on “Judgement or Discernment? Is There a Difference?

  1. Given the human brain is a predictive, calculating, assessing (and hence judging) organ, then perhaps we need to make a clear distinction between those functions, which are unavoidable, and moral judgments, which are? The question then becomes, what is a moral judgment? I think a clear delineation is arrived at when we abstract the notion of selfhood. If we say the action is (in effect) synonymous with the person’s selfhood, then perhaps we fall into error? I believe St. Augustine took this position. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post, Thomas!

    1. Hi Hariod!
      Thanks for reading, liking and taking the time to reply – that’s more than I could have hoped for (as it stands though, I think you are the only reader of this blog though! But it is still a young blog so…).
      I like the kick in clarity you’ve brought to my own ponderings, thank you.
      Ok, just thinking/learning aloud: so the association of (or ‘creation of synonymy between’ – there’s a fun word to spell!) a person’s “selfhood” and the actions they perform might lead us to error – let’s test this:
      – A person does something. We think that something is ‘bad’ so we judge that person as being bad. The error is that they aren’t bad? Yes, mistakes happen and that doesn’t make the person bad – but only because they’re mistakes! But wouldn’t deliberate infliction of suffering – something ‘bad’ – be justifably associated to, and consequently diminish, a person’s ‘worth’/’merit’/’moral integrity’? Wherein lies the judgement? I suspect it is our attribution of Intent (the ‘deliberate’ part) upon a person’s actions. But actions can be deliberate without us necessarily ‘attributing’ that intent to what we witness – The person could genuinely have their own intent and it could not necessarily be our own ‘error in judgement’. In that case we would be correct (would we?) in judging such deliberate infliction of suffering as – oh wait. I’ve just heard/thought the “Hate the sin, not the sinner” saying – ah ok, so moral judgement should be reserved to the actions performed, not the people performing them?
      Uuuugh! But moral judgements on actions tend to change over time – and vary across cultures/countries! But that would explain the ‘suffering’ a judging person might feel if their moral judgements on actions they’re witnessing don’t align with ‘the majority’ of society in which they live. Take a ‘conservative’ person witnessing a gay couple kissing – the conservative would feel the internal anguish/discord because the couple thinks that what they’re doing is ‘perfectly OK’ while the conservative thinks it’s ‘totally not OK’, and the conservative is ‘outnumbered’ in today’s society… and we haven’t yet even gotten into the ‘error’ the conservative (could) make by thinking that ‘same gender kissing’ makes the couple immoral. yes, that makes sense. But we see here that (moral) judging (regardless of whether it is on the action or the personhood) leads to personal anguish/discord. So that kind of makes the ‘clear delineation’ a little less clear, wouldn’t you agree? And does that eliminate the value of judging any action – i.e. aren’t there actions that can be objectively/unanimously/universally judged? (e.g. “deliberate infliction of suffering” is a.k.a. sadism/masochism and is considered by some to be erotic)

      I look forward to your further thoughts!

      1. “But wouldn’t deliberate infliction of suffering – something ‘bad’ – be justifiably associated to, and consequently diminish, a person’s ‘worth’/’merit’/’moral integrity’? Wherein lies the judgement? I suspect it is our attribution of Intent (the ‘deliberate’ part) upon a person’s actions.”

        At one level, yes, and that’s the level at which personhood (to develop your theme of the ‘person’) is regarded as an enduringly instantiated entity. That means a situation in which we believe (erroneously) that the person (or my term ‘selfhood’) is somehow carried from past to future as an unchanging thing or group of things. But that isn’t ever the case, and that being so, then to make a moral judgement about an entity (a person’s selfhood) which does not exist, and (arguably) never did exist, at the point at which we make the judgement (which is in the future relative to the person’s past action), is an error.

        So, the discrepancy between the two positions we’re discussing is one of levels of (for want of a better word) ‘reality’. At the consensus level of reality, in which persons with their selfhood appear to (or are presumed to) enduringly instantiate as body/minds through time and space, then yes, your argument is correct. Yet when we enquire into what exactly it is that enduringly instantiates, what continues to exist ontologically (objectively), then we are never able to identify it in space/time. Therefore, the argument falls apart at that level.

      2. Very erudite response Hariod, thank you. It’s funny, until you mentioned it, I hadn’t thought of judgement as being relative to our perception of a person’s FUTURE actions, only as a present observation/conclusion. But indeed upon further reflection I think that might indeed be the vestigial purpose as a survival mechanism: I see this person doing what I think is a bad thing… can I reliably trust they won’t do that to me in the future?
        Of course I agree it falls apart given the transitive and non ‘real’ nature of personhood. Not to mention the apparent futility of even trying to trust (i.e. predict) a person once we properly understand our own impermanence 😉 more food for thought. Deep thanks again my dear!

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