Here’s a minor puzzle. One the one hand, people make judgments all the time—making judgments, we can say, is part of what it means to be human. On the other hand, (some) people think that being judgmental is a bad thing; “You’re being judgmental” or “You’re judging me” is an accusation of sorts. How do we resolve this tension? To state the obvious, we can resolve it neither by claiming that being judgmental is always okay nor that it is never okay, because, clearly, sometimes it is okay and sometimes it is not. We need to resolve the tension in some other way.
But first some ground clearing is necessary.
What are some examples of making judgments? Here are some: “The view from here is astounding.” “This painting is vibrant.” “Wolves are majestic animals.” “He is a compassionate doctor.” “She is a strict teacher.” “He is a petty man.” “She is an odious person.” Because accusations of being judgmental tend to be retorts to judgments made about human beings, I will confine the rest of the discussion to them; let’s call them “human judgments,” by which I mean judgments made about human beings (usually made by human beings, though the God of the Jews and the Muslims provides a paramount example to the contrary). The last four examples in this paragraph are examples of such judgments.
Human judgments can be moral: “You are cruel”; “he is generous”; “she is a decent person”; “I am selfish.” They can be psychological (though these can mix with the moral): “He is such an anxious person”; “she’s a hot mess”; “John is very timid”; “I’m a claustrophobe”; “you’re always happy!” They can be practical (though these can mix with the moral and the psychological): “Martha is easy going”; “I love how spontaneous you are”; “Theresa is always happy to help.” They can be aesthetic (these can mix with sexual judgments and ones about health): “He’s a very attractive man”; “she’s gorgeous”; “he’s fat”; “I’m very skinny.”
Human judgments can be global or local, meaning that they can be about a person overall or about something the person does at a specific time or on a specific occasion. For example, “Elena is mean spirited” and “Paolo is hot” are global judgments; they concern Elena and Paolo as persons. But “Elena is being petty” and “Paolo is looking hot today” are local if Elena is not a petty person and Paolo is usually mediocre looking. Note that global and local judgments cut across all the above types.
Before continuing, I want to note and set aside one point, which is that contrary to what all the examples given so far might falsely imply, making judgments need not be direct or through speech. One can indirectly make a judgment by looking at the bottle of wine that is on the table in a friend’s house and then asking the friend, “How much of that are you drinking every day?” And one can non-verbally make a judgment, as with a sneer, a look, a grunt, a sigh. One can make a judgment by not looking at someone. And to all these ways of making judgments, the other can respond by saying, “Do not judge me,” “You’re being judgmental,” or “Stop judging me!”
My interest is in all the above types, especially the moral, psychological, and aesthetic, in both their local and global forms. The main reason is that accusations of being judgmental are not confined to any one type of the above. To explain: suppose that X judges Y to be A (whatever A is). For Y (or someone else) to turn and meaningfully accuse X of being judgmental, X’s original judgment could have been global or local, and it could have been of any of the above types (moral, aesthetic, psychological, and so on). Whether X judges Y to be petty, fat, a hot mess, or difficult, Y can come back and accuse X of being judgmental. The accusation of being judgmental can be about just any type of judgment.
(In what follows, X refers to the person making the initial judgment, and Y is the person retorting with something like, “Don’t judge” or “You’re being judgmental.” Of course, others can retort in the same ways on behalf of Y, but I will set this aside to keep the discussion manageable.)
But there are exceptions. Typically, accusations of being judgmental do not occur when the original judgments are positive. We do not usually retort to X saying, “Stop being so judgy” after X has declared (in earnest) that Y is beautiful, sweet, easy going, or compassionate. Typically, accusations of being judgmental occur when the judgment is negative.
I will then restrict my discussion to negative judgments.
I will also restrict it to true negative judgments, because what is interesting about the accusation that one is being judgmental is found not in those cases when the judgment is false but when the judgment is true (this is not to deny that retorting, “You’re being judgmental” can be perfectly apt in cases of false negative judgments). That is, the interesting question is not, “Given that X’s judgment of Y is false, how can the accusation that X is being judgmental be meaningful or true?” but, “Given that X’s judgment of Y is true, how can the accusation that X is being judgmental be meaningful or true?” We want to know what it means to accuse X of being judgmental in those cases when X’s judgments are true, because we want to see how one can both issue a true negative judgment yet still commit the specific type of wrong of being judgmental.
(I will not dignify with a response the objection that there are no true negative judgments on the grounds that truth is subjective or relative, except to say that since people can be—and many are—petty, a hot mess, anxious, mean, cruel, and so on, then to judge them to be so when they are so is to issue true negative judgments.)
Making judgments is a necessary part of human life. Without making judgments, parents cannot raise their kids, employers cannot promote or demote employees, friends cannot ameliorate their friendships, lovers cannot become better (as lovers), and moralists cannot be critical of morally deficient individuals (and societies). Not only do human beings rely on making judgments to get on with the business of life, but they need to make judgments to flourish—more often than not we need to know how to proceed, how to shape and continue with our lives, and critical judgments help us with that. It is the way we live and improve.
Moreover, we cannot rely only on our own judgments of ourselves; we need others to make judgments about us because we have limited knowledge of ourselves and because we have the tendency to think of ourselves as better than we actually are. So we need a critical eye on ourselves, and sometimes others are in a better position than we are to provide it (even if they can do so from less than noble motives and even if their judgments can be erroneous).
If we want to be better human beings, we then need others to judge us. We need their critical eye.
But in all this judging (and I am still confining the discussion to true negative judgments), there are those cases in which one is also being judgmental. That is, there are cases in which X judges Y to be clingy and X is not being judgmental in so judging Y, and there are cases in which X judges Y to be clingy in which X is being judgmental in so judging Y. So in which types of cases of making judgments can one also be judgmental? In which types of cases can making judgments be morally off in that specific way that “being judgmental” tries to capture and express?
One can be accused of being judgmental for various reasons. Consider the possible reasons for why Y accuses X of being judgmental after X has accused Y of being, say, weak. (1) Y might simply not want to be criticized, so Y’s retort is to stop X in X’s tracks or even to attempt to level the moral playing field with X (by in turn accusing X of having failed, specifically, of having been judgmental). (2) Y could be objecting to X’s manner of making the judgment, such that in judging Y, X is very abrupt or blunt, or lacking in sympathy, empathy, or compassion. (3) Y could be telling X that it is not X’s place to judge Y: that X is not Y’s friend, parent, psychiatrist, doctor, or that, more generally, X lacks the moral ground to make such a judgment. (4) Y can be telling X that instead of judging Y, X should have been doing something else, such as showing sympathy or empathy. (5) Y can be telling X that X’s motives in judging Y are not proper: that X is out to demean Y, to tell Y that Y is contemptuous, and so on. (6) Y can be telling X that X’s judgment of Y blames Y for who Y is or for what Y has done, for having reached that point in Y’s life when Y is being weak, whereas X is wrong to blame Y. And (7) Y can be telling X that X is wrong to think that Y could have acted non-weakly. (Of course, Y could be saying one or more of these.)
I will emphasize the last three, focusing more on (6) and (7) than on (5).
(5) states that making judgments can come from good and bad attitudes (a good or bad “place”), and when the attitudes are bad, the judger can be rightly accused of being judgmental. This is especially the case, I think, when the attitudes take the one being judged to be contemptuous or deserving of scorn. This nicely explains the rejection of the judgment. So when X says to an overweight Y, “You’re eating too much,” that judgment, if coming from X’s attitude that overweight people are low or contemptuous, is rejection-able—it can merit the response, “Stop judging me.”
To be clear, not all such responses are actually merited. Consider the following case. Brant and Grant are colleagues. Grant is a despicable person who always reports his colleagues to human resources. He’s a busy-body who derives tremendous pleasure from seeing his colleagues get called into HR. Once, Grant reports Tom to HR for having taken home a stapler even though Tom returned it the next day (he used it at home for work purposes) and even though Grant knew this. Upon realizing what Grant has done, Brant says to him, “You’re a scumbag.” Grant responds, “Don’t judge me.”
In this case, Grant’s retort is not merited, because even though Brant regards Grant with contempt, the contempt is deserved. So while it is understandable why Grant would retort in the way that he does, his retort is not justified.
Compare the above case with this: Cat and Matt work together. Cat dislikes Matt. She thinks he is contemptible because he is often disheveled and does not shower every day. So even though Matt should work on his hygiene, he does not deserve to be viewed with contempt. One day, Cat passes him in the coffee room and she says to him, “Dude. You stink!” Matt retorts, “Don’t judge me!” In this case his retort is justified: he can sense Cat’s underlying contemptuous attitude and he shoots back with that response.
While true in some cases, the resort to underlying attitudes of contempt or some such similar attitude does not explain other cases—those in which the attitude is not contemptuous yet the retort of “You’re being judgmental” is understandable and might be merited. This is where (6) and (7) come in.
(6) claims that the judgment is rejected as being judgmental because it is deemed to be laying culpable blame on the judged person; it accuses the judged person of having failed in some respect and in such a way that had the person made better choices in the past, he or she would not have failed in the present. So when someone rejects the judgment, they are in effect saying that the judgment is based on lack of proper knowledge of the situation of the judged person. So, for example, when X judges Y to be eating too much, Y’s retort of “Stop judging me,” is short for, “You don’t know why I am overweight. If you knew my history, you would not have said what you did.”
Now consider (7), which states that in the present Y could have acted otherwise than Y did: if X judges Y to be eating too much, X is saying that, now, Y did not need to be eating too much. If X judges Y to be weak, X is saying that now Y could be displaying strength instead. (7) differs from (6) in that it does not dip into Y’s past to support the judgment, whereas (6) does. Moreover, in (6), X need not be saying anything about what Y could be doing now, only that what Y is doing now is explained by Y’s past failures.
In both types of cases, Y relies on X’s not having sufficient information to accuse X of being judgmental. In (6), Y says to X that X does not know what has occurred in Y’s life to justify making the judgment that X made. In (7), Y says to X that X does not know what is going on in Y’s mind now to justify making the judgment that X made. (In both types of cases, Y might also be saying to X, as an implication of X’s lack of sufficient information, “If you were in my shoes you might have done the same, so don’t judge me.”)
The point about insufficient information explains what goes on in many cases in which the judged person responds the way that he or she does. Halting X by saying “Do not judge” seems to mean, “You’re not in my shoes so you don’t know what I know, so cease and desist.” But if this is correct, there is a crucial question to ask: Is Y saying that the judgment itself is erroneous or is Y saying that X should not have made it? If the latter, how would that make sense in light of the fact that the judgment is true?
In some cases, it is the former. But the interesting ones are the latter, because these are the ones in which X is being judgmental despite that the judgment is true. Y can be understood as saying that X should not have issued the judgment, even if it is a true judgment, because it is issued in a spirit of judging without sufficient information or knowledge. That is, Y is accusing X of not merely stating a fact, but of doing so in an epistemically irresponsible way, by not relying on enough information, whether the information pertains to the past or to the present.
Consider two cases in which X says to Y, “You’re so petty!” In both cases, what X says is true. In one case, X just describes what he thinks Y is, with no additional assumptions made about why Y is petty. But in the other case, X says it with the intention to communicate something more, namely, the message that Y’s being petty is Y’s fault, and that Y could have acted in a non-petty way either because Y could have made different choices in the past that would have changed Y’s action in the present (this is point ), or that Y could have now, in the present, chosen a different course of action (this is point ). It is in these types of cases in which the retort, “Don’t judge me” makes most sense, because it is here that Y rejects X’s judgment on the basis of its not being well-established.
We should not confuse two claims with each other. It is one thing for Y to be culpable for Y’s actions or character. This is not at issue. But it is another thing—and this is at issue—for X to convey X’s belief in this culpability. It is the true-judgment-wrapped-in-blaming that Y rejects. Y says, in effect, “Had you known my story (reasons, excuses, explanations) or had access to my mind, you would not have judged me in the way that you did.”
Note that in these rejections, there could also be a component of accusing X of lacking empathy or compassion. But in the types of cases I just explained, the rejection is not primarily based on X’s lack of empathy. It is based mostly on lack of access to sufficient information on which X should have based X’s judgment. In these types of cases (as opposed to that in type  above), when there is an accusation of lack of empathy or compassion, it is because Y wishes to say that had X bothered to know more, X would have been empathetic or compassionate.
The above says nothing about whether Y’s retort in the above cases is justified. It is tempting to think that it is justified because, we want to say, surely it is plausible that we should not be making judgments before knowing all the facts. But this is not true. (As a reminder, the judgments being made are true ones.) We rarely make judgments on the basis of full information (that might not be possible), so the issue is making judgments on the basis of relevant information. And here, things get tricky, because on the one hand we do want to give the people who are being judged some leeway in deciding what is relevant information, but, on the other hand, people often don’t like to be criticized, and they can suffer from cutting themselves too much slack when it comes getting themselves off the culpability hook (people can go in the opposite direction and be too hard on themselves). There is no principled way to decide this question, and it is best left to a case-by-case discussion. But the point is that there could be cases that fit the following conditions: (a) X judges Y negatively and truly; (b) Y shoots back that X is being judgmental; and this is because (c) X lacks sufficient or relevant information to be judging Y; (d) Y is right that X lacks sufficient or relevant information to make the judgment; (e) yet X is justified in making it, and (f) Y’s accusing X of being judgmental is not justified (keep in mind that there can be cases in which both [e] and the opposite of [f] are true).
Consider the following case to illustrate the point. Sarah meets one of her boyfriend’s friends, Josh, for the first time on a camping trip with a bunch of other friends. Over the course of a long weekend, she has a chance to observe Josh interacting with others, and she comes to the conclusion that he is so competitive when playing games that he gets angry and spoils things for everyone. On the last day of the trip, he throws a hissy fit about some game or other, at which point she says to him, “You’re very mean-spirited. Relax. This is just a game.” He retorts, “I’ve been noticing the way you look at me, judging me with your eyes. Please stop that. You barely know me.” Suppose that Josh, had he put in some effort, could have controlled his behavior on the trip (he has done it before on a few occasions). Given all this, Sarah’s opinion of Josh, though formed over a period of only three days, is true (sometimes, you can know people very quickly—it’s not that hard, believe me). Josh is also right that Sarah barely knows him. Yet he is wrong to accuse her of being judgmental. She might have been unwise in voicing her opinion of Josh, but this is a different wrong than being judgmental.
Making judgments is perfectly human, necessary, and good, but sometimes the judger is met by the response that he is being judgmental. I have attempted in this post to make sense of some of the reasons that people have when they respond in that way. I do not intend the explanations of the reasons to be an empirical explanation of what goes on in the minds of the Y’s of the world, though in some cases I’m sure it is. Instead, I intend the explanations to be three ways (among others) of making sense of the rejections of judgement-making—they are reconstructions, so to speak, of the reasons that can motivate the rejections. Moreover, I have argued that not every time someone accuses a judger of being judgmental, the accusation is justified. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.