The Cultivation of Sound Judgement

Posted on February 19, 2018

Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement, according to Mark Twain. Love is the absence of judgement, says the Dalai Lama. I do not think these views contradict each other, for what the Dalai Lama means, I think, is that love transcends judgement. Ultimately, we should not judge and condemn people in the sense of writing them off once and for all. But we definitely should judge and assess their views and their ideas and their character and their mental sanity.

Sound judgement is the ability to assess the worth of what we encounter in the world around us, for ourselves and by ourselves. Sound judgement is the ability to distinguish those who are trustworthy from those who want to take us for a ride. Sound judgement is the ability to assess the mental sanity of those around us. The cultivation of sound judgement is an essential skill, maybe the skill that precedes all others. For if we want to develop our own talents and skills, the first step is always to look for appropriate teachers. We all have to choose our own teachers, and it saves a lot of trouble in our lives if we have learned how to choose wisely.

The French philosopher René Descartes once mockingly remarked that common sense is the most equally distributed good in the world, for everyone prides himself in having more than their fair share. This is witty, for we all know that people differ widely in their sound judgement. How come some people only have to cast a single glance at someone to know they better avoid that person, while others don’t suspect anything and get conned? How come some people can spot a narcissist after five seconds of watching a youtube video, while others gladly sign up for numerous retreats with the creep? How come some women are always drawn to violent men that beat them up? How come some people do not see clear warning signs, or when they see them, do not heed them?

How do we develop sound judgement? None of us is infallible in our judgement. We have all made costly mistakes. It all starts with making a clear admission to ourselves when our judgement has failed us. We have bought crappy cars, or we have rented houses from creepy landlords, or we have signed up for boring courses, or we have made stupid investments, or we have spent years of our lives with people that were not good for us. In all these cases, the key question is, should we have known better, could these mistakes have been avoided?

Let’s dwell on our mistakes. Let’s learn from them. Once we develop a sensitivity for learning from our errors of judgement, our lives will start to improve. Our willingness to learn from our mistakes will bring us to a place of humility where the real learning can start.

It helps to recognize and register patterns. Can we find out what people that failed us in the past had in common? In cases where we have put our trust in people that later on turned out not to deserve our trust, was there perhaps an inner voice that warned us, and that we failed to heed? How about cases where it went the other way around, cases where we failed to appreciate the value of some example or some piece of experience that someone wished to share with us? Again, we can try to detect patterns. How about cases where we shielded ourselves from inconvenient truths? People do that all the time, so why should I be an exception?

Reading great literature is extremely useful to develop our sense of judgement. Tragic errors of judgement and their consequences are the stuff of classic novels. Madame Bovary is the story of a girl from a very modest peasant background who decides she wants to move up in the world, but is deceiving herself about herself and about the men she encounters in her life. Tragedy unfolds because of her disastrous lack of judgement. There is much to learn from this. The context of Emma Bovary’s life as the wife of a French country doctor in the nineteenth century may be unfamiliar, but the story transcends context. And so do the stories of all the great novels.

Are there cases of books that were recommended to us, and that might have affected our judgement in a big way, and that we refused to read? I remember discussions about politics from my student days. At the time, I was devastated by the reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I recommended this book to fellow students with marxist beliefs, sensing that it could open their eyes to what had happened, and was still happening, in the Soviet Union, things they did not wish to see. I had hopes that this magnificent book could make them see in the way it had made me see. To my dismay, nobody wanted to read the book. Solzhenitsyn was a traditional orthodox Christian, and therefore a reactionary, so they dismissed him. OK, now let’s apply this to ourselves. How often do I dismiss information because it makes me uncomfortable, or because it does not square with my world view?

A modern example is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychotherapist and professor of psychology who has become a Youtube celebrity after launching a personal war against political correctness in academia. The debates about him on facebook that I have seen invariably turn around the question whether we should allow ourselves to be influenced by him, or what we should think of people who admire him. And those questions are completely misguided, it seems to me. If his views challenge you, then it is imperative that you investigate. What you should do is question and judge and absorb what you find useful and inspiring. What you should do is investigate, test and reject what is not fitting for you. At least we should read what he has to say, and not judge him by the sound of his voice, or because you found out that he has admirers that are far removed from you politically. Dismissing him out of hand like this is the very worst you can do.

For forming and testing our good judgement, we have our heart and our intellect to guide us. The silent voice in my heart can tell me that something I firmly believe in may nevertheless be wrong. Something jars, and an inner voice tells me so, and it makes me uncomfortable. If I do not heed this voice, I am in peril. My intellect tells me that there is a contradiction between how I view something and how my neighbour views it. So either we see different aspects of the same thing, and the situation can resolve itself if we learn more about each other’s world, or … at least one of us is wrong. And if one of us is wrong, it may turn out that my views need to be adjusted, and that is painful. Or it may turn out that the received opinion of my neighbours is wrong. And then it takes courage to articulate my dissenting view, or tact to keep silent and stick to my own sound judgement while keeping the peace with my neighbours. And all of this can also be challenging and painful and difficult.

Using my heart and my intellect takes courage. When I have developed my sensitivity, my heart will often warn me that my judgement is wrong. My intellect will often tell me that my views need to be adjusted. My reason can convince me that the received opinion about something is not correct. Taking the necessary steps to adjust my view and articulate it in appropriate ways takes tact, flexibility and courage. And then it is often much easier to just sigh and let go. And that would be a terrible mistake, for if I do that I am compromising my sense of judgement, and it will be much more difficult to judge clearly in future cases.

To develop our sense of judgement, first and foremost we have to be willing to expose ourselves to ideas that make us cringe. We have to learn to be gracefully uncomfortable with ideas, views and judgements that are at odds with our own, so that the encounter can enrich us and make us grow. And maybe that is the key to the formation of sound judgement.