Judging others


1252 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Scanlon suggests that it is normally thought unfair to blame someone for things that they can’t help, or are otherwise ignorant or unaware of.

Let’s see if this intuition is right. Or at least, whether I can make some sense of it.

Scanlon uses the examples of children and animals. He says that children and animals can’t be morally judged. But why not?

Let’s see. To start, I understand “moral judgment” to be a kind of assessment of the quality of some object — ie, it’s “goodness” or “badness” determined by whether, and how much, the object is good or bad according to some standard for measurement. There are criteria to consider. For instance, the standard might be what I want the object to be or be like. Or, the standard might be whatever the idea (ie, form) of the object-itself is or is like.

Next, what are children? What are [nonhuman] animals?

Children are unfinished/incomplete humans. They are immature humans. Of course they can’t be assessed for quality in that unfinished/incomplete state. That would be like grading an essay before it’s turned in, or judging a dish while it’s still being prepared, or a work of art before it is finished.

[To briefly go off on a tangent here, I think that souls (ie, the life-story of a person) are like this as well. This must be why Herodotus tells us that Solon thought that a person cannot be judged as being “happy” or not until after they have died, and one is able to look upon the entire life-story (ie, the person’s soul) as a comprehensive whole from start to finish. To judge a soul before it is done, is to judge it in an unfinished/incomplete state. For further thought, it must be noted that persons aren’t the only beings with souls. City-states have souls, nations have souls, ideologies have souls, the World has a soul… And, I think that animals also either have a soul of their own, or they are at least part of the World soul.]

I think that I can be satisfied with this account. But if I’m also correct that a person cannot be judged until they are finished/complete, and if it’s also true that a person is always growing and learning and developing until they die, then wouldn’t the conclusion be that a person cannot be morally judged until they are dead? And then, who is to be the judge, anyways? I would argue that it’s the self who is to be the judge. But apparently, many of us feel that we are qualified to judge others, and before they’re dead. I wonder about that. Why is that?

Next, what about nonhuman animals? Why can’t they be judged?

My answer would be that if nonhuman animals can’t be morally judged, then it’s because the criteria for judging a human is not entirely the same for judging a nonhuman creature. Therefore, the criteria is irrelevant and it cannot apply to them. For the criteria to be relevant, it must be within the realizable domain of potentiality of the object to be assessed. The excellence of a circle is not the excellence of a square. Likewise, the excellence of a penguin is not the excellence of a person.

But now, is the excellence of fatherhood the same for a penguin as it is for a human? Curiously… I want to say, no it’s not the same. In fact, I doubt whether penguin-fatherhood is even morally comparable to person-fatherhood. The thing that’s holding me back from thinking that they’re similar enough to be comparable — despite “objectively observable” similarities (there is a male animal that has invested some of its genes in its offspring) — is that I’m in doubt whether the meaning of fatherhood is similar enough in both to be morally comparable. For instance, the notion of friendship in Korea may be somewhat different from the notion of friendship in America. And if the same idea can be different in two different human cultures, how much more different might things be between two different species of animal!

That’s not to say that I think that penguin-fatherhood is incomprehensible. Certainly it’s comprehensible. Certainly penguin-fathers and person-fathers can be compared for their similarities and differences. But this doesn’t mean that they are thus morally comparable; the excellence of each cannot be compared with the excellence of the other. And so I just mean that penguin-fatherhood may be a bunch of things that human-fatherhood isn’t, and vice versa. And the two may not be similar enough to be ranked in relation to one another in terms of superiority or inferiority (ie, better or worse). Thus, a penguin can’t be said to be a worse father than a person.

So it seems settled to me (for now at least) that a nonhuman father cannot be morally compared with a human father. It is like that fable by Aesop of the the stork and the fox. In order to morally assess both, they must share a relevant common standard. It seems to be unfairly biased against the penguin, to morally assess penguin fatherhood according to a human understanding of fatherhood — and yet, the only way that a human can understand fatherhood is through our own experience(s) with it. Even more curiously now, I am reminded that Scanlon thinks that the proper domain of morality is the “view from nowhere.” To be honest, I am in serious doubt whether such a view even exists. And even if it did (which, as I’ve said, I seriously doubt), I even more seriously doubt that such a view could be called “moral” in any sense of the word.

But I now wonder, whether two different persons are even similar enough to be morally compared against the other? It might turn out to be the case that not even two different persons are morally comparable… But if this were correct, what would it mean?

The answers to these questions may determine that Scanlon and I have insurmountable differences between our moral theories.

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2314 |  That was a long conversation with my half-sister over the phone… We spoke about our parents. There’s so much to digest. There’s a lot that I won’t ever be able to understand, because I simply wasn’t there to know what all the facts are for myself.

But one thing seems clear to me: I want to be better than both of my parents. (Whatever “better” means.)

Selah is incredibly — and definitely — manipulative. She is vindictive, falsely modest, superficial, and she is unkind (and manipulative). How in the world did she grow up to be this way? I wonder… are some character traits heritable by blood? Or is it entirely a matter of environment?

My father… he’s a little bit better on the inside, in some ways. And whatever undesirable character traits he has, I want to think that those things are more a product of his environment — societal expectations of men in a certain age, in a certain society. (But maybe I’m biased against my mother, since I’ve had more opportunity to be exposed to her, than to my father.)

Actually, maybe they’re both products of a certain culture, a certain age, a certain set of rules.

I wonder if I have ever been so vindictive, falsely modest, superficial, unkind, and manipulative? I probably have been. But, if so, then I don’t think I was entirely conscious of it, to be honest. Irrespective of what my presumed nature may be like, I don’t think that these things are good character traits, and what I do know is that I don’t choose them. But I wonder if these things are in my nature, and what I should do about it.

But I want to be very clear, here. If I condemn these character traits, it’s not that I have fear that others would treat me this way. And it’s also not so much that I don’t want my soul to be corrupted by being in close contact with these qualities that I deem as bad (or at least not very good); if anything, I’m already deeply entrenched in these qualities, probably to the core of my bones. I’m very sure these character traits are somehow written in the DNA even in my fingernails. No, I’m never going to be someone who is entirely purely good by nature. As far as a purely good nature goes, I am a lost cause. It’s a good thing I want to be a philosopher, not a saint. But my worry isn’t this.

My worry is really more like this: I think that I truly want the world to be a good place in the long run — and in particular, good for other Kendis. But it’s not going to be so easily good on its own… A good world for Kendi needs building up. And it takes effort. And a lot of care — coming from a place of truth, love, beauty, and generosity, and kindness. And, I guess I just don’t think that the character traits of vindictiveness, false modesty, superficiality, meanness, and manipulativeness, are very helpful to someone whose project is ultimately to build a good place to be in.


It’s true, I think based on my observation, that most architects usually aim to build strong structures, not just pretty or useful ones. Perhaps it is helpful for an architect to be aware of the dangers of nature, so that they can incorporate these considerations into the plans for their structures and defend against such natural dangers. After all, structures are fundamentally shelters, first and foremost. They are supposed to be where a person can go to be safe.

Hmm. In any case, I think that it ends up being helpful to me to have this to think about, as I grapple with Scanlon’s stuff on “moral condemnation.”

Let’s see now, could I ever love someone who was vindictive, falsely modest, superficial, unkind, and manipulative? Could I genuinely care for, respect, and forgive someone like Selah?