Moral Briefs – Chapter XCI – Rash Judgment

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonThe Eighth Commandment is based on the natural right every fellow-man has to our good opinion, unless he forfeits it justly and publicly. It forbids all injury to his reputation, first, in the estimation of others, which is done by calumny and detraction; secondly, in our own estimation, and this is done by rash judgment, by hastily and without sufficient grounds thinking evil of him, forming a bad opinion of him. He may be, as he has a right to be, anxious to stand well in our esteem as well as in the esteem of others.

A judgment, rash or otherwise, is not a doubt, neither is it a suspicion. Everybody knows what a doubt is. When I doubt if another is doing or has done wrong, the idea of his or her guilt simply enters my mind, occurs to me and I turn it over and around, from one side to another, without being satisfied to accept or reject it. I do not say: yes, it is true; neither do I say: no, it is not true. I say nothing, I pass no judgment; I suspend for the moment all judgment, I doubt.

A doubt is not evil unless there be absolutely no reason for doubting, and then the doubt is born of passion and malice. And the evil, whatever there is of it, is not in the doubt’s entering our mind – something beyond our control; but in our entertaining the doubt, in our making the doubt personal, which supposes an act of the will.

Stronger than doubt is suspicion. When I suspect one, I do not keep the balance perfectly even between yes and no, as in the case of doubt; I lean mentally to one side, but do not go so far as to assent one way or the other. Having before me a person who excites my suspicion, I am inclined to think him guilty on certain evidence, but I fear to judge lest I should be in error, because there is evidence also of innocence. If my suspicion is based on good grounds, it is natural and lawful; otherwise it is rash and sinful; it is uncharitable and unjust to the person suspected. A suspicion often hurts more than an accusation.

Doubt and suspicion, when rash, are sinful; but the malice thereof is not grave unless they are so utterly unfounded as to betoken deep-seated antipathy and aversion and a perverse will; or unless in peculiar circumstances the position of the person is such as to make the suspicion gravely injurious and not easily condoned. There is guilt in keeping that suspicion to oneself; to give it out in words is calumny, whether it be true or not, simply because it is unfounded.

In a judgment there is neither doubt nor suspicion; I make my own the idea presented to my mind. The balance of assent in which is weighed, the evidence for and against, is not kept even, nor is it partially inclined; it goes down with its full weight, and the party under consideration stands convicted before the tribunal of my judgment. I do not say, I wonder if he is guilty; nor he most likely is guilty; but: he is guilty – here is a deliberate judgment. Henceforth my esteem ceases for such a person. Translated in words such a. judgment is not calumny because it is supposedly founded in reason; but it is detraction, because it is injurious.

Such a judgment, without any exterior expression, is sinful if it is rash. And what makes it rash? The insufficiency of motive on which it is based. And whence comes the knowledge of such sufficiency or insufficiency of motive? From the intelligence, but mostly from the conscience. That is why many unintelligent people judge rashly and sin not, because they know no better. But conscience nearly always supplies intelligence in such matters and ignorance does not always save us from guilt. An instinct, the wee voice of God in the soul, tells us to withhold our judgment even when the Intelligence fails to weigh the motives aright. To contemn this voice is to sin and be guilty of rash judgment.

In the language of ordinary folks, not always precise and exact in their terms, an opinion is frequently a judgment, to think this or that of another is often to judge him accordingly. The suspicions of suspicious people are at times more than suspicions and are clearly characterized judgments. To render a verdict on the neighbor’s character is a judgment, by whatever other name it is called; all that is necessary is to come to a definite conclusion and to give the assent of the will to that conclusion.

When the conduct of the neighbor is plainly open to interpretation, if we may not judge immediately against him, neither are we bound to give him the benefit of the doubt; we may simply suspend all judgment and await further evidence. In our exterior dealings this suspicion should not affect our conduct, for every m.an has a right to be treated as an honest man and does not forfeit that right on the ground of a mere probability. This, however, does not prevent us from taking a cue from our suspicion and acting guardedly towards him. This does not mean that we adjudge him dishonest, but that we deem him capable of being dishonest, which is true and in accordance with the laws of prudence.

Neither are we bound to overlook all evidence that points to a man’s guilt through fear of judging him unfavorably. It is not wrong to judge a man according to his merits, to have a right opinion of him, even when that opinion is not to his credit. All that is necessary is that we have good reason on which to base that opinion. If a neighbor does evil in our presence or to our knowledge he forfeits, and justly, our good opinion; he is to blame, and not we. We are not obliged to close our eyes to the truth of facts, and it is on facts that our judgments are formed.