Variant on a theme

We, dear readers, have earlier dealt with the nonsensical argument, of which an Enlightened few are excessively fond, “There is no truth.” This is an argument often employed by those who embrace the idea that “all cultures are of equal value.” It is also commonly found, if sometimes not expressly stated, in academia in the “humanities”.

But the argument is ridiculously absurd and paradoxical, and in the same class as the 2600 year-old Epimenides paradox (Epimenides was a Cretan who said, “All Cretans are liars.”). A paradox, incidentally, is a man-made creation that stands in the way of a man-made theory gaining full acceptance. When a paradox arises, it implies, logically, that the theory that gave rise to it is flawed and should be modified or abandoned. But, usually, the theory is so beautiful or desirable that every possible effort is made to do away with the paradox (typically by calling it a “Problem” or ignoring it). The philosopher David Stove has brilliantly written about this in his book The Rationality of Induction.

Now, if we rationally believe the argument “There is no truth”, it must mean the argument is true. And if the argument is true, then the statement “there is no truth” is false because we at least believe the argument is true. Which of course means there is truth, so the argument is fallacious. Or nonsensical, actually. In other words, anybody who makes the argument and is convinced by it is making a grievous error or acting foolishly. This is bad news for those who theorize that human thought creates truth, or “truth” as they normally write it. From Stove again: writing “true” does not mean true, but only “believed to be true by so and so”, a definition as far from true as you can get.

Very well. Few actually utter the exact words “There is no truth”, probably because some internal B.S. detector senses something has gone awry. But there are, in common parlance, phrases which are entirely equivalent to “There is no truth.” Let’s look at one of them.

“Don’t be all judgmental”, is a phrase often heard immediately after you have pointed out that some behavior on the part of another was wrong or mistaken. Or it can be found in a simple example like this: you walk by a booth selling tie-dyed shirts and you say, “Those shirts are hideously ugly” and the booth owner says “Some people are so judgmental” which carries the implication that “being judgmental is wrong.”

The presupposition is that passing judgment on somebody’s “lifestyle” (for those who do not speak psychobabble, this means the English word behaviors) is an activity which is forbidden. It follows immediately that when the person says to you “Don’t be all judgmental” they are in fact passing judgment on your behavior. In other words, they are “being all judgmental.” It is, therefore, impossible not to pass judgment. I do not mean “impossible” in the colloquial sense of “unlikely”, but in the logical sense of “certainly cannot be no matter what.”

[UPDATE–thanks Nick!:] This is true whether tie-dyed shirts really are hideous or whether my comment was solicited (it was) or not, or whether the thought remains a thought and is forever unspoken. It might be, of course, that offering an unsolicited comment aloud is in poor taste, but it might also be that it is useful in the sense of discouraging aberrant behavior, such as that displayed by street vendors hawking ridiculous looking clothing.

So the next time somebody says to you “Don’t be all judgmental” you ask them “Aren’t you passing judgment on me?” Then get ready for a blank stare.


  1. Kir

    Beautiful essay. Especially so in the context of the previous essays about ‘the most enlightened city’.

  2. What does it mean to be judgmental? It seems to me that there are a couple of elements: (1) There’s usually the sense that someone is making a lot of judgements; and (2) The judgment must be expressed in some way, rather than kept in one’s mind. The expression “to pass judgment” seems to suggest that one has made one’s judgment manifest.

    Judgments of aesthetics (e.g. whether those tie-dyed t-shires are ugly or not) are a matter of taste, and it may be best to share them only when they are requested. Things are much tricker when it comes to morality. Ultimately the morality of our own behavior is paramount. When it comes to other people’s behavior that we judge to be immoral, the question is what can we do to effect a positive change. Depending on the situation, denouncing their behavior may not be the best (or even a good) idea.

  3. KuhnKat

    Nick Barrowman,

    If I think something is so hideous that I feel the need to comment, what does it say about me and the person who designed/made the item??

    It simply says we have extremely differing views.

    Why is that a problem? How can we have a discussion about that difference if I do not state it??

    Wouldn’t it be of interest to the maker how his work is or isn’t accepted?? If they do not care about my view doesn’t that say more about them than me?

    “Don’t Be Judgemental” is simply a mechanism to push divergent views into acceptance in spite of the majority. There are any number of ways the same people who use it on you will NOT use it on themselves!!

  4. Bernie

    Perhaps a more common but weaker statement is that “everything is relative” – even this statement. This seems to avoid the more obvious logical inconsistencies of the liar’s paradox, while allowing those who want to avoid being judgemental to avoid making judgements – though they will still probably make judgements about those who are unconflicted about making judgements.

    I am currently reading Atomic Tragedy by Sean Malloy which promises a wealth of material on this topic and takes us beyond the field of aesthetics to judgements that significantly affect us all. Judging from the first two chapters, Prof. Malloy is arguing that dropping the bombs was the culmination of a number of bad decisions and that Henry Stimson, Secretary of War throughout WWII, who played a major role in many of these decisions compromised his principles in choosing to drop the bomb. Stay tuned.

  5. Morgan

    Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) recently wrote a book called “In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Notions” that some here might find interesting – though I must admit I haven’t read it yet.

    There is also this article (“The Rush from Judgment”) he wrote in 1998, which presents a practical, rather than logical, case for the necessity of passing judgment.

  6. Luis Dias

    Mr Briggs, nice essay, but perhaps you are just reading too much into a single sentence. Yes, saying that you are being “judgemental” is judgemental by itself, just as saying that you are being an asshole is being an asshole in a way.

    It doesn’t mean that the person saying it is wrong.

    In another theme, or opening another variant, one might only say that “don’t be too judgemental”, or “cut some slack, will’ya?”

    Which, btw, is only a reminder of a very universal truth, one that I think every goddamn human agrees with:

    errare humanum est.

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