Ancient and modern scriptures frequently warn us not to judge others or be quick to find fault with them. (Matt. 7:1; Acts 10:28; Rom. 14:10, 13; D&C 20:54.) We are told that Christ is to be our judge (John 5:22; Acts 10:42; Rom. 14:10–12; James 4:12; Morm. 3:20), and he has even said that he is more concerned with saving us than judging us (John 12:47). Why do we judge others? Why should we not do so? Let us consider some possible answers to these two questions.
First, why do we judge others? Some reasons why people criticize and find fault may be the following:
1. It is easier to criticize than to be constructive. As a nineteenth century clergyman noted, “Only God can form and paint a flower, but any foolish child can pull it to pieces.” People are not perfect; they are sometimes annoying, disappointing, inconsiderate, and selfish, and they do make mistakes. Thus, it is easy for us to find faults, because there are plenty of them around.
2. To magnify our own virtues. One way to improve ourselves is to develop our talents, skills, and virtues. However, because it is easier to criticize than to be constructive, we may decide not to improve ourselves but instead attempt to make others look smaller by tearing them down; then we will look bigger by comparison without actually becoming any bigger. Secure, successful people do not feel the need to undermine others in order to establish their own worth.
3. To justify our own faults. By pointing out how many other people have faults and that some of their faults are worse than ours, we make our faults seem smaller by comparison. As President N. Eldon Tanner has noted, “Sometimes as I move among people I am almost convinced that it is human nature to magnify the weaknesses in others in order to minimize our own.” (Improvement Era, June 1967, p. 29.)
4. Revenge or jealousy. Because we may have been wronged by someone, we may want to get even with him by hurting him. Or we may want to tear down a person who outshines us if we are covetous or envious of what he has.
5. To shift the blame. When we make mistakes, we may avoid the responsibility for them by criticizing the performance of those who are working with us. Or we may try to shift the responsibility by finding fault with the performance of others.
Those are five possible reasons why we judge others and find fault with them. Let us now consider five reasons why we should not do so.
1. Our perceptions may be wrong. The act of perception consists of two independent factors—the perceiver and the person being perceived. The person being perceived may be the same throughout, but the perceiver is not. His impressions of other people are influenced by several factors. As a result, different people do not perceive a person the same way.
For example, in a speech class I took in college, each student gave a speech on which all other class members turned in a written critique. One student informed me that “some gestures were vague and repetitious,” while another complimented me on “good motivated gestures.” One student noted, “You seemed so nervous,” while another commented, “You seemed very much at ease.” Since the students were perceiving the same person giving the same talk, their different impressions must be due to factors other than the person being perceived. What are some of the factors that may cause differences in our perceptions?
Projection. This is a tendency of some people to attribute their own undesirable traits and feelings to other people, rather than admitting that they have these traits and feelings themselves. For example, in one study people who were frightened perceived others as more fearful than did people who were not frightened. Similarly, the person who is himself untrustworthy may be especially suspicious of others; the person who is cruel may see others as cruel; and the person who is bothered by evil thoughts may see others as being evil.
Closely related to projection is the tendency of some people to look so hard for faults and evil that they can see them in almost everything. As with projection, the faults lie in the eye of the judge more than in the person being judged. The apostle Paul recognized that faults may lie in the mind of the perceiver as much as in the person being perceived. (Rom. 14:14; Titus 1:14.) Similarly, President David O. McKay noted, “It is a deplorable fact that the eye of the gossip and the slanderer sees not only no good in others, but sees ‘evil where no evil exists.’ Ofttimes, many evil, vicious things that are circulated exist only in the imagination of ignorant and evilthinking minds.” (Instructor, June 1960, p. 178.)
Set. When a starter in a race says “get set,” the runners are in a state of readiness for the “go.” They expect to start running. Similarly, we sometimes have a set or expectancy about what a person is going to be like. Our set influences how we perceive him. Jesus’ question to the Jews concerning John the Baptist, “What went ye out in the wilderness to see?” (Matt. 11:7) suggests this basic principle of person perception: to a considerable extent we see what we expect to see.
In one experiment a lecturer was introduced to a class of college students as a “warm” person and to another class as a “cold” person. After his lecture, the first group not only had a more favorable impression of him than did the second group but they also had interacted more with him during the lecture. The students’ expectations of what he would be like influenced not only their impressions of him but also their behavior toward him.
Experience. Our own experiences affect how we perceive others. We tend to use ourselves and our experiences as a frame of reference for judging the behavior of others. A newspaper columnist, Sidney J. Harris, once vividly depicted one way we do this:
“I am the man in the middle; for the middle is, by my definition, where I stand. … I am a ‘friendly’ sort of person; anyone more friendly than I is ‘familiar’; anyone less friendly than I is ‘aloof.’ I am an ‘open’ person; anyone more open than I is ‘brutally frank’; anyone less open than I is ‘devious.’ … I am a ‘determined’ person; anyone more determined than I is ‘pig-headed’; anyone less determined than I is ‘indecisive.’ … I am a ‘realistic’ person; anyone more realistic than I is ‘cynical’; anyone less realistic than I is ‘naive.’ …”
Not only may our personal experiences be used as a frame of reference for evaluating others, but our experiences may also influence which characteristics of a person we choose to evaluate. The values and interests we have learned—the things we consider to be important—may cause different people to attend to different aspects of a person. For example, suppose you enter a room and notice that there are four people sitting there. What do you see? A woman may notice a young married couple, a single woman, and an older man. A young man may notice an attractive young woman and three other people. Which of these persons sees what is “really” there? In a sense, they both do; but each person notices only those characteristics that are important to him. What each one sees is influenced by what his experiences have conditioned him to see.
Context. The context in which we perceive a person affects our impression of him. A person or an act may be perceived differently in different situations, not because the person or act has changed but because the context has changed.
For example, a 31-year-old college professor was introduced to a group of college students as a fellow student. The students were asked to estimate his age. The average guess was 23. He was introduced to another group of students as a professor. This group estimated his age at about 30. In addition to the age difference, the “professor” was also perceived as being significantly taller than the “student.” Thus, he was viewed in the context of “student” or “professor.” If the perception of physical characteristics such as age and height can be distorted by context, then we can understand how perceptions of emotions, attitudes, words, and actions can be even more susceptible to distortion.
Stereotypes may be due in part to the effects of social context. We form an impression of a person merely by knowing a social group to which he belongs—by placing him in a social context. For example, if you were told that John is a Marine, Bill is a college student, David is a salesman, and Bob is a Boy Scout, you would likely have some impressions of each of them. Some of your impressions may be accurate and some may be inaccurate, but the important point is that your impressions of each person would be based only on your knowledge of Marines, college students, salesmen, and Boy Scouts. Many people form impressions of individuals knowing nothing other than the social groups with which they are affiliated.
2. We may not be worthy to judge.
Even if our perceptions were accurate and we could perceive intent as well as behavior, we would still not be qualified to judge. The Lord indicated the reason for this in his Sermon on the Mount when he told us to not be too concerned about the mote in our brother’s eye until we get the beam out of our own eye. (Matt. 7:3–5.) In contrasting a small particle of dust in our brother’s eye with a large piece of wood in our own eye, the Savior was suggesting that, because we ourselves are sinners, we are not justified in condemning others for sinning. Paul also reminded the Romans of this fact: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” (Rom. 2:1.) Some of us spend too much time discussing other people’s sins when we should be working on our own. If we cannot make ourselves into what we want, what right do we have to try to make others over?
One well-known story from the New Testament, an application of the mote-beam analogy, is the adultress who was brought to Christ. When the Lord said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” the accusers left, “being convicted by their own conscience. …” (John 8:7, 9.) Likewise, if we look at our own unworthiness before condemning others, we may be less eager to cast stones. The importance of this consideration is emphasized in at least three of our Church hymns, “Let Each Man Learn to Know Himself,” “Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses,” and “Should You Feel Inclined to Censure.” It has wisely been suggested that before we point out someone else’s faults, we should take time to count ten—ten of our own faults.
3. Our perceptions are limited.
A tendency of most people is to form impressions of others on the basis of very limited information. Having seen someone for only a few minutes, people are willing to make judgments about a large number of his characteristics. When we start to judge someone on the basis of one exposure to him, remember that even the Lord does not propose to judge a man until the end of his days.
Even if we could observe all of a person’s acts and words, we would still not have sufficient information to judge him, because we cannot see his reasons for his behavior. We can only infer his intent from what he says and does, and we have seen some reasons why such inferences can be wrong. Yet the intent may sometimes be more important than the act itself. For example, suppose a four-year-old girl knocks a glass off the kitchen table and breaks it. Would you judge her as harshly if she were trying to surprise her mother by cleaning up the dishes as you would if she did it because she did not want to drink her milk?
The laws of the land recognize the importance of intent. It is intent that determines the seriousness of many crimes. Juries spend days, weeks, or months trying to determine intent by hearing and evaluating all the available evidence, and they can still be wrong. How justified are we in inferring intent from one act?
The judgment of the Lord is fair and just, because he can accurately perceive intents (1 Kgs. 8:39; 1 Sam. 16:7), and he takes these into account in judging us. As President Brigham Young noted, “It is not by words, particularly, nor by actions, that men will be judged in the great day of the Lord; but, in connection with words and actions, the sentiments and intentions of the hearts will be taken, and by these will men be judged.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 10.)
4. We may be filled with self-fulfilling prophecy.
Our expectation that something is going to happen may cause us to act in such a way as to actually cause it to happen, thus fulfilling our prophecy that it would happen. For example, if many people believe a rumor that a bank is going to collapse, and they all hurry to withdraw their money, they may cause its collapse. The same phenomenon can be found in our interpersonal relationships. To a considerable extent, people act as we expect them to act. If we expect the worst from people, we are likely to get it. If we are always criticizing, emphasizing weaknesses, and looking for others’ faults and dwelling on them, we may give them the impression that we expect them to behave in the very manner we criticize; we thus encourage the negative behavior that we are always emphasizing. The principle of the self-fulfilling prophecy is suggested in the following words of President Tanner:
“If we will always look for the best in others, in our friends, in our neighbors, in our wife, in our husband, in our children, they will turn out to be the most wonderful people in the world. On the other hand, if we are looking for their weaknesses and faults and enlarge upon them, these same people may become even despicable.” (Improvement Era, June 1967, p. 29.)
5. We may be judging ourselves.
The Lord said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matt. 7:1.) We frequently focus on the first part of this statement without realizing the significance of the second part. The next verse explains what the second part means: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt. 7:2.) The same idea is expressed in the Lord’s Prayer (again note the second part of the statement): “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12; 3 Ne. 13:11.)
What these verses suggest is that the criteria we use in judging others during mortality may be applied by the Lord in judging us. Modern scripture likewise indicates that the Lord will “measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.” (D&C 1:10.) Thus, we may actually be judging ourselves when we judge others, in the sense that we are establishing the measure of justice and mercy that will be measured to us in the final judgment. (See also Alma 41:14–15.) This suggests another meaning for Paul’s statement quoted above: “… wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself.” (Rom. 2:1.)
If the Lord uses his own criteria for judging, we are assured of a just and merciful judgment. (Ps. 103:8; John 5:30.) Are we confident enough with the criteria we use in judging others that we are willing to have the Lord judge us by our criteria rather than his? Do we want him to judge us in the same way we judge others? If not, then perhaps we should be hesitant to criticize and condemn others.
I have suggested here five reasons why we judge others and five reasons why we should not do so. However, this discussion should not leave us with the impression that we must never judge others. There are situations in which it is necessary to evaluate and judge. For example, an employer must judge a man’s labors, and a teacher must judge a student’s academic performance. But neither the employer nor the teacher has a right to pass moral judgment on the worker or student as a person. Even in cases where one must pass moral judgment (for example, in the calling of a bishop), one might keep some of the above considerations in mind and pray, as did Solomon, “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad. …” (1 Kgs. 3:9.)