Martin Luther King Had the Right View on How to Judge Others

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Think about the last time you heard someone say “Don’t judge me.” These words seem to be thrown around in the modern zeitgeist without much thought to the premise. I think they’re well-intentioned; they speak to the old adage that “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” The point is that a) Everyone has their own challenges and circumstances; b) We can’t know what it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes; and therefore c) We shouldn’t pass judgment on those around us.

But I think this “no judgment” idea clearly has its limitations because judgment of the right design has a utility value. After all, judgment — that is, assessing situations and forming opinions from the evidence at hand — is how we navigate our lives. It is, to a certain extent, the reason for our survival and ultimate ascension as the dominant species on this planet.

For example, imagine that your early hominid ancestor from 10,000 years ago hears a rustling in the bushes nearby. He doesn’t know the source of the noise, but from the circumstances he deduces that there could be a predator lurking nearby. So he picks up his spear and begins to move slowly away from the danger. These decisions are judgment calls. They’re part of our core programming.

Not All Judgment Is Wise, Moral or Fair

Not all judgment is wise, moral or fair, though. For example, some people make judgments based upon immutable human characteristics like race, color, gender and so on. These people — racists, sexists, bigots and fanatics — cast judgment on others for a variety of reasons. Notwithstanding their motives, we know from a wealth of scientific knowledge that these kinds of judgments are unwise, unproductive and usually harmful.

For example, some people might be racist and prejudiced toward Black people based upon uninformed assumptions that Black people are less intelligent or more prone to crime or violence than other people. But we know that race and skin color are terrible predictive variables for intelligence or a propensity to commit crime. So this kind of snap judgment makes absolutely no logical sense.

But this doesn’t mean that all judgments are improper. Judgments about someone, formed through an intelligent analysis of the circumstances relevant to moral arguments, can be defended on firm footing.

A ‘No Judgment’ Policy Requires Remaining Non-Judgmental about a Person’s Beliefs

For example, let’s suppose you run into one of the people described earlier — a racist who dislikes Black people because of the color of their skin. The “no judgment” policy would require that you remain non-judgmental about this person’s beliefs. I mean, you may not agree with his views, but you have to respect them because you shouldn’t judge him, right?

Wrong! We have to get past this idea of non-judgment toward beliefs and actions. Because these are the elements that define a person’s character. That brings me to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared this wisdom with us in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. In his speech, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I would encourage you to read the quote again, and let it really sink in. Note that Dr. King wasn’t saying we shouldn’t judge. What he was saying is that we should make judgments based upon the important things…the things that matter. The content of one’s character comprises a person’s values, beliefs, ideas and actions. They are not the product of immutable traits like race, color, national origin, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation.

So the next time you hear someone utter the words “Don’t judge me,” I would encourage you to remind that person of the wisdom of Dr. King. We should embrace the good kind of judgment for the right reasons based on the right criteria — to support moral policies and denounce amoral ones.

But part of that “good” judgment also means declaring that the bad kind of judgment is wrong and harmful. This is a kind of “judgment on judgment” exercise that is necessary to our progress toward a more just society. And if we strive for that society, then we move ever closer to Dr. King’s “dream.” And I judge that’s something worth aspiring to.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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