The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 12:12:39

Who Are We to Judge?

Devra Torres, Apr 24, 2014

Things are not always what they seem.  And the actions of human persons, perceived from the outside, can be farthest of all from appearances.

One day long ago I was reading from the Book of Genesis to my four-year-old, who occasionally had trouble getting along with her little brother.  When we got to the part where “Cain rose up and slew his brother Abel,” I stopped and elaborated.  “He killed his own brother!”  I explained, suspecting that “slew” might be pushing the limits of her vocabulary.

My daughter looked properly shocked.  “I would never kill my brother,” she declared (to my secret relief).  But then she continued: “…because I don’t know how to kill people!”

They get along fine now.  But her point was made.  Sometimes what looks like virtue is really just incompetence.  She lacked the means.

Some people don't lack the means, but they do lack the motive.

C. S. Lewis points out that certain people, like himself, are simply not enticed by the idea of, say, gambling, or engaging in homosexual acts.  It’s easy to feel superior to someone who succumbs to a temptation that leaves you cold, but it's still irrational.  Lewis calls such temptations “enemies I have never met in battle” and declines to expend energy inveighing against them. Being immune to a temptation is not the moral equivalent of being enticed but standing firm, no matter how much alike they may look from the outside.

Addiction is another factor that can affect motivation and make disparate situations look similar.  An alcoholic friend once described the difference between a non-alcoholic’s reaction to a bottle of beer that someone had carelessly left out on the counter and her own.   For the person untroubled by addiction, the bottle didn't even register; for her, it triggered a painful interior battle.  There's something in play here other than greater or lesser stores of virtue and vice, willpower and weakness.  

I'll leave it to those who know more to determine to what extent addiction is a disease and to what extent free will is involved. I'm certainly not about to set myself up as judge of any particular person. But whatever the proportion, it's yet another case where what-all somebody's up against is far from evident. 

Finally, some of us lack opportunity.  Indignation at the infidelities of spoiled celebrities or the deceitfulness of politicians can become like a spectator sport. We know that “there but for the grace of God go I” is a pleasingly humble sentiment, but that doesn't mean we can say it with a straight face.  We know St. Paul called himself the worst sinner of all, and we admire his modesty, but do we think he meant it?   We imagine we know how our willpower would stand up against temptations we’ve never been rich or famous or powerful enough to experience.

We (most of us) lack opportunity.

Even our human justice system weighs means, motive and opportunity, not only to identify the culprit in the first place, but also to determine the degreee of culpability.  So the next time your toddler says something that sounds especially holy or especially horrible, don't jump to conclusions.  Things might not be as bad as they seem, or, then again, they might be a whole lot worse.