The Obligation of Judgement

I have a dilemma for you. You are part of a peer group and that peer group is making an assertion. Every other member is in unanimous agreement of the truth of the assertion. Yet, no matter how you think about it, your reason tells you that the assertion is wrong, even impossible. The question that concerns us here is not how you choose to respond socially, but how you choose to respond internally: do you accept your judgement as binding, or do you defer your judgement in favor of the peer group?

The problem with rejecting your own reasoned judgement is that in doing so you are actually rejecting reason itself. This is because reason, by nature, depends upon the capacity of the individual to recognize it. If you cannot actually see reason for yourself then the meaning of the term is utterly lost on you, and you’re in no position to uphold it. If you have accepted the idea of “reason” as any sort of appeal for the sake of truth, the term is empty rhetoric if there is no connection to your reason. Any “reason” that you don’t see for yourself is merely someone’s assertion. Nobody can truthfully appeal to reason without expecting your reason to be in alignment. Your reason is the only sort with real meaning. It is in this sense that reason itself binds you to your own judgement.

The acceptance of your judgement presupposes something very important: your competence to judge. This should be self-explanatory. How can someone who can’t judge make a reliable judgement? Belief in this competence is necessary to justify any firm belief in the product of one’s judgement. It is an amusing contradiction indeed for a person to lack confidence in their judgement yet have perfect confidence in the beliefs their judgement has led them to, one way or another. And here’s the key point: because reason requires acceptance of your judgement, which in turn presupposes your competence to judge, reason ultimately requires you to accept your competence to judge. If you don’t believe you have any power of judgement, you should never use the term “reason” again.

Now suppose that someone tells you you’re incompetent to judge and that you should listen to them instead. This is an invitation to commit a fatal contradiction. In general terms, if you’re not competent to judge things yourself then how do you expect to judge who is? More precisely, logic imposes a rule that you can’t saw off the branch you’re sitting on by accepting an idea that negates what the idea itself depends on. If you accept a complete invalidation of your judgement in favor of external authority, then you invalidate any judgement in favor of any authority. And if this hypothetical person goes so far as to completely invalidate your judgement, then they’ve made it logically impossible to take their word for it.

There is yet another problem, which might be harder to grasp. People generally do presume the validity of their judgement. The question of that validity does not arise at all, as indeed it cannot in principle. Yet they may commit the egocentric fallacy of disqualifying others from judgement. But those others are in exactly the same position. If the validity of judgement is effectively unquestionable for me, how can it be questionable for you? Because my judgement cannot validate itself, it cannot compare its validity to anyone else’s. The assumption of validity applies to everyone. That is, it applies to all judgement. So if I disqualify the basic validity of your judgement, then I’m indirectly disqualifying the basic validity of mine. A more subtle way of sawing off one’s own branch.

The obligation of judgement is not just intellectual but moral. Let’s say your part of a social movement upholding an issue of justice. Would you continue to uphold this issue of justice if everyone else suddenly changed their mind? Would it have been possible to uphold it in the first place if you stumbled upon it on your own and found no support? Would you not be against it if the same people were from the beginning? If you choose authority over judgement, then the answer to all these questions is ‘no’. Whether you’re on the side of justice or not depends entirely on the dumb chance of who the moral preachers you follow happen to be. Congratulations, you’ve just supported Jim Crow.

It is true that many people have an exaggerated idea of their intellectual competence. Such people can perhaps be criticized for overconfidence. But they can never be criticized for fundamentally believing in their own judgement, and believing only what their judgement permits them to believe, regardless of how much a blockhead they may be. You have a right to judge and for your judgement to be respected. And what is more, you have an obligation to judge, for the sake of reason and the sake of any morality or justice you wish to uphold. And this leads to a very serious conclusion: you have a right and obligation to be a fundamental enemy of any authority, be it a religion, an ideology or a political power, that forbids you to disagree.

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