Virtue of justice: Judging others and self

First Published: 2015-04-04

For most of us, judging others is challenging, but it is also necessary. Why? For those who abide by conventional morality, judging others is challenging because the conventional morality of altruism teaches us that we should be tolerant, compassionate, merciful, and not judge others at all. Even if we recognize judging people as a virtue—justice—it is challenging because it requires objectivity: adhering to the relevant facts about others’ character and conduct and acting accordingly. It is easy to reach rash judgments without all relevant information, or base one’s evaluation on irrelevant characteristics, such as looks or skin color, instead on what people characteristically say and do. Regardless of its challenges, judging people is possible and necessary.

Despite the teachings of conventional morality, judging others is a virtue from the perspective of rational egoism. Virtues define actions that lead to values. Judging other people is a virtue because they can influence the achievement of our values, in small or large ways. A reputable grocer sells us fresh and untainted food, enabling us to keep healthy and not to waste our money on spoiled goods. An honest, competent broker provides us advice that allows us to achieve our investment goals, as opposed to defrauding us of our money. A hard-working, loyal employee helps our business succeed, as opposed to ruining it. If we care about achieving our values, whether physical or financial health, a successful business, or something else, we need to assess other people because of their potential impact on our values. It does matter who we choose as our friends, employees, business partners, or caregivers for our children. Unless we want to make those choices blindly, we must judge others.

The challenging part about judging people is assessing them objectively: basing the assessment on facts alone and evaluating the facts based on rational principles, instead of resorting to subjectivism. For example, judging on an emotion—say, firing a falsely accused employee in anger before the facts are in—is based on subjectivism. Similarly, assessing facts by irrational principles, such as deciding not to fire an employee that has been embezzling money from your company on the principle of tolerance or mercy, is subjective. Being subjective does not lead to achievement of values but to their loss, such as of a competent employee or the hard-earned money of your business. Only by being objective in assessing people: by adhering to facts, applying objective principles such as justice, and granting people what they deserve, can we achieve our values.

What do others deserve from us? Virtuous people—those who are honest, hard-working, competent, reliable, rational, independent thinkers—deserve good things from us: praise, referrals, recognition, bonuses, promotions, admiration, friendship. Virtuous people help us achieve our values; therefore, it is in our self-interest to reward them in all appropriate ways. Vicious people—those who are dishonest, lazy, incompetent, unreliable, irrational, second-handers—deserve disvalues from us: reprimands, condemnation, negative assessments shared with others, withdrawal of benefits, demotions, scorn, ostracizing, discontinuation of friendship. Vicious people deter achievement of values, and therefore we should punish them in appropriate ways.

Judging others and granting them what they deserve impacts our values. But justice as an egoist virtue applies also to oneself. It is challenging to judge others, but perhaps even more challenging to judge oneself. Because we value self-esteem, and important component of happiness, we want to see ourselves in a positive light. But an objective assessment is again necessary, because values cannot be achieved by pretense or faking. We can evade our own character flaws—say, second-handedness—or irrational behavior, such a pattern of dishonesty or avoidance of work, but such evasion does not erase the facts and their consequences. Basing our decisions on the opinions of others as a second-hander, instead of on facts of reality, or faking, or avoiding work does not lead to achievement of our values but to their loss. It is equally important to judge ourselves as it is others and to grant ourselves what we deserve, either rewards or punishments. The good news is that we have the power to adjust our behavior based on our assessment, either by correcting or reinforcing it.

Judging people, others and ourselves, and granting what they and we deserve is critically important to achievement of our values, happiness and flourishing. Such judging is the virtue of justice, and objectivity is its key.

First published at How to be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business and posted here with the kind permission of the author.

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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