Judging, Part 2 (Aquinas)

This post continues the last one, which spoke of “judging” in Scripture and the inseparability of truth and love.

In this connection I would like to look at an article of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, has an article on judgment in cases of doubt. The question as a whole (question 60) concerns judgment as an act of justice, as in a court, but in this article (the fourth article) he treats the more general question of judging, which concerns all people, not only judges. The question is whether we should interpret cases of doubt in the way that is more favorable to the person concerned. (Read the complete article of Aquinas: On Charitable or Favorable Judgment)

The first objection he raises against this concerns the truth of judgment. The objection is that we should judge in such a way as to be correct as often as possible. But since men are more often inclined to evil—according to Ecclesiastes 1:15 (Vulgate), “The number of fools is infinite”, and Genesis 8:21, “the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth”—we will be more often right if we interpret doubtful cases on the worse side rather than on the better side.

The second objection similarly is that we should simply judge according to the truth, and not be more inclined to one side then another.

The third objection concerns love. As far as we are ourselves are concerned, we should suppose the worst (According to Job 9:28, Vulgate, “I feared all my works”). But we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and so we should also suppose the worst of them. Therefore in doubtful cases we should be more inclined to judge on the unfavorable side.

In his response to the question and these objections, Thomas sets forth two principles. First, a false judgment by which someone thinks something bad about someone else, is contrary to love of neighbor. Secondly, (and this becomes clear in his response to the objections), a false judgment by which one thinks something good about someone, which is not actually so—e.g., when someone thinks that a person has a good motivation when he does not—is not something very bad and that we definitely need to avoid, but is only a minor evil, very slight in comparison to a false judgment about someone's badness.

That all seems clear: easy to understand, even if not always easy to put into practice. But things get more complicated with Thomas's response to the third objection. There he says, on the one hand, insofar as a judgment is necessary or helpful in order to improve something bad, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is worse. On the other hand, insofar as a judgment does not lead to action, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is better about a person.

In both respects the judgment is to be made in favor of love, but in one respect in favor of love in itself, so to speak, and in the other respect in favor of love as effective, as a principle of action. Love, in order to be love, must also act against what is bad and evil. In a famous passage (In Tractate 7 on the First Letter of John), St. Augustine says, “A father beats his Son, a slave-dealer caresses him…. Many things can be done that seem good, but do not spring from the root of love, and in contrast, many seem hard, aggressive, which are done for the sake of discipline, at the command of love. Once for all, therefore, a short commandment is given: Love, and do what you will.”

I believe this is more or less the direction of the entire Christian tradition. To the extent a hypothetical judgment is necessary as principle of action, one should try to judge accurately, even when the judgment is in a certain sense “against” someone or his action. But insofar as a completely definitive judgment is not necessary for that, we should make no definitive negative judgment about someone or his action, unless we cannot avoid such a judgment, because the matter is perfectly evident, which as regards interior motivations, is never the case. In this sense St. Paul says, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:5).

But the question, to what extent negative judgments are necessary in order to act rightly, and how these negative judgments, which should never be definitive, are to be kept provisional, is a practical question, not one that can be solved purely theoretically, but is answered through experience, in community with others, and through the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

I made a few more comments on this, and then we discussed it. I will give some of these practical points in the next post.

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