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The paradoxes of nonjudgmentalism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2021

Catching up on my reading today, I came across Frank Furedi’s fine article in the January issue of First Things, on the subject of The Diseasing of Judgment—that is, the pretense that making moral judgments is a disease. Furedi, who is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK, makes a number of revealing points about the twentieth-century replacement of authentic human judgment with a therapeutic non-judgmental ideal. For the United States, at least, Furedi chooses to take up the explanation beginning in the 1920s, highlighting the growing movement to adopt “nonjudgmentalism” on “instrumental grounds”—that is, to gain the trust of a person who needs help. But this developed steadily into the culture-wide opposition to moral judgment that we encounter today.

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In one sense, Furedi begins his historical analysis thousands of years too late, but his article is still full of insight into the motives and ideas which led to the full-scale discrediting of moral judgment in our particular time. I will say more about the older influences—which, really, are as old as mankind itself—in a moment. But this focus on our current point in the process of dismantling judgment is still very valuable, and it is instructive that Furedi notices two of the great paradoxes associated with the regnant nonjudgmentalism by which our society is afflicted.

The first paradox is that the mandate of nonjudgmentalism seemingly requires a worldview of absolute relativism, which obviously undermines the human moral sense in the name of adopting the non-judgmental viewpoint as right. Furedi also cites one study which suggests that young people try to get around this by identifying the desire to convey moral judgments as a “sickness”, as if we are not dealing with values but with scientific, medical facts. He further comments:

The fact that nonjudgmentalism does not endorse any positive qualities did not seem to trouble the interviewees. Nonjudgmentalism leaves a vacuum in the consciences of human beings, a moral indifference that provides no satisfaction other than the fleeting virtue of showing one’s liberal forbearance, but that was enough for them. They would never think that their enlightened tolerance is a species of moral cowardice.

The second paradox is probably even more familiar to all of us:

[N]onjudgmentalism leads not to relativism but to progressive moralizing. ….[O]pponents of judgment have no problem condemning those who adhere to traditional values and moral norms. On the contrary, they are eager to do so. But it is telling that this condemnation is often framed in medical or sociological terms. Those who exercise moral judgment in traditional ways are deemed homophobic or transphobic; they are deluded by their white privilege or captive to a patriarchal mentality.

6,000 years too late?

I am sure I have no quarrel with Frank Furedi when I point out that, despite the value of his twentieth-century account of the rise of nonjudgmentalism in today’s specific form, he has started his account six to eight thousand years too late to be truly comprehensive—depending, that is, on when a Biblical historian of the strictest literal school would date the creation of Adam and Eve. For indeed, the deliberate or semi-deliberate weakening of our desire and ability to make moral judgments can be traced back to the famous quip of Satan Himself about the “morality tree” in Genesis: “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).

Even in the Genesis context, this rather clearly points out the wayward human desire not so much to know good and evil but to define it according to one’s own desires (which is a poor mechanism unless one’s very being can be fully defined as “infinite love”). This wayward human desire—that is our fallen desire to rid ourselves of moral constraints so that we may enjoy each pleasure that appeals without the need to feel guilty—has taken a number of specific cultural forms over the centuries, the study of which, as with Furedi’s fine article, remains important.

One can point to several of the shifting shapes of this fundamental impulse. We might, for example, explore the significance of the school of Epicurean philosophy in the ancient world, a philosophy which deliberately pushes God into such a distant, uncaring and uninvolved role in the universe that we are left entirely to our own devices, seeking happiness as we may. In fact, a new book by the great Episcopalian Scripture scholar N. T. Wright explores very deeply the influence of the return of Epicureanism as the fundamental worldview of the dominant Western intellectual culture in the eighteenth century. Wright argues convincingly that this resurgence gradually led to the exclusion of the historical life of Christ in discussions of natural theology, even though Christ was, even if nothing else, a man like other men.

At all costs, those with wayward desires must figure out how to put God at a distance, so that He becomes irrelevant to our own thoughts and plans, even if we do not completely deny His existence. To pursue Wright’s thesis here would take us too far afield, but he was honored to be invited to give the famous Gifford Lectures in 2018 (rare for an exegete), and out of that opportunity he has produced a serious scholarly study entitled History and Eschatology: Jesus and the promise of natural theology.

Alternatively, we might call attention not to the eighteenth century but to the sixteenth, with the rise of Protestantism. Here we encounter a desire to throw off the moral authority of the Church as truly representative of God, so that every person might be—precisely like Adam and Eve—his own pope. The instant and pervasive intellectual secularization (unwittingly) effected in European culture by Protestantism was already a serious blow to the idea of moral authority, and therefore to the value of moral judgment. Among many other results, the idea of “making good” gradually became identified with material prosperity as a sign of Divine election!

We could add to this an analysis of the seventeenth-century explosion of the knowledge of geography and of other peoples and cultures in the Age of Exploration, which led to a further erosion of the Western confidence in moral judgments, since so many things that were taken for granted in Europe were handled quite differently in other parts of the world. Given the profound divisions even among Christians, was it not becoming obvious that no fixed moral judgments were really possible, even based on an alleged Revelation itself?

Or we could jump back once again to the “ancients”: To the rediscovery and widespread popularity in the fifteenth century of the great pagan Greek and Roman texts, triggering a shift in perspective which emphasized human glory, with “man as the measure of all things.” All of these shifts and more, in an effective order, one after another, were capped by the tremendous material and technical achievements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Coupled with the obliteration of any cohesive witness for Christianity, they contributed to what William Butler Yeats, in his great poem “The Second Coming”, called a “widening gyre” (or spiral) in which the “falcon cannot hear the falconer”.

The result would be called “relativism” or finally, in Pope Benedict’s brilliant phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism” that we face today.

You will not die

You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

Ultimately, we humans cannot flee from our mortality. From the secular point of view, the reality is that we will be dead far, far longer than we will be alive. It is no wonder that addiction and suicide are at an all-time high, as well as many vicious attempts to find happiness by blaming the world for our discontents and remaking our bodies to suit our moods. But the temporal longevity of death is a blessing or a curse, depending on how we answer questions about our capacities for intellect and will, and where they come from if we have them.

Each person needs to decide whether our innate sense of living under a judgment—which paradoxically but clearly drives the modern experiment in nonjudgmentalism—is a myth (as Satan claims) or an inescapable conclusion. It is a shame that a culture in flight from God—just like the culture created by our fallen first parents—makes it so difficult to examine such questions forthrightly, and without condemnations by those who, so often playing the role of the wise and the good, wish to use their own authority and influence to prevent people from becoming wiser and better.

For that is what we are up against, and it takes some intellectual and social courage to combat it. So I propose a final paradox. We can deny the importance of moral judgment for as long as we insist on avoiding personal sacrifices to pursue the Good. We can avoid the most deeply human questions for as long as our pride refuses to acknowledge Someone superior to ourselves. In other words, we can maintain our selfish illusion of control for a certain period of time, but not indefinitely—in fact, not a single moment longer than it becomes too late to change.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Mar. 13, 2021 6:54 AM ET USA

    While reading this article, the seductive little masterpiece "Alone again, Naturally" (1972) by Gilbert O'Sullivan came on the radio. This winsome, introverted ballade in 3 minutes exemplifies in popular song the devastating neo-epicurianism of our culture's intellectual worldview so decried by N. T. Wright.