The Life of Virtue – Judgement

The Life of Virtue – Judgement

Judgement, iudicium, is the virtue of judging in accordance with what is just. However, as is well known, Jesus tells us not to judge (Matthew 7:1), Paul says bluntly ‘who are you to give a verdict on your neighbour’ (Romans 14:4), and elsewhere the New Testament repeats the point: who is sufficiently free from sin to have the integrity to judge justly (1 John 1:8; Romans 2:1)? In the case of capital punishment, we can, I believe, give the answer ‘nobody’ to this last question. No individual and no group of individuals is so good that they can be absolutely sure of their motivation in making such a judgement which is one good reason why it is wiser not to practise capital punishment (except in the extreme case of having no other way to prevent somebody from killing other people).

Judgement is only acceptable then to the extent that it is an act of the virtue of justice. This requires three things according to Aquinas, that it originates in an inclination toward justice, that it is done by an appropriate authority, and that it is according to that ‘right reason’ which governs the virtue of prudence. If it is against the inclination to justice, judgement is perverse and unjust. If it is done by someone without proper authority then it is a judgement that has been usurped. If it is unreasonable, because for example the matter remains uncertain or confused, then it is not perfect judgement but is a suspicious or a fearful judgement. Where one’s suspicion about somebody is informed by prejudice and remains doubtful then it is wiser not to proceed to judgement but to give the person ‘the benefit of the doubt’.
It is right that judgement should be according to the texts by which laws are enacted or in which they are contained. The natural law is not enacted by any written text but is established by creation itself. Nevertheless its requirements may be contained in a written text. (Murder is wrong not just because the law of the land says so but because the natural law says so.) In the case of positive laws, those made by governments and other public bodies, judgement should be according to the text by which such laws are enacted. (Driving on the left side of the road is wrong if you are in France. It is not against the natural law to drive on the left but it is against the laws of France and you will find this written somewhere in the French penal code.) If judgement is not according to texts then it will deviate from what is naturally or positively just.
Judgement is then a matter of interpreting how written laws are to be applied in particular situations. The same authority must stand behind the interpretation of a law as stands behind its enactment in the first place. So judgement can only be undertaken by a public authority who has responsibility for the common good of a community and to whom that community is subject. Just as it would be unjust for someone to oblige a person to observe a law which has not actually been enacted by public authority, so it would be unjust for someone to pass judgement where in doing so he is not sustained by public authority.
This last point is of crucial importance for capital punishment as without it any lynch mob might set itself up as an arbiter of justice.
We should refrain, then, from judging other people because we are never in a position to know everything relevant to their actions and decisions. Where we have responsibility for a common good and represent the authority of a community, however, we are obliged to make judgements for the sake of that good and for the sake of that community. We should do so with mindfulness, however, aware of the difficulties inherent in establishing justice in our world.

Vivian Boland OP

fr. Vivian Boland is a son of the Province of Ireland, is former Master of Students of the English Dominicans, and more recently served on the General Council of the Order in Rome.