Judging The Motives of Others

One of my co-contributors to Mirror of Justice (a blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory) wrote a post yesterday that was prompted by reading someone’s harsh evaluation of the motive of another person.

What interested me in his post was not the discussion of the particular action that had generated the harsh evaluation, but his comment about why it should matter whether we judge another’s motives harshly or give them the benefit of the doubt. He wrote:

Why is it worth attending to this distinction, then – that between the ‘he’s a meanie’ explanation and the ‘hes’s forgetful’ one? I think there are at least three related reasons.

One is that it seems to me simply better to err on the side of overestimation than on the side of underestimation of those with whom we disagree. For it seems to me that the injustice of getting it wrong is somehow more profound in the latter case than in the former.

Another is that our estimations of others often – not always, but often – become self-fulfilling. People seem often to become what we take them to be, at least at the margin.

And finally another is that the fellow whose decision we wish to see changed is apt to be more receptive to our urgings if we address him as our brother and urge the importance of the change, rather than addressing him as a spiteful meanie bent upon injustice. (Which approach would you be more apt to respond thoughtfully to?)

He went on to recognize that there clearly are times that people “ultimately confirm our most frightful fears, and it likely does more harm than good to pretend otherwise at least in some such cases.”

Nonetheless, I think his points worth thinking about because it is so easy for us to assume the worst in others, to fail to give them the benefit of the doubt. Doing so is not both uncharitable and counterproductive.

You can read the Mirror of Justice post in its entirety here.