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Margaret Mead

What is judgment?

Judgment differs from what we usually think of as knowledge.  To be sure, judgment differs from what we usually think of as knowledge.  As Elizabeth Minnich (1988) has observed, judgment is neither deductive, the way logic or mathematics is, nor inductive, as in the natural sciences.  It is practical—its purpose is action.  According to William Sullivan, “…practical reasoning [is] the back-and-forth between general knowledge and the challenges and responsibilities that come with particular situations, an ongoing process of reflection whose end is the formation of habits of critical judgment for action.” 

The type of knowledge that is appropriate for ethics and politics is not validity, correctness, or “predictive power”—it is the coherence of our reasons.  For a public decision to be coherent, it must be constructed of considerations that “stick together” well enough to support it.  Judgment is the ability to ascertain when there is enough coherence of reasons to warrant taking action.  Forming a judgment proceeds by dialogue and deliberation—by the offering, assessing, and weighing reasons.  After all reasons have been exhausted and further rational deliberation is not feasible, we must draw on a combination of factual knowledge, experience, and intuition to “fill in the gap” that remains.  The result is judgment.

No one—not even the most learned and brilliant individual—can know in advance what set of considerations will cohere sufficiently for all members of a community to accept them as supporting a given judgment.  A major point in Kant’s philosophy is the contention that critical thinking about practical matters (such as ethical and political decisions) cannot be a private activity.  Hannah Arendt wrote that no one can exercise judgment alone.  In ethics and politics, we must join in dialogue and deliberation with others in order to reach even a personal judgment.  The process of forming a public judgment is one and the same with that of forming a personal (ethical or political) judgment.

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