This blog is prompted by a May 2021 article debating the appropriateness, niceness, and correctness of being “Non-Judgmental.” It was well-written, well-intended, and likely well received by its intended audience—serious, sensitive people with something to say about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. But it struck an offbeat tone when I thought about the ethicality of being, or not being judgmental.

Madame Miriam Webster defines it, “Avoiding judgments based on one’s personal and especially moral standards.” The Huffington Post elaborated, “What Is Non-Judgmental Awareness, Anyway?” Their focus was on straightforward. “Bring awareness and intentionality to the moments of our lives. Be aware when the brain is automatically judging a situation or a person, and we can pause and get some perspective.”

Based just on these two articles, it would seem they conflict with one another. The dictionary definition of non-judgment is the avoidance of something. The media notion is to avoid what our brains automatically do. We judge everything, every day, automatically, to survive and thrive. We judge how much time we have to do whatever we’re about to do. We judge other people to assess their trustworthiness, likeability, and need. We judge family and friends for all the right reasons. And we judge situations to assess safety, advancement, and sanity. Our legal, political, analytical, academic, and religious communities constantly judge us. The world at large judges everything, every day. Judging is as old as religion, thought, and the evolution of our species. So, what importance should being actively non-judgmental have on our writing?

My interest is not the “existence” of it, but rather the “ethicality” of it. Is it ethical? If so, what ethical imperatives might inform writing non-judgmentally?

The religious perspective can be easily summarized. “Judge not, that you be not judged.”[1] While that’s good advice from on high, there are secular realities attendant to that good advice. The writer’s life is rife with judgments—what to write—when—genre—form—purpose—readership—originality—sourcing, and of course, ethics. Sometimes we write about smaller and less important things than   survival or living well. We make gratuitous judgments about our characters, their messages, the narrative arc, and the goal of the piece.

Writing about politicians raises special ethical concerns. That is because they incessantly seek our favor while consistently betraying our confidence. They do one thing to survive the primary election, and then reinvent themselves for acceptability in the general election. Once safely elected, they revert to form and follow a party line despite what they promised. Mark Twain gave writers good ethical advice when writing about politicians. “Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often, and for the same reasons.”   Writing ethically requires decisions about people, things, or activities that do little to advance our writing, our country, our planet, or us in a meaningful way. It’s the subclass of judgments that are primarily negative and pernicious that should raise our ethical antenna. We should sense and rebut writing that causes strife, harm, and degradation of others. The best ethical test is to judge what we write in terms of detriment to society, readers, and book reviewers.

[1] Matthew 7:1–29.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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