In this post I'll make the following points:

  1. Correct judgments are rooted in upright character.
  2. Incorrect judgments harm the judge and the judged.

Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. -- Jesus Christ, ~33 AD

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. -- Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963

Neither Jesus nor Dr. King called for no judgment, but rather for correct judgment. I agree with them. The world has gotten off track: it is not somehow categorically virtuous to avoid making judgments.

I should define what I mean by judgment. I can discern three behaviors people decry when they proclaim, "don't judge!":

  1. Observation. To see a situation. That is, to take notice of it. The opposite of "ignore".
  2. Evaluation. Having seen, to make an assessment against your values. That is, to become invested. The opposite of "suppress".
  3. Action. To choose to intervene, being so moved by your evaluation. The opposite of "sweep it under the rug".

All three forms of judgment have their place. Without observation, my body would collide with a passing bus in an intersection. A world without evaluation would make no distinction between war criminal and war hero, and a world without action would do nothing about Nazi death camps, even though we felt they were wrong.

Sometimes, a wise judgment means taking no action, or taking restrained action. While we might feel strongly that Russia should not invade Ukraine, an all-out assault on Russia would cause greater harm. Sometimes the action is an exercise of grace, in which the grace-giver pays the cost of overlooking wrongdoing.

Given that we should make judgments, what is a correct judgment? According to Jesus and Dr. King, it is one that looks deeper than appearances.

Appearances are not always wrong, but they often are. In those cases, our incorrect judgments are rooted in our own character flaws. Take this example:

I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” -- 1 Samuel 17

We've all heard about David from the Bible. Everyone recognizes the curly-haired sculpture by Michaelangelo. Did you know that David had older brothers? Eliab was Jesse's oldest son, but David was selected to become king of Israel. He was jealous of his little brother David, and it came out when David asked to confront Goliath.

Contrast that to the first sentence in Jude:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ -- Jude 1:1

Do you know which Jude this is? Many scholars believe this Jude was Jesus' brother - both born of Mary, as in Matthew 13:55.

This verse amazes me. I have a brother. Brothers are not afraid of calling you on your mistakes. Of judging you. But here, Jesus' brother refers to himself as a servant.

Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. -- Jesus, Matthew 7

I'll say it again: the correctness of our judgments is rooted in our own character.

To demonstrate my second point, I'll tell a personal story.

I once interviewed at a company that was very excited to extend me an offer of employment as Senior Software Engineer. I was to be the first hire of, and lead for, the company's first software team. I was excited too.

I made a gentle counteroffer: I requested a 6% salary increase, another week of vacation, and the title of Principal Software Engineer. My wife and recruiter approved the wording, and we sent off the letter.

The recruiter called me a few days later and said that the company had retracted their offer. My counteroffer had rubbed them the wrong way. Can you guess which of my requests offended them? It was the one that would have cost them nothing: the title. They perceived it as egotistical and a grab for power.

In trying to understand what happened, the idea of judgment kept coming to mind.

Clearly a character judgment was made, and if the judgment had been correct, withdrawing the offer was a reasonable mitigation. I can side with anyone who doesn't want to work with an egotist.

However, the judgment was incorrect. I am not an egotist.

Consider the following points:

  • I wrote the counteroffer sitting together with my wife. Egotists don't ask their wives for advice.
  • My wife was shocked by their decision.
  • My recruiter read and approved of the counteroffer, with his commission on the line.
  • I had been ready to pass on this role, because I was not confident I could do a good job, which I was vocal about to everyone.
  • The title was appropriate.
    • The title ladder is a bizarre game that I would prefer not to play. However, in software development, whether you qualify as senior or principal or whatever is strongly correlated with your base salary. To feed my family, I have to play.
    • Software development is a staggeringly profound, complex field which one must enjoy on its own merits because it is also extremely commoditized: I am just a unit of work to my employer. Paycheck in, software out. Egotists don't survive this; they transition into business management.
    • Principals have broad and deep experience and can draw on that to guide a technical team. That's me. I have been in the industry for over 12 years and have been writing code for 22 years.
    • The company, recruiter, and I had used the terms principal and lead repeatedly in conversations.

I didn't do anything objectively wrong. The error is on their side, but it still hurt. I wondered what I could have done differently, but the incorrect judgment says more about the company than me:

  • In their location, company leadership had conceded as a last resort that the only way to hire technical talent was to hire remotely.
  • The company has ~100 employees, of which 3 are remote.
  • The company's leadership is not remote.
  • I expressed reservations about this situation.
  • Despite their assurances, the company is not ready for a remote team.
  • A company culture that is not used to remote workers will be not able to exercise self-moderation when events occur that give rise to suspicions of character.
  • I used words which gave rise to such a suspicion.
  • I could not walk into the office and use my words, tone, and behavior to contradict it.
  • I observed that my hiring manager would easily lose his temper. I can only speculate, but maybe this happened when reading my counteroffer, and maybe he felt jealous of me.

Who got hurt in this judgment? Everyone. The company lost a strong contributor, the recruiter lost a check, and I lost a growth opportunity.

Overall, I feel grateful. If hired, I have would been facing down incorrect judgments with my family on the line.