OUR WAYS OF DEALING WITH THE ONE WE JUDGE

Washing one’s hands of the guilt of others is a way of sharing guilt so far as it encourages in others a vicious way of of action. Non-resistance to evil, which takes the form of paying no attention to it, is a way of promoting it. The desire of an individual to keep his own conscience stainless, by standing aloof from badness, may be a sure means of causing evil and thus of creating personal responsibility for it. Yet there are circumstances in which passive resistance may be the most effective form of nullification of wrong action, or in which heaping coals of fire on the evil-doer may be the most effective way of transforming conduct. To sentimentalize over a criminal, to ‘forgive’ because of a glow of feeling is to incur liability for criminals.
Courses of action which put the blame exclusively on a person as if his evil will were the sole cause of wrong-doing and those which condone offense on account of the share of social conditions in producing bad disposition, are equally ways of making an unreal separation of man from his surroundings, mind from the world.
Causes for an act always exist, but causes are not excuses. Questions of causation are physical, not moral except when they concern future consequences. It is as causes of future actions that excuses and accusations alike must be considered.
At present we give way to resentful passion, and then rationalize our surrender by calling it a vindication of justice. Our entire tradition regarding punitive justice tends to prevent recognition of social partnership in producing crime.
By killing an evil doer or shutting him up behind stone walls, we are enabled to forget both him and our part in creating him. Society excuses itself, by laying the blame on the criminal; he retorts by putting the blame on bad early surroundings, the temptation of others, lack of opportunities, and the persecutions of officers of the law. Both are right, except in the wholesale character of their recriminations. But the effect on both sides is to throw the whole matter back into antecedent causation, a method which refuses to bring the matter to truly moral judgment. For morals has to do with acts still within our control, acts still to be performed. No amount of guilt on the part of the evil-doer absolves us from responsibility for the consequences upon him and others of our way of treating him, or from our continuing responsibility for the conditions under which persons develop perverse habits. To content ourselves with pronouncing judgments of merit and demerit without reference to the fact that our judgments are themselves facts which have consequences and that their value depends upon their consequences, is complacently to dodge the moral issue, perhaps even to indulge ourselves in pleasurable passion just as the person we condemn once indulged himself.
To change the working character or will of another we have to alter objective conditions which enter his habits. Our own scheme of judgments, of assigning blame and praises, of awarding punishment and honor, are part of these conditions.
In practical life, there are many recognitions of the part played by social factors in generating personal traits. One of them is our habit of making social classifications. We attribute distinctive characteristics to rich and poor, slum dweller and captain of industry, rustic and suburbanite, officials, politicians, professors, to members of races, sets and parties. When we generalize this perception and act upon it intelligently, we are committed by it to recognize that we change character from worse to better only by changing conditions, among which, one more, are our own ways of dealing with the one we judge.
We cannot change habit directly; that notion is magic. We may desire abolition of war, industrial justice, greater equality of opportunity for all. But no amount of preaching good will or the golden rule or cultivation of sentiments of love and equity will accomplish the results. There must be change in objective arrangements and institutions. We must work on the environment not merely on the heart of men. To think otherwise is to suppose that flowers can be raised in a desert or motor cars run in a jungle. Both things can happen and without a miracle. But only by first changing the jungle and desert.
(Adapted from John Dewey, ‘Habits and Will, Human Nature and Conduct, An Introduction to Social Psychology’)

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