Competent Judges


As I was reading a newspaper a few months ago, I came across the advice section. I noticed a column with a question from a teenage boy. He said that he had fallen in love rather hard with his girlfriend, but he wanted to know if something was wrong, since his father told him that boys are not struck with love and develop emotional attachments as easily as girls. I was somewhat taken aback by the question, since he seemed to be asking, “I have these feelings, but am I correct in having these feelings?” I don’t remember the columnist’s response, but I probably would’ve said, “Well, who is a better judge of your emotions, you or your father?” I doubt the boy would ever say, “I’m not happy playing baseball, but my father says I should be. Maybe I’m wrong.” I doubt he’d ever say, “I don’t think spinach is tasty, but my father says it is. Maybe I’m wrong.” I don’t know about him or other people, but I consider myself to be the most qualified judge of my emotions, my enjoyments, and my tastes.


I also consider myself the best judge of my values. Most people, believing in some form of moral objectivism, disagree. They usually disagree because they define value as some absolute that is unrelated to what people judge to be desirable. I remember another position from my old college ethics course, where John Stuart Mill does define value by how something moves people, but instead of recognizing that individuals are able to choose the greater of two pleasures, he says that such a decision is to be made by majority consensus among a panel of competent judges that are well-acquainted with both. It was disappointing to read that, since he was doing fairly well in the preceding paragraphs. (I agree with him that someone with self-awareness is able to experience a higher quality of pleasure than an animal, and that a thoughtful genius has something better than a happy idiot.)


Of course, I was not pleased with his idea that the quality of values is to be decided by groups, not individuals. It sounds absurd to me. Imagine that you are sitting down to read a book and a friend says, “You should watch a movie instead.” You say, “No, thanks. I would rather read right now” but your friend says, “A panel of experts on literature and film have gotten together and sixty percent of them say that movie watching is more pleasurable than book reading!” I would imagine you would tell your friend that you don’t give a damn what anyone says, because you are a better judge of what pleases you. To his credit, Mill says that someone must be familiar with both choices to make a smart decision, but nonetheless, majority judgment does not overrule individual judgment.