When our actions and decisions result in negative consequences that were unforeseen, we usually blame ourselves. Forgetting what our original intentions were, we focus strictly on the outcome. And often, how we judge others is how we judge ourselves. Indeed, rather than looking for positive intentions behind another person's actions, we will often impute bad intent to actions that were clearly innocent.
Philosophers from Epictetus and Socrates to David Hume and Nietzsche have examined the connection between a person's motives and his or her actions along with the result of these actions. While Epictetus and Nietzsche might appear to be at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum, they both encourage us to remove ourselves from the place of judgment when it comes to others and their conduct. In the Enchiridion, Epictetus admonishes, " . . . unless you perfectly understand the principles from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill?"
It is because we, as humans, are inclined to make conjectures based on appearances - or, at the most, a small amount of knowledge -- that we imagine we know others and what their motives are. Often, we assign to ourselves such perceptive abilities that we actually believe we can ascertain a person's character simply from looking at his face. And rather than seeing an unwise decision on someone's part as a mistake, we attribute the nature of the decision to the nature of the person -- thereby forming an opinion of that person's character on an incident -- or as the case sometimes is, a series of incidents -- rather than the core of that individual's nature.
As Nietzsche says in Human, All Too Human, "At first we call particular acts good or evil without any consideration of their motives, but simply on the basis of their beneficial and harmful consequences. Soon, however, we forget the origins of these terms and imagine the quality 'good' and 'evil' is inherent in the actions themselves, without consideration of their consequences."
Perhaps, it is our feeble attempt to 'play God' that leads us to attribute to ourselves the ability to discern such things as good and evil in a person's nature. Maybe because of how harshly we sometimes inwardly judge ourselves, we feel compelled to subject others to the same harsh judgment. On the other hand, there are those who apply a much more benevolent approach when judging themselves than in judging others. Yet, it all comes down to the same thing -- we want to think that we can read into the souls of our fellow men. The irony is that most of us fail to comprehend our own souls. Thus, how can we begin to fathom the soul of another human being?
If we could learn to recognize in ourselves the incapability of judging others, we might learn to be more tolerant of our own mistakes. Perhaps, we would focus less on blaming ourselves for the outcome of our actions and more on what the motives were beneath our actions. We might begin to see how right Nietzsche was when he warned against the fallacy of judging a man's nature according to the consequences his actions have. For just as the consequences of a man's actions are separate from the actions themselves, so a man's intentions are often separate from his actions.
And even if the actions we take sometimes result in the condemnation of those around us, we must remember that only when we learn how to judge ourselves by our own intentions will we be able to judge others the same way. For as is often the case, the behavior we exhibit towards others is a reflection of that which we demonstrate towards ourselves.