Would You Get a Beer With Voldemort?

Puget Sound philosophy professor Sara Protasi knows that it can be difficult for students to envision what a career in philosophy looks like.

So she invites accomplished philosophers to bring the field to life.

Most recently, Western Washington University philosophy professor Neal Tognazzini, who has authored dozens of scholarly articles and edited several books that explore issues of human agency such as free will, blame, and responsibility, visited campus.

Roughly 50 students filled a Wyatt Hall classroom one Friday evening to hear him give a lecture called “Silence and Salience: The Ethics of Being Judgmental,” in which he addressed ethical dilemmas relating to judgment. He focused on the crucial link between judgment, moral standing, and relationships.

For example, when a child throws a tantrum in a restaurant, disturbed diners might shoot the parents angry looks or grumble to their friends. Neal explained that whether or not the diners are right that the parents are to blame for the situation, without a relationship to the parents, they don’t have the moral standing to judge them.

Western Washington University philosophy professor Neal Tognazzini discusses the ethics of begin judgmental with students.
Western Washington University philosophy professor Neal Tognazzini discusses the ethics of being judgmental with students.

When it was time for questions, more than a dozen hands shot up. “Can you be judgmental about what a person says or does without judging the person?” a student asked.

“That sounds to me less like judgmentalism and more like criticism,” Neal said. He explained that some philosophers theorize that being judgmental means failing to accept the person being judged. Criticism, on the other hand, is separating the person from their perceived negative action. 

Another student asked Neal to address the difference between having a negative relationship with a person and being judgmental. “Let’s say you make judgements about a person you have a negative relationship with, would that still make you judgmental or would that just make you right?” she asked.

Neal chuckled before saying that the answer is tricky, as it depends on the details of the relationship. “I think it might just make you right,” he told the student. He used the Harry Potter villain Voldemort as an example. “I make all sorts of judgments about him. He’s evil, he’s hateful, I don’t want to have a beer with him. Am I being judgmental? I don’t think so, because his wrongdoing is so egregious that I think we all have the standing to make judgments about him.”

Sara was pleased to see her students so engaged with the topic. “He gave a talk that wasn’t simplified, yet it was easy for everybody to connect with the subject,” she said. Whether or not her students were imagining future careers as philosophers, at least they were beginning to think like them.


By Anneli Fogt
Published April 10, 2018
Photos by Anneli Fogt