Board notes: Judge the acts, not the actors

departing presidentBy Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

“Judge not, lest you be judged.”

—Matthew 7:1

That is how Jesus put it. In more modern terms, someone accused of questionable behavior might reply, “Don’t be so judgmental!” None of that bothers us here at the Carnegie Hero Fund. We’re all about judgment, and we aim to excel at it.

Before I go further, let me square our account with Jesus. His full thought (Matthew 7:1-2) was actually a warning against hypocrisy in judgment, not against judgment itself. “Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Unfortunately, this nuanced thought is distorted and used as a justification for a kind of everyday moral relativism. “Don’t judge me! Whatever the ‘rules’ say, my behavior is as valid as anyone else’s.” Needless to say, this reasoning is almost always deployed to defend some pretty dodgy behavior, or worse.

At the Hero Fund we are constantly searching for acts that, at first glance, seem to meet the criteria or standards for the Carnegie Medal. This is our raw material, so to speak. The staff digs in to each lead and develops the facts of each case. They then make a judgment whether, with the full story in front of them, the rescue qualifies for the award. If the staff judgment is “yes,” the case report goes to the full, 21-member Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for final judgment. Yes or no. There is no moral relativism involved. All cases are held to the same standard: Is the candidate a civilian who voluntarily risked his or her own life, knowingly, to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person? Yes or no.

Of course, almost all businesses and institutions make judgments constantly. Who shall we hire? Who shall we promote? The Hero Fund’s judgments, however, have three characteristics worthy of note that make them a bit different.

First, the Hero Fund judges acts and not the actors. One receives the Carnegie Medal for what one did, not for being a very good person in a general way. Some recipients of the medal may have led troubled lives, but each nevertheless performed a rescue to the exact criteria for the medal. On the other hand, some people who have lived exemplary lives performed laudable acts that did not, however, meet the exact criteria for the medal. We make judgments based on acts and the criteria.

Second, the Hero Fund is making fine distinctions and judgments about human behavior at one extreme end of the spectrum of all possible human behaviors. Many cases that we consider but do not award involve acts that are both commendable and far from ordinary. Criminal court judges do this, too, but at the other end of the spectrum. It is the happy task of the Hero Fund to deal with the best in human behaviors.

Finally, we never forget that the value of the Carnegie Medals we award is defined by the honesty of our judgment not to award in cases that don’t exactly meet the criteria. If someone receives the Carnegie Medal, you can be sure that they did something truly extraordinary. But I think you knew that already!

Return to imPULSE index.
See PDF of this issue.