To Each His Own: Wisdom or Folly?

Language is profoundly indicative of a societies values. Using statistical methods to analyze the English language psychologists made a model designed to analyze five broad domains of personality. Their results became the Big Five, a popular and lasting measure used for personality assessment. Many popular dating sites have taken to using these results to try and make better matches between their users. It can be seen through their study and others like it, that language is not totally arbitrary, but has deeper underlying symbolism. Our use of language actually says something about us, in return.

It is within the understanding of this concept that I will give a critical look at a popular way of thinking. Though this way of seeing the world is not exclusive to modern thinkers, it has been verbalized especially clearly as of late, and is growing in popularity. In the course of this essay I will make one point clear: The statement “to each his own” is a self-centered, greedy, and unloving statement.

First, we must fix in our minds where this mentality comes from. What are its roots? Most often I hear these words in replacement or in conjunction with the phrase, “I don’t judge.” In a big way this mentality rises in opposition to religious, moral, or societal boundaries drawn, and often used, to judge others. The sixties must have been a major birthing ground for this type of thinking. If you’ve ever seen people picketing with signs which read “God hates gays”, it makes it easy to understand why such a reaction has come about. I am grateful that so many are eager to release our brothers and sisters from the burdensome and person destroying nature of human judgment. Such is a beautiful and good pursuit.

Always, as we work towards the authentic good, we must ensure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far. I hope that those who champion the fight against judgment will continue, but the phrase “to each his own” carries a lot of unseen baggage. It doesn’t just simply state that I don’t judge what you do, it states that I could care less what you do. There is a vast divide between these two notions.

To not judge does not mean the absence of an opinion or hope for that person. It means one doesn’t bludgeon the other with their own perceived moral high-ground. In our human capacity, judgment tears down, whereas love builds up, but love requires attention to what is best for the other. The reason we shouldn’t judge isn’t because everything is devoid of moral value, neither good nor bad, but because we have neither the authority nor the wisdom to judge, and we never will. With a few exceptions — emphasis on a few —  it is impossible to peer into the heart of another and understand in totality the motives, pre-existing conditions, and the tides of influence that played out over the other’s actions in any given situation. Therefore, we will never understand culpability, or in laymen’s terms, their true responsibility for their actions.

With that said, this concept should never be transformed into the assumption that since one shouldn’t judge, so neither should they care what people do with their lives.

Consider the love of a mother:

If a mother’s son approaches her and states that he is heading to a party and might try heroine tonight, if the mother says merely, “to each his own,” she has failed immensely in her maternal responsibilities. Likewise, if she slaps him, tells him drug users are the spawn of evil etc., she has also failed to communicate truth. The fact remains, if we love someone, it matters deeply to us what they do, and do not do. Why? Because actions have deep and lasting consequences. The path to addiction is quick, and the path back out is long, painful, and probably is occurring already at the loss of relationships, peace, stability, and so much more. A mother’s heart sinks when she hears these words because she wishes the best for her child.

Like the parent in this example, it matters how and when we express our concern for the other.

 * * * * *

Here’s another situation which highlights what is really being said by our quaint phrase:

Someone said to me in regards to the situation in Ukraine, “I don’t care what the Russians do, so long as they aren’t in my backyard.” Is the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine so far off as to not matter? Is their suffering somehow muted from existence by the vast amount of space between us and them? No, never. I would argue that such an opinion is a shallow one, one devoid of love or compassion. It is no different when we usher forth the phrase, pleasing to the ear alone, ‘to each his own’. When the pain of the other is incomprehensible to me, my heart resembles stone. It is unresponsive, dead, and unconcerned. No good can come from it.

I understand the intent of this statement is to prevent the other from being crushed, to not bear a burden upon someone, but too often harm is being done by our nonchalance towards those we love.

I am not condoning those who believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, and neither am I suggesting that it is healthy to worry incessantly about others problems. These attitudes come with their own set of issues. So, it is of great benefit to those I converse with and myself to hold within my heart one essential question: when is it appropriate and for the good of the other to express my opinion on someone’s actions, and when must I keep silent, for the sake of love?

Unless I have a  close connection with the other, keeping my thoughts internal is often the most loving choice — but not always.

As is the case with a mother, she discerns when to speak with her child and when not to, when to give hard advice and when to stay quiet and allow her son to experience his own mistakes. What matters is that she cares enough about her son to worry about what decisions he’s making and how they will affect him. She won’t always get it right, but to not try at all is reckless and selfish. The reason ‘to each his own’ is so self-serving is that it represents something a person would say to someone whom they have zero emotional attachment to, and really couldn’t care less what happens to that person. It is greedy because it reveals a person who looks our for their own first, unconcerned of the needs of the other. This type of thinking leads to a form of isolationism that is contrary to concern and compassion, and therefore, to love.

As Martin Niemöller wrote of the progressive Nazi persecution:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

As persons we are all members of the human family. There are functional members and dysfunctional members. There are artists, arguers, philosophers, and scientists. There are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sons, and daughters. Our communal life is messy, and it doesn’t always feel good, but we are at the very heart of our shared existence, a family. Thus, what happens to any member of my family matters to me, their future matters to me, their peace matters to me. For this reason, I will never say, “to each his own.”


    • Wow! That is incredible support for my argument.

      I never knew that, it’s surprising, but not shocking.

      Thanks for bringing it to my attention Jennifer. 🙂



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