Category Archives: William Nevins

We Are Too Prone to Judge Ourselves by Our Ideals and Other People by Their Acts

Dwight Morrow? Harold Nicolson? Harold Nicholson? William Nevins? Tryon Edwards? Edward Wigglesworth? Stephen R. Covey?

nevins10Dear Quote Investigator: There is a pervasive problem in human psychology of a self-serving double-standard that can be stated as follows:

We judge ourselves by our ideals, but we judge others by their actions.

This remark has been attributed to the American diplomat Dwight Morrow and the British diplomat Harold Nicolson. Sometimes “Nicolson” is misspelled as “Nicholson”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The compelling notion of two disparate standards has engaged a wide variety of speakers and writers for more than 170 years. The language of expression has evolved during this long period. For example, one version of the saying in 1892 contrasted the internal “intentions” of the self with the externally visible “actions” of others. An instance in 1997 contrasted the “motives” of the self with the external “behavior” of others. Here is a summary of the shifting vocabulary:

1836 motives / actions
1885 intentions / doings
1892 intentions / actions
1909 motives / acts
1915 intentions / performance
1930 ideals / acts
1932 ideals / deeds
1932 intentions / acts
1932 ideals / conduct
1997 motives / behavior

The Reverend William Nevins was a minister and religious writer who preached to congregations in the northeast United States. In 1836 a posthumous compilation of his writings was released that included the following adage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In judging ourselves, we cannot be too severe; in judging others, we cannot be too candid. We should judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions.

The semantics of this early version of the saying differed from popular instances in modern times. The word “should” signaled the difference. The reader was supposed to embrace an attitude of self-criticism regarding his or her motivations, and the reader was supposed to be objective and forgiving when evaluating the actions of others.

The common instances in circulation today do not use the word “should”. Indeed, judging oneself based on “ideals” or “motivations” has been depicted as self-serving or self-centered.

Dwight Morrow did employ an instance of the saying during a speech reported in “The New York Times” in 1930. Harold Nicolson wrote a book about Morrow in 1935, and in that work he ascribed the saying to Morrow not himself. Detailed information is given further below.

Here is a chronological series of additional citations that trace the metamorphosis of the saying.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1836, Select Remains of the Rev. William Nevins with a Memoir, Quote Page 383, Published by John S. Taylor, New York. (Google Books Full View) link