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.

In 1849 the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a novel titled “Kavanagh” that included these words: 2

. . . we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.

Longfellow contrasted two judgments: one based on feelings and one based on actions. Hence, his comment was similar to the one under investigation. However, the perspective of the second judgment was reversed: others were judging us. This difference was substantive, and a separate entry on this website is dedicated to analyzing Longfellow’s quotation. See here.

In 1862 a religious periodical called “Friends’ Review” reprinted the statement from William Nevins as a filler item with an acknowledgement. Thus, his words continued to circulate in the religious domain. 3

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.—Dr. Nevins.

In 1877 a work called “Light for the Day or Heavenly Thoughts for Earthly Guidance” by Tryon Edwards was released with a page of advice and instruction for each day of the year. An altered version of the passage from Nevins was reprinted. The word “charitable” was added to the prefatory statement, and the word “should” was deleted from the adage: 4

In judging ourselves, we cannot be too severe; in judging others, we cannot be too candid and charitable. We judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions. —W. Nevins.

In 1885 a collection of brief thoughts and sayings was published under the title “Reflections” by Edward Wigglesworth. The author contrasted the “intentions” of the self and the “doings” of others. No ascription was given: 5

It is not strange that we overestimate ourselves as compared with others; for we judge others by their doings, but ourselves by our intentions.

In 1892 the London journal “The Leisure Hour” printed another instance in this family of sayings. The writer was identified only by his or her initials: 6

We are too much in the habit of judging ourselves by our intentions, and our neighbours by their actions.— J. M. S. M.

In 1909 an unnamed newspaper columnist sharing “Womanly Answers to Womanly Questions” in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania wrote the following: 7

Most of us judge ourselves by our motives and others by their acts. Did you ever think of that?

In 1915 the “Sunday Times-Advertiser” of Trenton, New Jersey published a “Weekly Sermonette by the Parson”. The same text appeared in other newspapers such as “The Rockford Morning Star” of Rockford, Illinois. The topic was the two differing standards we apply to ourselves and others: 8 9

We are apt to be thrice as severe with him as with ourselves. We judge him by his performance, which is clearly seen to be faulty, while we judge ourselves by our intentions, which, while undoubtedly excellent, often result in no performance at all.

In 1919 a periodical for the employees of the Gillette Safety Razor Company included another expression of the adage without attribution: 10

It is not strange that we over estimate ourselves as compared with others; for we judge others by their doings, but ourselves by our intentions.

In 1927 an editorial in an Ardmore, Oklahoma newspaper employed an instance of the adage: 11

We are prone to judge ourselves by our intentions and to judge the other fellow by his actions. This course is doubly dangerous in that it is doubly unjust. It is unjust because it wrongs two people at least.

In 1930 “The New York Times” printed excerpts from a speech by Dwight Morrow who was at that time the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Morrow has often been credited with the saying in modern reference works, and he did employ an instance in 1930: 12

We are too prone to judge ourselves by our ideals and other people by their acts. All of us are entitled to be judged by both.

In April 1932 a college fraternity publication called “The Rattle of Theta Chi” printed some remarks from a speech by an instructor who credited Dwight Morrow with the following: 13

“The cause of intolerance and misunderstanding is that we judge ourselves by our ideals, and others by their deeds.”

In June 1932 a newspaper in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania and a newspaper in Kokomo, Indiana both printed the following filler item without ascription: 14 15

We are too apt to judge ourselves by our intentions and other people by their acts.

In December 1932 the President of Drew University used an instance of the saying in a speech according to a New Jersey newspaper: 16

“We in the United States are likely to judge ourselves by our ideals and others by their conduct,” he stated, questioning tactics of our government in international affairs.

In 1935 the British diplomat and author Harold Nicolson published a biography of Dwight Morrow in which the adage was ascribed to Morrow: 17

His magnanimity, again, was something more than a subjectively generous attitude towards life; it was a positive and energetic tolerance. “Remember,” he would often repeat, “that we are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”

In 1936 the mass-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest” ascribed the saying to Harold Nicholson. No doubt “Nicholson” was a misspelled version of “Nicolson”. This flawed attribution has been circulating for decades: 18

We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.—Harold Nicholson, quoted in John o’London’s Weekly

In 1964 “The Fine Art of Political Wit” printed a set of quotations taken from the personal notebooks of Adlai Stevenson who was a U.S. governor and an ambassador. Stevenson credited Morrow with a variant phrasing of the saying: 19

Dwight Morrow: “We judge ourselves by our motives and others by their actions.”

In 1977 the influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” printed the saying. The editor Laurence J. Peter inadvertently propagated the misspelling “Nicholson”, and he appended a parenthetical remark: 20

We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts. —Harold Nicholson (A visionary is an impractical person whose thoughts are based on ideals in a world whose actions are based on deals.)

In 1997 the best-selling author Stephen R. Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families” included a version without attribution: 21

If we don’t take ourselves into account, all we are doing is projecting ourselves onto life and onto other people. We then judge ourselves by our motives—and others by their behavior.

In conclusion, this saying has a complex evolutionary history. William Nevins can be credited with the version in the 1836 citation. Later writers and speakers were making incremental changes to an established family of statements.

Dwight Morrow helped to popularize the adage, and the version he spoke in the 1930 citation was distinctive because it used the word “ideals”. Harold Nicolson also helped popularize the saying, but he credited Morrow. Of course, it is possible that future researchers may find relevant citations before Nevins.

Image Notes: Dwight W. Morrow from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the Library of Congress. Scales of Justice from jpornelasadv at Pixabay. William Nevins illustration from the 1836 book “Select Remains of the Rev. William Nevins with a Memoir”. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Karta Kosasih whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. This is the second of two entries.)

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
  2. 1849, Kavanagh: A Tale by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Quote Page 3, Published by Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (University of Virginia Library: Ebooks) link
  3. 1862 May 10 (Fifth Month), Friends’ Review: A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal, Edited by Samuel Rhoads, Volume 15, (Filler item), Quote Page 569, Column 2, Published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  4. 1877, Light for the Day or Heavenly Thoughts for Earthly Guidance: A Daily Monitor by Tryon Edwards, Day: August 10, Quote Page 230, Published by Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(HathiTrust Full View) link link
  5. 1885, Reflections by Edward Wigglesworth, Chapter 1, (Book asserts that the sayings in the section containing the quotation were published in May 1850 and in 1851), Quote Page 10, Press of George H. Ellis, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1892, The Leisure Hour, Second Thoughts, Start Page 489, Quote Page 491, Column 2, London, England. (No month is specified for the issue; probably April or May) (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  7. 1909 October 9, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Womanly Answers to Womanly Questions, Quote Page 9, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1915 August 1, Sunday Times-Advertiser (Trenton Evening Times), We Forget That We Live in Glass Houses: Weekly Sermonette by the Parson, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1915 December 30, Rockford Morning Star, Life in Glass House, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1919 July, The Gillette Blade, Sharp Edges, Quote Page 36, Published for the Employees of the Gillette Safety Razor Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  11. 1927 January 31, Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore Daily Ardmoreite), Editorial: Big and Little You, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Ardmore, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1930 May 17, New York Times, Close Mexican Ties Urged by Morrow: Ambassador Asks for Better Understanding With Our Nearest Neighbors, Quote Page 20, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  13. 1932 April, The Rattle of Theta Chi, Volume 20, Number 7, Has Faith in Youth, Start Page 20, Quote Page 20, (Report on speech by Seward Reese), Official Publication of Theta Chi Fraternity, Published in Athens, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1932 June 2, The Daily Notes, (Freestanding filler item without attribution), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1932 June 3, The Kokomo Tribune, (Freestanding filler item without attribution), Quote Page 7, Column 3, Kokomo, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1932 December 24, The Chatham Press, Drew President Is Speaker in Summit: Dr. Brown Tells Rotarians of Efforts Being Made for Good Will, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Chatham, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1975 (Copyright 1935), Dwight Morrow by Harold Nicolson, Quote Page 50 and 51, Series: Wall Street and the Security Markets, Published by Arno Press, New York. (Reprint of 1935 Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York edition)(Verified on paper)
  18. 1936 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 28, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 6, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  19. 1964, The Fine Art of Political Wit by Leon A. Harris, Page 243, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  20. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Ideals/Idealism, Quote Page 258, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  21. 1997, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families by Stephen R. Covey, Chapter: Habit 1: Be Proactive, Quote Page 40, Published by Golden Books, New York. (Verified with scans)