Respect Respect has great importance in everyday life. As children we are taught to respect our parents, teachers, and elders, family and cultural traditions, other people’s feelings, our country’s flag and leaders. And we do tend to value these things; when we grow older, we may shake our heads at people who seem not to have learned to respect them. We develop the tendency to respect only those who are popular. We may also come to believe that, at some level, all people are worthy of respect. We may learn that jobs and relationships become unbearable if we receive no respect in them.
Calls to respect certain things are increasingly part of public life: environmentalists exhort us to respect nature, foes of abortion and capital punishment insist on respect for human life, members of racial and ethnic minorities and those discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, or economic status demand respect both as social and moral equals and for their cultural differences. We may learn both that our lives together go better when we respect the things that deserve to be respected and that we should respect some things independently of considerations of how our lives would go.
We may also learn that how our lives go depends every bit as much on whether we respect ourselves. The value of self-respect may be something we can take for granted, or we may discover how very important it is when our self-respect is threatened, or we lose it and have to work to regain it, or we have to struggle to develop or maintain it in a hostile environment. Some people find that finally being able to respect themselves is what matters most about getting off welfare, kicking a disgusting habit, or defending something they value; others, sadly, discover that life is no longer worth living if self-respect is irretrievably lost.
It is part of everyday wisdom that respect and self-respect are deeply connected, that it is difficult if not impossible both to respect others if we don’t respect ourselves and to respect ourselves if others don’t respect us. It is increasingly part of political wisdom both that unjust social institutions can devastatingly damage self-respect and that robust and resilient self-respect can be a potent force in struggles against injustice. 1. The Concept of Respect In the process of understanding respect there a few questions that come to mind: (1) How can respect be understood?
(a) What category of thing is it? (b) What are the elements of respect? (c) To what other forms is respect similar to, and with what does it contrast? (d) What beliefs, attitudes, emotions, motives, and conduct does respect involve, and with what is it incompatible? (2) What are the appropriate objects of respect? (3) What are the bases or grounds for respect (4) What ways of acting and forbearing to act express or constitute or are regulated by respect? (5) What moral requirements, if any, are there to respect certain types of objects, and what is the scope and theoretical status of such requirements?
(6) Are there different levels or degrees of respect? Can an object come to deserve less or no respect? (7) Why is respect morally important? What, if anything, does it add to morality over and above the conduct, attitudes, and character traits required or encouraged by various moral principles or virtues? (8) What are the implications of respect for problematic moral and socio-political issues such as racism and sexism, pornography, privacy, punishment, responses to terrorism, paternalism in health care contexts, cultural diversity, affirmative action, abortion, and so on?
1. 1 Elements of respect It is widely acknowledged that there are different kinds of respect, which complicates the answering of these questions. For example, answers concerning one kind of respect can diverge significantly from those about another kind. One general distinction is between respect simply as behaviour and respect as an attitude or feeling which may or may not be expressed in or signified by behaviour. We might speak of drivers respecting the speed limit, hostile forces as respecting a cease fire agreement etc.
In such cases we can be referring simply to behaviour which avoids violation of or interference with some boundary, limit, or rule, without any reference to attitudes, feelings, intentions, or dispositions. In other cases, we take respect to be or to express or signify an attitude or feeling, as when we speak of having respect for another person or for nature or of certain behaviours as showing respect or disrespect. In what follows, focus would chiefly be on respect as attitude or feeling.
There are, again, several different attitudes or feelings to which the term “respect” refers. Before looking at differences, however, it is useful first to note some elements common among varieties. An attitude of respect is, most generally, a relation between a subject and an object in which the subject responds to the object from a certain perspective in some appropriate way. Respect necessarily has an object: respect is always directed toward, paid to, felt about, and shown for some object.
While a very wide variety of things can be appropriate objects of one kind of respect or another, the subject of respect (the respecter) is always a person, that is, a conscious rational being capable of recognizing and acknowledging things, of self-consciously and intentionally responding to them, of having and expressing values with regard to them, and of being accountable for disrespecting or failing to respect them. Though animals may love or fear us, only persons can respect and disrespect us or anything else.
First, as suggested by its derivation from the Latin respicere, respect is a particular mode of apprehending the object: the person who respects something pays attention to it and perceives it differently from someone who does not and responds to it in light of that perception. This perceptual element is common also to synonyms such as regard (from “to watch out for”) and consideration (“examine (the stars) carefully”). Thus, respecting something contrasts with being oblivious or indifferent to it.
An object can be perceived by a subject from a variety of perspectives; for example, one might rightly regard another human individual as a rights-bearer, a judge, a superlative singer, a trustworthy person, or a threat to one’s security. The respect one accords her in each case will be different, yet all will involve attention to her as she really is as a judge, threat, etc. As responsive, respect is object-generated rather than wholly subject-generated, something that is owed to, called for, deserved, elicited, or claimed by the object.
We respect something not because we want to but because we recognize that we have to respect it. It thus is motivational: it is the recognition of something “as directly determining our will without reference to what is wanted by our inclinations”. In this way respect differs from, for example, liking and fearing, which have their sources in the subject’s interests or desires. At the same time, respect is also an expression of agency: it is deliberate, a matter of directed rather than grabbed attention, of reflective consideration and judgment.
In particular, the subject judges that the object is due, deserves, or rightfully claims a certain response in virtue of some feature of or fact about the object that warrants that response. This feature or fact is the ground or basis in the object, that in virtue of which it calls for respect. The basis gives us a reason to respect the object; it may also indicate more precisely how to respect it. Respect is thus both subjective and objective. There are many different kinds of objects that can reasonably be respected and many different reasons why they warrant respect.
Some things are dangerous or powerful and respect of them can involve fear, awe, self-protection, or submission. Other things have authority over us and the respect they are due includes acknowledgment of their authority and perhaps obedience to their authoritative commands. Other forms of respect are modes of valuing, appreciating the object as having an objective worth or importance that is independent of, perhaps even at variance with, our antecedent desires or commitments. Thus, we can respect things we don’t like or agree with, such as our enemies or someone else’s opinion.
Valuing respect is akin to esteem, admiration, veneration, reverence, and honour, while regarding something as utterly worthless or insignificant or disdaining or having contempt for it is incompatible with respecting it. Respect also aims to value its object appropriately, so it contrasts with degradation and discounting. Finally, respect is generally regarded as having a behavioural component. In respecting an object, we often consider it be making legitimate claims on our conduct as well as our thoughts and feelings and are disposed to behave appropriately.
Appropriate behaviour includes refraining from certain treatment of the object or acting only in particular ways in connection with it, ways that are regarded as fitting, deserved by, or owed to the object. And there are very many ways to respect things: keeping our distance from them, helping them, praising or emulating them, protecting or being careful with them. To be a form or expression of respect, behaviour has to be motivated by one’s acknowledgment of the object as calling for that behaviour, and it has to be motivated directly by consideration that the object is what it is, without reference to one’s own interests and desires.
The attitudes of respect, then, have cognitive dimensions (beliefs, acknowledgments, judgments, deliberations, commitments), affective dimensions (emotions, feelings, ways of experiencing things), and conative dimensions (motivations, dispositions to act and forbear from acting); some forms also have valuation dimensions. The attitude is typically regarded as central to respect: actions and modes of treatment typically count as respect insofar as they either manifest an attitude of respect or are of a sort through which the attitude of respect is characteristically expressed. 1. 2 Kinds of Respect
There is a four-fold distinction among kinds of respect, according to the bases in the objects. Consider the following sets of examples: (a) respecting a colleague highly as a scholar and having a lot of respect for someone with “guts”; (b) a mountain climber’s respect for the elements and a tennis player’s respect for her opponent’s strong backhand; (c) respecting the terms of an agreement and respecting a person’s rights; and (d) showing respect for a judge by rising when she enters the courtroom and respecting a worn-out flag by burning it rather than tossing it in the trash.
The respect in (a), evaluative respect, is similar to other favourable attitudes such as esteem and admiration. Obstacle respect, in (b), is a matter of regarding the object as something that, if not taken proper account of in one’s decisions about how to act, could prevent one from achieving one’s ends. The objects of (c) directive respect are directives: things such as requests, rules, advice, laws, or rights claims that may be taken as guides to action.
The objects of (d) institutional respect are social institutions or practices, the positions or roles defined within an institution or practice, and persons or things that occupy the positions or represent the institution. These four forms of respect differ in several ways. Each identifies a quite different kind of feature of objects as the basis of respect. Besides four-fold classification, some argue there should be a fifth form, care respect, which is exemplified in an environmentalist’s deep respect for nature.
This analysis of respect draws explicitly from a feminist ethics of care and has been influential in feminist and non-feminist discussions of respecting persons as unique, particular individuals. Other kinds of respect: recognition respect and appraisal respect. Recognition respect is the disposition to give appropriate weight or consideration in one’s practical deliberations to some fact about the object and to regulate one’s conduct by constraints derived from that fact. Appraisal respect, by contrast, is an attitude of positive appraisal of a person or their merits, which are features of persons that manifest
excellences of character. 2. Respect for Persons People can be the objects or recipients of different forms of respect. We can (directive) respect a person’s legal rights, show (institutional) respect for the president by calling him “Mr. President,” have a healthy (obstacle) respect for an easily angered person, (care) respect someone by cherishing her in her concrete particularity, (evaluative) respect an individual for her commitment to a worthy project. Thus the idea of respect for persons is ambiguous. 3. Respect for Nature and Other Nonpersons
Although persons are the paradigm objects of moral recognition respect, it is a matter of some debate whether they are the only things that we ought morally to respect. One serious objection raised is that in claiming that only rational beings are ends in themselves deserving of respect, it licenses treating all things which aren’t persons as mere means to the ends of rational beings, and so it supports morally abhorrent attitudes of domination and exploitation toward all nonpersons and toward our natural environment.
Taking issue that only persons are respect worthy, many philosophers have argued that such nonpersons as humans who are not agents or not yet agents, human embryos, plants, species, all living things, the natural ecosystem of our planet, and even mountains, and rocks, have moral standing or worth and so are appropriate objects of or are owed moral recognition respect. Of course, it is possible to value such things instrumentally as they serve human interests, but the idea is that such things matter morally and have a claim to respect in their own right, independently of their usefulness to humans. 4. Self-Respect
While there is much controversy about respect for persons and other things, there is surprising agreement among moral and political philosophers about at least this much concerning respect for oneself: self-respect is something of great importance in everyday life. Indeed, it is regarded both as morally required and as essential to the ability to live a satisfying, meaningful, flourishing life—a life worth living—and just as vital to the quality of our lives together. Saying that a person has no self-respect or acts in a way no self-respecting person would act, or that a social institution undermines
the self-respect of some people, is generally a strong moral criticism. Nevertheless, as with respect itself, there is philosophical disagreement, both real and merely apparent, about the nature, scope, grounds, and requirements of self-respect. Self-respect is often defined as a sense of worth or as due respect for oneself; it is frequently (but not always correctly) identified with or compared to self-esteem, self-confidence, dignity, self-love, a sense of honour, self-reliance, pride, and it is contrasted (but not always correctly) with servility, shame, humility, self-abnegation, arrogance, self-importance.
In addition to the questions philosophers have addressed about respect in general, a number of other questions have been of particular concern to those interested in self-respect, such as: (1) What is self-respect, and how is it different from related notions such as self-esteem, self-confidence, pride, and so on? (2) Are there objective conditions—for example, moral standards or correct judgments—that a person must meet in order to have self-respect, or is self-respect a subjective phenomenon that gains support from any sort of self-valuing without regard to correctness or moral acceptability?
(3) Does respecting oneself conceptually or causally require or lead to respecting other persons (or anything else)? And how are respect for other persons and respect for oneself alike and unalike? (4) How is self-respect related to such things as moral rights, virtue, autonomy, integrity, and identity? (5) Is there a moral duty to respect ourselves as there is a duty to respect others? (6) What features of an individual’s psychology and experience, what aspects of the social context, and what modes of interactions with others support or undermine self-respect?
(7) Are social institutions and practices to be judged just or unjust (at least in part) by how they affect self-respect? Can considerations of self-respect help us to better understand the nature and wrongness of injustices such as oppression and to determine effective and morally appropriate ways to resist or end them? 5. Conclusion Everyday actions insist that respect and self-respect are personally, socially, politically, and morally important and philosophical discussions of the concepts bear this out.
Their roles in our lives as individuals, as people living in complex relations with other people and surrounded by a plethora of other beings and things on which our attitudes and actions have tremendous effects, cannot, as these discussions reveal, be taken lightly. The discussions thus far shed light on the nature and significance of the various forms of respect and self-respect and their positions in a nexus of profoundly important but philosophically challenging and contestable concepts. These discussions also reveal that much more work remains to be done in clarifying these attitudes and their places among and implications for our concepts and our lives.