Monday, September 10, 2012

With respect to respect

"Everyone deserves respect!"

"No, respect must be earned!"

Sigh. I get tired of hearing exchanges like this, especially when they are presented as prescriptive moral or ethical guidance. As usual, the reality and the ethics are more complicated than that.

To begin with, there is a problem with imprecision of language. The word respect has multiple definitions, and in the definition that is relevant to this discussion, there are two meanings with different connotations. My dictionary lists them as:

  1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements
  2. due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others

When someone states that "everyone deserves respect," it's likely that they are thinking of that second meaning — that is, everyone's feelings, wishes, rights, etc. should be given due regard. Who could possibly disagree with something so patently obvious? The problem, of course, is that different people will often have a different view of how much regard is actually "due" to a particular individual in a particular situation. That's what makes "Everyone deserves respect" such an irritatingly weak maxim.

Those in the "must be earned" camp are likely thinking of the first meaning. Again, it should be obvious that deep admiration for someone can only be earned; if you were to confess deep admiration for every stranger you happen upon, you would likely be advised to seek professional help.

So while it may sound like the two positions are polar opposites, you can see that with the different connotations of the word, the two statements are more compatible than they appear on the surface.

Now that we've dispensed with the false dichotomy, let's take a moment to consider the "due regard" question, because that's really the crux of the problem: when someone pleads for respect, it's usually because they have just witnessed a situation in which someone was treated with less regard than the pleader thought was appropriate. (In my experience, that someone is often the pleader her/himself.)

Consider for a moment how you react to people you encounter. We often aren't aware of it in real time, but each of us is constantly adjusting our opinions of others based on our interactions with them, or on information we receive about them. Many factors contribute to these judgments: what they say, what they do, what others say about them, their position in society relative to our own, and even how they look, smell, or sound, all play a part, and I'm sure there are others as well. The different factors may carry different weights, and not all of them are rationally, or even consciously, considered, but we all end up with a sort of summary assessment that falls somewhere on a scale, ranging from low to high, that is approximately thus:

  1. contempt/hatred
  2. suspicion/doubt
  3. neutral/unknown
  4. respect/admiration
  5. reverence/adoration

Our summary judgments will also reflect the relative importance of the various values we hold, as well as the gravity of any transgressions of those values.

This describes how we arrive at our feelings of respect or contempt for others. The ethical question, then, is about how we should act on those feelings. How far should we extend civility and courtesy to people for whom we have little to no respect? Should we remain true to our feelings and be rude to those we find contemptible, or is it better to be dishonest and treat them politely? The answer to this question, of course, varies by situation, but in general, the morality of it depends upon two main points: how we construct our personal respect/contempt scales, and how accurate our judgments are.

For instance, if I accord a level of respect to someone based entirely on their behavior, and my assessment of that behavior is based on reliable information, I think it would be reasonable to be less civil with a person I have judged to be worthy of contempt. On the other hand, if my assessment is based more on how someone looks, or their social status, or other factors that are irrelevant to a person's character, then I'm likely to be wrong. Likewise, if my information is unreliable, based largely on first impressions, rumors and gossip, it would be better for me to err on the side of civility. To do otherwise would be unfair.

A more accurate rendering of these two one-liners, then, would be:

  • Everyone deserves to be treated with a degree of respect in accordance with their demonstrated behavior as a decent human being, and unless we have reliable information about their character that indicates otherwise, we should at least be polite.
  • Respect is, in fact, earned, but we must be careful to judge the amount of respect we give to others, using criteria that are rational and relevant to their accomplishments and behavior, and basing it on comprehensive, accurate information.

OK, so these aren't exactly pithy. But when has anything in life been that simple?

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