The ubiquity and significance of respect and self-respect in everydaylife largely explains why philosophers, particularly in moral andpolitical philosophy, have been interested in these two concepts. Theyturn up in a multiplicity of philosophical contexts, includingdiscussions of justice and equality, injustice and oppression,autonomy and agency, moral and political rights and duties, moralmotivation and moral development, cultural diversity and toleration,punishment and political violence. The concepts are also invoked inbioethics, environmental ethics, business ethics, workplace ethics,and a host of other applied ethics contexts. Although a wide varietyof things are said to deserve respect, contemporary philosophicalinterest in respect has overwhelmingly been focused on respect forpersons, the idea that all persons should be treated with respectsimply because they are persons. Respect for persons is a centralconcept in many ethical theories; some theories treat it as the veryessence of morality and the foundation of all other moral duties andobligations. This focus owes much to the 18th centuryGerman philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who argued that all and onlypersons (i.e., rational autonomous agents) and the moral law theyautonomously legislate are appropriate objects of the morally mostsignificant attitude of respect. Although honor, esteem, andprudential regard played important roles in moral and politicaltheories before him, Kant was the first major Western philosopher to putrespect for persons, including oneself as a person, at the very centerof moral theory, and his insistence that persons are ends inthemselves with an absolute dignity who must always be respected hasbecome a core ideal of modern humanism and political liberalism. Inrecent years many people have argued that moral respect ought also tobe extended to things other than persons, such as nonhuman livingthings and the natural environment.
Despite the widespread acknowledgment of the importance of respectand self-respect in moral and political life and theory, there is nosettled agreement in either everyday thinking or philosophicaldiscussion about such issues as how to understand the concepts, whatthe appropriate objects of respect are, what is involved in respectingvarious objects, what the conditions are for self-respect, and whatthe scope is of any moral requirements regarding respect andself-respect. This entry will survey these and related issues.
You should address each of these ideals within your own life in order to carry a well-rounded respect for yourself. If you haven’t done so already, start working on each and every one of them. Keep a journal to track your progress. And, as always, if you need help with any of them, turn to a valued listener for help.
Just like with yourself, when you demonstrate respect for others, you give value to their being and ideals. In addition, you’ll make someone feel good by granting them respect, provided, of course, that it’s something that they deserve.
One of the best ways to show respect for someone is to truly listen to another’s point of view. Obviously, we’ll not always agree with one another on every topic (and you should never adopt a point of view with which you do not agree), but we should allow each other to have and express our own views – regardless of whether we agree with them or not.
A variety of different strategies have been employed in arguing forsuch respect claims. For example, the concept of moral respect issometimes stripped down to its bare essentials, omitting much of thecontent of the concept as it appears in respect for personscontexts. The respect that is owed to all things, it can be argued, isa very basic form of attentive contemplation of the object combinedwith a prima facie assumption that the object might haveintrinsic value. This does not involve the valuing commitments thatrespect for persons does, since respectful consideration might revealthat the object does not have any positive value. What we oweeverything is an opportunity to reveal any value it might have, ratherthan assuming that only persons have the kind of value that morallywarrants attention (Birch 1993).
Although persons are the paradigm objects of moral recognitionrespect, it is a matter of some debate whether they are the onlythings that we ought morally to respect. One serious objection raisedagainst Kant's ethical theory is that in claiming that only rationalbeings are ends in themselves deserving of respect, it licensestreating all things which aren't persons as mere means to the ends ofrational beings, and so it supports morally abhorrent attitudes ofdomination and exploitation toward all nonpersons and toward ournatural environment. Taking issue with the Kantian position that onlypersons are respectworthy, many philosophers have argued that suchnonpersons as humans who are not agents or not yet agents, humanembryos, nonhuman animals, sentient creatures, plants, species, allliving things, biotic communities, the natural ecosystem of ourplanet, and even mountains, rocks, and the AIDS virus have moralstanding or worth and so are appropriate objects of or are owed moralrecognition respect. Of course, it is possible to value such thingsinstrumentally insofar as they serve human interests, but the idea isthat such things matter morally and have a claim to respect in theirown right, independently of their usefulness to humans.
Another strategy is to argue that the true grounds for moral worthand respect are other than or wider than rationality. One version ofthis strategy (employed by P. Taylor 1986) is to argue that all livingthings, persons and nonpersons, have equal inherent worth and soequally deserve the same kind of moral respect, because the ground ofthe worth of living things that are nonpersons is continuous with theground of the worth for persons. For example, we regard persons asrespect-worthy inasmuch as they are agents, centers of autonomouschoice and valuation, and we can similarly regard all living things asrespect-worthy in virtue of being quasi-agents, centers of organizedactivity that pursue their own good in their own unique way. Itfollows from this view that humans must not be regarded as having amoral status superior to other living beings and so human interestsmay not be regarded as always trumping claims of nonhumans. Respectfor all living things would require settling conflicts between personsand nonpersons in ways that are fair to both.
The idea that all persons are owed respect has been applied in awide variety of contexts. For instance, some philosophers employ it tojustify various positions in normative ethics, such as the claim thatpersons have moral rights (Benn 1971, Feinberg 1970, Downie and Telfer1969) or duties (Fried 1978, Rawls 1971), or to argue for principlesof equality (Williams 1962), justice (Narveson 2002a and 2002b,Nussbaum 1999), and education (Andrews 1976). Others appeal to respectfor persons in addressing a wide variety of practical issues such asabortion, racism and sexism, rape, punishment, physician-assistedsuicide, pornography, affirmative action, forgiveness, terrorism,sexual harassment, cooperation with injustice, treatment of gays andlesbians, sexual ethics, and many others. In political philosophy,respect persons has been been used to examine issues of globalinequality (e.g., Moellendorf 2010). One very important applicationcontext is biomedical ethics, where the principle of respect forautonomy is one of four basic principles that have become “thebackbone of contemporary Western health care ethics” (Branniganand Boss 2001, 39; see also Beauchamp and Childress 1979/2001 and, forexample, Munson 2000, Beauchamp and Walters 1999). The idea of respectfor patient autonomy has transformed health care practice, which hadtraditionally worked on physician-based paternalism, and the principleenters into issues such as informed consent, truthtelling,confidentiality, respecting refusals of life-saving treatment, the useof patients as subjects in medical experimentation, and so on.
The idea of respect for particularity and relationality has alsobecome an important topic recently in political philosophy. One issueis how persons ought to be respected in multicultural liberaldemocratic societies (for example, Balint 2006, Tomasi 1995, C. Taylor 1992,Kymlicka 1989). Respect for persons is one of the basic tenets ofliberal democratic societies, which are founded on the ideal of theequal dignity of all citizens and which realize this ideal in theequalization of rights and entitlements among all citizens and so therejection of discrimination and differential treatment. Some writersargue that respecting persons requires respecting the traditions andcultures that permeate and shape their individual identities (Addis1997). But as the citizenry of such societies becomes increasinglymore diverse and as many groups come to regard their identities orvery existence as threatened by a homogenizing equality, liberalsocieties face the question of whether they should or could respond todemands to respect the unique identity of individuals or groups bydifferential treatment, such as extending political rights oropportunities to some cultural groups (for example, Native Americans,French Canadians, African-Americans) and not others.