Everyday discourse and practices 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 more work remains to be done in clarifying these attitudes and their places among and implications for our concepts and our lives.
Respect has great importance in everyday life. As children we are taught (one hopes) to respect our parents, teachers, and elders, school rules and traffic laws, family and cultural traditions, other people’s feelings and rights, our country’s flag and leaders, the truth and people’s differing opinions. And we come to value respect for such things; when we’re older, we may shake our heads (or fists) at people who seem not to have learned to respect them.
We develop great respect for people we consider exemplary and lose respect for those we discover to be clay-footed, and so we may try to respect only those who are truly worthy of our respect. 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; in certain social milieus we may learn the price of disrespect if we violate the street law: “Diss me, and you die.” Calls to respect this or that 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.
And it is widely acknowledged that public debates about such demands should take place under terms of mutual respect. 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.
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. Much philosophical work has gone into explicating differences and links among the various kinds. 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, or AIDS as not respecting national borders, and 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, and even, as in the case of the AIDS virus, without imputing agency (Bird 2004).
In such cases the behaviour is regarded as constitutive of respecting. 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, I will focus chiefly 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, 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 recognising 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. Respect is a responsive relation, and ordinary discourse about respect identifies several key elements of the response, including attention, deference, judgment, acknowledgment, valuing, and behaviour.
First, as suggested by its derivation from the Latin respicere, which means “to look back at” or “to look again,” 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”). The idea of paying heed or giving proper attention to the object which is central to respect often means trying to see the object clearly, as it really is in its own right, and not seeing it solely through the filter of one’s own desires and fears or likes and dislikes.
Thus, respecting something contrasts with being oblivious or indifferent to it, ignoring or quickly dismissing it, neglecting or disregarding it, or carelessly or intentionally misidentifying 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. It is in virtue of this aspect of careful attention that respect is sometimes thought of as an epistemic virtue.
The ability of individuals to respect themselves is heavily dependent on their social and political circumstances. A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people..
About Susie Wilson
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