29 October 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What does respecting someone mean?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a rather curious and interesting subject:
What does respecting someone mean?

As I try to argue in my short essay, the subject is very important, but
not necessarily from a philosophical point of view. I believe I have
presented a strong argument for my position but of course there is
always Sunday to discover how successful (or not) my arguments are.

See you Sunday and take care



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What does respecting someone mean?

As far as a philosophical debate on respect is concerned, the essay by
Robin S. Dillon "Respect" in the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(substantive revision Tue Jan 2, 2007:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/respect/) is the definitive work for
many years to come. And although Immanuel Kant paid considerable
attention to the topic, I personally do not think that this topic is a
central issue in philosophy any more. Respect, however, is a key factor
in politics and social interaction.

I say that the topic of respect is not central to philosophy because I
don't think it will spring any surprises; understanding respect from a
philosophical point of view is quite straightforward. Of course, we are
in a better position today to understand this concept than Kant could
possibly have been. Our knowledge of biological systems, game theory,
and survival strategies give us an edge over past philosophers.

A central issue is the debate on respect is whether respect is a moral
attribute. And as Dillon makes clear in his essay, central to the moral
debate is the status of personhood. So, do we respect someone out of
moral consideration? Ought we respect someone because it is the moral
thing to do? And finally, who ought we respect?

It is generally accepted that we ought to respect a person, except the
debate is of course who is a person? Is a person a rational being, a
moral being, a sentient being? The problem with deciding this question
is that philosophers, and everyone else, in the past excluded biology as
a possible criteria of what constitutes a person. And this is precisely
were we ought to look for the answer to this simple question. In another
essay (What is a person?) I argued that basically a person is someone
who is born from a human female mother. Inany case Dillon refers to Kant
as supporting the view that "all persons are owned respect just because
they are persons.." I think that this question is settled for a few
generations to come.

The more serious question is whether respect for others is a moral
issue. And the associate question of whether we respect others from
moral motivation. A problem with considering respect as a moral issue is
that we tend to use respect for everyday matters rather than big ticket
human acts. We respect people when we deal with them in our work, on the
bus, at philosophy meetings, at the theatre and so. But I would hardly
consider respecting someone during the seating process at the theatre a
moral issue. It seems that these activities are a matter of respect and
good manners.

But just because respect is not a moral issue it does not mean it is not
an important issue. And as I have already claimed, respect is important
especially in politics and social interactions.

However, respect makes sense if we consider it in the context of
biological systems and not rational or moral agency. Because we respect
others in normal every day social interactions it suggests that the
system of being respectful and expecting respect is purely a survival
strategy. If we are nice to people we stand a better chance that they'll
be nice to us; if we are aggressive to people for no real reason then we
can expect them to be aggressive back to us. If we're nice we increase
our chances of people being reasonable with us, and therefore live
another day. After all aggression always creates some physical risk.

But what's the reasoning behind this approach? And to answer this
question I think we have to look at a different question: under what
circumstance are we not respectful to others? Ironically, and if Dillon
interprets Kant properly, Kant was very close to finding the answer to
our negative question when he rejected the idea that someone deserves
respect because of their social status. In reality it is social status
that determines how solid and steadfast is the principle of respect.

And the test is how do we behave when we consider someone to be inferior
or subordinate to us; inferior because of our prejudices and subordinate
because of our perceived social status.

We are all familiar with the studies that show the relevance and the
part played by aggression and cooperation in biological living systems.
Human beings are no exception contrary to the beliefs of previous
generations and present day "romantic" view of life; at least for some

Expressing anger, frustration, impatience, use imperative language, and
pointing accusative fingers are all mild forms of aggression. On the
other hand, patiently listening to the lengthy exposition of someone we
disagree with, waiting in a queue whilst the person in front of us looks
for the bus ticket, or simply accepting that some made a mistake and try
to help them recover the situation are all examples of cooperation and,
of course, respect.

At the normal, every day goings on of our lives, we use these mild and
rudimentary instincts of aggression and cooperation to survive. We
simply cannot go about our lives hitting people at every slight

Moreover, it is not everyday that we are in a situation when we have to
decide whether to kill someone or not. In fact, many of us have never
been in such a situation or similar circumstance. However, it is
everyday that we have to accept the opinion of someone we disagree with,
wait for them to finish a task, tolerate unusual behaviour and so on and
so forth.

I therefore think that "respect" belongs more to our every day
relationships whilst moral systems are more valid for substantial
issues. And usually moral issues do not only affect us alone, but others
around us. When a murder takes place the whole community is affected,
interested and involved, but when we fail to respect a fellow
philosopher is not front page news.

I propose that respect at the personal level functions more as a means
of communicating our intentions and state of mind to others rather than
whatever benefit the other person receives from our respect. When we
respect a colleague to finish what they are saying even though we
disagree with them, what we are really communication is that we are not
going to behave aggressively towards them for annoying us. That they can
finish what they are saying is a consequence of us not being aggressive
and not of our respect.

Another version of the test of respect is not when we agree with the
other person, but rather when we don't agree with them.

And by implication, when someone shows no respect towards other people
we can safely assume that they are mentally or psychologically unstable
or just plain aggressive and antisocial. Unfortunately, we mustn't
forget that aggression and antisocial behaviour can sometimes pay
handsome dividends.

I started by saying that respect is very important in the sphere of
politics and social interaction. What do I mean by this? We are more
likely to respect others if we treat them as equals instead as
subordinates or inferiors. Thus a political system that confers equal
human rights and reasonable political duties is more likely to motivate
people to respect others in their day to day affairs with fellow human
beings. I would argue that this issue can be settled by looking at the
empirical evidence and see what is the norm.

In our society we feels seriously offended and aggrieved when someone
fail to show us respect. But how many news reports have we seen where
people in developing countries are treated with utter contempt; in
shops, at railway stations, in the streets, in traffic etc.

One final issue that is more practical than theoretical is the idea in
our society, of respect for other cultures and traditions. Dillon refers
to the issue this way, "One issue is how persons ought to be respected
in multicultural liberal democratic societies...."

Despite the use of the word respect in describing this problem I would
be more inclined to think that this was more a moral issue than a
question of respect; at the very least on my definition and use of the
concept of respect. The issue about other cultures is really quite
straightforward, the problem is what to do about any anomalies. To help
us decide such issues we can ask ourselves a simple question: does the
tradition (or cultural practice) involved convey a right on the
individual without taking away someone else's rights, or does it take
away a right from someone to convey a right to someone else?

I suggest that this multicultural issue is first a moral issue and then
a political issue. Therefore, it has no bearing on our debate on
respecting others.

One issue I have not discussed is the respect to someone's property.
Once again this is a very important concept in our society and political
system. However, from our perspective this topic is covered by legal and
ethical systems. Hence, personal property would be outside the limited
scope I have imposed myself for this essay. In reality, though, if we
respect the person we also respect their property.

To sum up, respect is very important for a functioning society, but to
understand this idea we have to consider the issue from the biological
perspective and not some metaphysical perspective. Moreover, respect is
an information laden activity that we need and use for our day to day
survival. A real issue for us is whether we can respect each other so
much that we create a some sort of false security to the point of
failing to recognise aggression. Can we be too nice?

My immediate reaction is that respect is not a threat to those of us who
know the rules of the game (i.e. the game of cooperation). The problem
for those who do know the rules of the game is to be able to distinguish
between those who know and those who don't know the rules of the game.
And worse still, those who use the game to take advantage of us.

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What does
respecting someone mean?

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