Notes on Respect-for-Others

by David_Gross9 min read12th Nov 20201 comment

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VirtuesConformity BiasAltruismPractical
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This post examines the virtue of respect-for-others. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is this virtue?

The word “respect” is ambiguous; it covers several different things. For example: You can respect a person’s position or rank by granting them authority. You can respect a person’s reputation or skills or character or taste. You can respect the threat a potentially dangerous person or thing poses to you. You can show respect for someone as a form of showing submission to them.

The virtue of respect-for-others I mean to cover in this post is different. It has to do with understanding that other people have lives just as subjectively rich as your own, that they have their own perspectives, goals, desires, and priorities, and so forth, and that your own do not have objective priority over theirs.

This virtue is well summed up by the version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative that goes like this: “So act that you treat humanity… always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals).

There are a couple of ways people tend to describe how this variety of respect works. These are not mutually-exclusive, but people may emphasize one more than the other:

  1. “I give every person some minimum baseline of respect that everyone deserves just by virtue of being a member of the human family, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.”
  2. “I give everyone I meet a certain default amount of respect, and then adjust that amount up or down as I get to know them better.”

It seems odd to me that there isn’t a word in English that precisely encapsulates this virtue. Some related virtues that touch on respect-for-others include:

  • concern, consideration, thoughtfulness, compassion
  • sympathy, empathy
  • civility, politeness, tact
  • acknowledgement, recognition, appreciation, gratitude
  • liberality, tolerance
  • humility (in the sense of not overvaluing oneself compared with others)

It also harmonizes with “humanism” and “philanthropy” in the sense of valuing human beings highly, relative to institutions, ambitions, or other-worldly values.

In human development

Children develop respect for others slowly, in stages, over many years. Early on, children have difficulty imagining that other people have their own perspectives and viewpoints or even their own versions of knowledge. Young children may see other people as extensions of themselves, and try to learn to manipulate them in the same spirit as they try to learn how to coordinate the movements of their bodies.

People with autism and Asperger’s tend to have more difficulty forming a “theory of other minds,” as do some people with schizophrenia.

But beyond just having the awareness of other independent minds, respect-for-others requires that those other minds be ungrudgingly allowed some independence from one’s own projects and preferences. People with narcissistic personality disorder exaggerate their own importance or centrality relative to other people and expect other people to go along with that. People with antisocial personality disorder act as though they do not believe other people have any inherent value or that their preferences and pursuits are worthy of respect.

At the other extreme, people subject to abuse may become so fixated on understanding the motives of their abuser (in order to try to fend off the abuse) that they end up suppressing their own egos and becoming extensions of the ego of their abuser. The Stockholm Syndrome is one astonishing way this can play out.

Too much respect for others’ points of view can lead to conformity pathologies such as those pointed out in the Asch conformity experiment.

Some people seem never to confidently develop their own identities and viewpoints, and feel the need to assume off-the-shelf identities instead, or to merge their own identities with a charismatic figure or leader. They express borrowed opinions, assume fashionable tastes, speak in clichés, and so forth, seemingly under the delusion that they are not entitled to an identity of their own or that it would be too much trouble to maintain one. A particularly grotesque version of this is the sort of internalized führerprinzip displayed for example by Adolf Eichmann, who adopted Hitler’s values in place of his own and later tried to claim that he could for that reason assign the guilt for his actions in implementing the Holocaust to Hitler while remaining innocent himself.

What good is it? And the egoist objection

Respect for others is a sort of things-I-learned-in-kindergarten virtue. It’s implied in the Golden Rule that has emerged in some form or other in folk ethics just about everywhere.

It plays an important role in other social virtues (e.g. friendship, love, trust, justice), and in some moral systems is the foundation on which the other virtues rest. For example, a person may be honest not so much because they love the truth as because they respect the person they are communicating with. Respect for others also is often found at the core of theories of political justice, in forms like “human rights,” “inalienable rights,” “equality before the law,” and other such formulations.

But in spite of all of these credentials, is there a case for stopping short of respect-for-others? What if you were to acknowledge that other people have their own subjective experiences, projects, and priorities that are just as important to them as yours are to you, but not see this as any reason not to prioritize your own as being the only really important ones? At the very least, when the chips are down isn’t it true that “every man for himself” rules the day? A straightforward egoism seems at first like it might be a reasonably strategic choice.

But even Ayn Rand, who disparaged altruism at every opportunity, included respect for others in her virtues. One’s own self-interested pursuits ought to be undertaken, she wrote, with the understanding that other people are also entitled to their own such pursuits, and you should not expect them to be mere ingredients in your own plans: “[E]very living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others — and, therefore… man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” (The Objectivist Ethics).

Simone de Beauvoir pointed out how lonely and pointless the utterly egoistic viewpoint is. “If I were really everything, there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty. There would be nothing to possess, and I myself would be nothing” (The Ethics of Ambiguity). She felt that “man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men,” and this only if we see other people as complete people like ourselves, not mere props or extras. What good is the admiration, love, and so forth, of people whose viewpoints we do not respect or cannot disentangle from our own? The egoist attitude that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” often seems to result in winning comparatively small and silly things in the grand scheme of things.

On the other hand, if you oppose egoism on the grounds that it actually won’t work out well for you, that kind of sounds like you aren’t really opposing egoism but some malformed and failed attempt at it. Maybe what you mean to say is that egoism and respect for others are compatible after all.

Who deserves respect?

If you buy that you ought to have respect for others, whom do you include in the set of such others? foreigners? heathen? children? babies? fetuses? animals? the disabled? bad people? sacred objects? the dead? nature? φ-zombies? nations? Do different classes of beings get different varieties of respect, or is it more all-or-nothing? What is it about others that makes them respect-worthy in this way, and do some people not have whatever that is, or do some non-people have it? Can you gain or lose it, or is it yours to keep once you have it?

Children are one tricky case. On the one hand, parents probably ought to respect their children as independent beings with their own preferences and characters, rather than trying inflexibly to fit them into preconceived molds. On the other hand, you wouldn’t trust an immature child with a barely-formed view of the world to make major decisions about his or her destiny. In such a case, respect for the child seems to include an evolving and tentative sort of respect for a slowly-emerging autonomy. But we may want to pay more attention to the small ways in which we may show (and teach) disrespect for children, such as lying to them (e.g. about Santa or about where babies come from) or tickling them without their consent.

But as important and interesting as such questions are, in this post I want to side-step them. Assuming you believe that you ought to have respect for others, and assuming you have some adequate way of determining who those others are, what next?

What does “respect” entail?

Assuming you do respect someone in this manner, what does that amount to in a practical way? If you want to treat someone “as an end” rather than a means merely, how do you go about it?

Part of respecting someone is to respect them as a person: that is, being fully cognizant of their humanity rather than considering them as, for instance, a physical obstacle on the sidewalk between you and your destination. A friend of mine told me she is in the habit of giving people a little nod “in acknowledgement of their individual who-ness” as she passes them. “Often there is no response, but sometimes folks break out in a big grin and I feel like they appreciated having their selves respected, just for being.”

Another part of respecting someone is to respect them as an individual as opposed to a unit in an aggregate or a sample of a type. If you are thinking of someone primarily as a voter, a Native American, a human resource, or something of that nature, this can mean that you’ve already shoehorned them into some schema or project of your own as an interchangeable part, without allowing their own choices and interests to enter into it.

Another part of respecting someone is to respect them on their terms. This requires insightful attention. It might also present obstacles (for instance, if someone seems to demand respect in an unreasonable or unethical or overtaxing way).

Some ways people show respect: being courteous, giving people the benefit of the doubt (and being on guard against the fundamental attribution error), being tolerant of differences, being willing to share and take turns, exercising communication skills such as tact, being sensitive to people with vulnerabilities that you do not have direct experience with, respecting other people’s autonomy rather than trying to make choices for them or manipulate them or act on them without their consent, being aware of cultural differences (for example, in body language), not mocking or humiliating others or gossiping about them in their absence, and being helpful and cooperative unless there’s a good reason not to be.

Examples like those might be part of the respect package that a person with a strong sense of respect for others offers by default. For an example of more of a minimum baseline respect standard, the non-aggression principle is one concise formulation that is popular among political libertarians.

Obstacles to respect for others

One way I often see respect-for-others neglected is in commercial contexts. Customers will sometimes treat wait staff, cashiers, and such with no more regard than if they were vending machines. Or, employees will sometimes treat customers as merely potential sales.

Something about being paid-to-do-it seems to make some people willing to go way beyond the bounds of what they would otherwise find decent. For some forms of employment it almost seems de rigueur to treat people disrespectfully. In the wake of the Milgram experiment, Milgram offered this interpretation of the results: “a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions.” Something similar seems to happen to some employees, where they consider themselves to be not responsible for things that they do if they do them as part of their jobs.

It takes mental energy to model another person as a complex subjectivity with their own access to knowledge, their own models of the world, their own motivations, and so forth. We have to use guesswork and approximations and heuristics at the best of times. When our minds are also occupied with other tasks, these approximations can reduce to caricatures that may eventually be oversimplified so much that they might as well be mannequins. In order to respect people we have to permit them enough room in our mental models, and enough of our attention, so that they can appear to us as fully-dimensional people. A frequently encountered failure of respect-for-others is absent-minded inconsiderateness, in which a person whose mind is fully occupied with other things gives insufficient regard to the people around them.

One way to bolster respect for others, then, might be to periodically tune down whatever else is going on in your mind, look at the people around you, and attend to trying to understand them more vividly. The cashier who is checking out your groceries: does she appear relaxed or tense? do you think she is at the end of her shift or the beginning? is she new on the job or well-practiced? has she been standing for a long time or did she have a break recently? is she daydreaming or focused on her job? are there ways I put my groceries on the conveyor belt that made it easier or harder for her to process them? How does she answer when I ask “how has your day been going today?”

Another way lack-of-respect seems to bloom these days is in on-line interactions. Anonymity, pseudonymity, or even just being physically remote but virtually present, seems to bring out the worst in some people. If you’ve got a yen to be flamboyantly disrespectful to a stranger, by god you’re living in a golden age. You don’t even have to get up off the couch. You can be disrespectful to people by the thousands almost at the push of a button.

It is difficult even for otherwise well-behaved people to resist the temptation to, for example, share a video of some stranger embarrassing themselves in a particularly entertaining way. Is it respectful to help make someone notorious for some foible, weakness, indiscretion, or misjudgement… probably not. But if I were to judge myself by that standard, I’d fail the test.

If you are frequently shown disrespect — if people do not often reciprocate the respect you show for them — you will probably respond by giving people less respect by default and making them earn the rest. In this way, the typical standard of respect within a culture may decay. Sometimes subcultures develop that try to nurture and defend standards of mutual respect superior to those in society at large (fraternal orders, religious sects, the “PLUR” ethos, William S. Burroughs’s “Johnson family,” and things of that nature).

Thought experiments and games

There are some thought experiments that are designed to promote respect for others by evoking a “had fate so decided, our positions might have been switched” feeling. Most simply is just that: imagine what it would be like if you were in their place and they in yours.

A more complex version of this is a favorite of modern political philosophy: the “veil of ignorance” invented by John Rawls. Imagine that before you came into the world you had no idea who you would become, but you had a voice in what sort of world you would inhabit. What would be the ideal sort of political arrangement you would design from such an original position, if you knew you might end up assigned to any role within it?

My favorite is one that Alan Watts frequently returned to. I think he thought of it as more than a thought experiment: a revealed truth of some sort. Imagine that you are God, but being bored with being omniscient, omnipotent, and so forth, you decide to invent Creation and then go there to hide from yourself, a bit like a king putting on grubbies to mingle with the commoners for a day. In this telling, God incarnates himself in each of us, hiding from himself so thoroughly that he forgets who he is and how he got here. The upshot of this is that while you are experiencing your life, including all of your triumphs and follies and pleasures and pains… the very same “you” is experiencing your neighbor’s life just as vividly. Imagine the respect you would feel for your neighbor if you knew that deep down you were them as well.

That thought experiment is one of those things I am tempted to believe not because I think there’s is any good reason to believe that it is true, but just because I like the implications if it were true. I expect that means I will now have to do LessWrong penance of some sort.

Another way to build the skills of respecting other people might be through game play. You can’t be successful at chess, for example, if you can’t understand your opponent’s position and motivations. Role-playing games permit you to try on personalities and perspectives with goals and motivations unlike your own and may help you broaden your respect for different viewpoints. I wonder whether the many make-believe games of children — cops & robbers and the like — are in part exercises along those same lines.

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Cool post! I find your summary of this virtue valuable and clear. My only criticism would be that you sidestep (explicitly) the question of whether you should respect people disrespecting you or trying to use you. And for me, that's THE issue with the value of respect as a rule, as opposed to a default behavior.

This virtue is well summed up by the version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative that goes like this: “So act that you treat humanity… always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals).

To see an easy to read exploration of this imperative, there is this post by Mark Manson. Very entertaining, but aimed at a larger audience than just rationalists.

It seems odd to me that there isn’t a word in English that precisely encapsulates this virtue.

Even if that's not perfect, I associate it with empathy, and acting on that empathy.