The ideas that people should be treated with respect and that individuals should respect themselves are important elements of everyday morality and moral philosophy. Some theories treat respect for persons as the basis of morality or the hallmark of a just society, while self-respect is often viewed as a core moral duty or something that social institutions must support. There is disagreement, however, about whether things other than persons, such as animals or the environment, are appropriate objects of respect.
Most generally, respect is acknowledgement of an object as having importance, worth, authority, status, or power. As its Latin root respicere (to look back) indicates, to respect something is to pay attention or give consideration to it. As the etymology also suggests, respect is responsive: the object is regarded as due, deserving, or rightly claiming acknowledgement. Respect can be an unmediated emotional response, but it typically involves a conception of certain forms of acknowledgement as appropriate in virtue of some feature of or fact about the object, which is the basis of respect. Respect thus differs from attitudes such as liking, which are based in the agent's interests. Respect also typically involves behaving in ways that show regard for the object or refraining from certain conduct out of respect for it. We can respect rules by obeying them, dangerous things by taking precautions, and authorities by deferring to them; but respect is commonly thought to involve appreciating the value of the object. Valuing respect can be akin to admiration, awe, or honor, but contrasts with valuing modes such as maximizing and using. We can respect things we do not approve of, but regarding something as worthless or irrelevant is incompatible with respecting it.
There are many types of respect. Consider the well-mannered respect children should show parents and teachers, the great respect one might have for accomplished or morally exemplary individuals, the just respect people demand for their rights, the wary respect a prudent hiker has for rugged backcountry, the pro forma respect of standing for the judge entering a courtroom, and the basic respect many believe we owe people simply as people. These can be understood in terms of Stephen Darwall's (1977) now-standard distinction between two fundamentally different kinds of respect: recognition respect and appraisal respect.
Recognition respect is a disposition to take something appropriately into account in deliberations about action. A diversity of things, including laws, rights, hazards, opinions, social institutions and positions, nature, and people can be objects of different forms of recognition respect. What recognition respect involves in various cases depends on the reasons why objects of that sort should be taken into account. Recognition respect is a moral attitude if the object is regarded from a moral point of view, for example, as having moral worth or as morally constraining actions. By contrast, we have appraisal respect (which some call evaluative respect) only for people, either as persons or in some role or activity, or for their qualities or achievements. Like esteem, it is based on a positive assessment of an individual's merits and admits of degree; but whereas any valued feature can be a basis of esteem, appraisal/evaluative respect concerns the moral quality of an individual's character. In addition, some philosophers regard the feeling of reverential respect as a distinct third kind of respect.
Whereas everyday discourse tends to use "respect" in the evaluative sense, as thinking highly of someone, philosophical attention focuses chiefly on moral recognition respect for persons. Individuals can be owed recognition respect in virtue of their social position (for example, as an elder or judge); such respect involves conforming to conventions for appropriate behavior. However, respect for persons commonly means recognition respect that all persons are morally owed solely because they are persons, regardless of social positions or individual qualities.
The moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant contains the most influential discussions of respect for persons. Kant holds that all and only persons, by virtue of their rational autonomy, are "ends in themselves" and have a special, unconditional worth called "dignity." Respect is the only fitting response to dignity; consequently, we have a fundamental and absolutely binding moral obligation to respect persons as ends in themselves. Moreover, all persons are equal in dignity and moral status with other persons, so each has a right to respect from all as well as a duty to respect themselves. Kant expresses this idea in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) in one version of the categorical imperative, which is the supreme principle of morality: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end." In The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) Kant explicates specific ethical duties of respect for others and self-respect.
Kant's account prompts numerous questions. Is rational autonomy indeed what gives persons the unconditional claim to moral recognition respect? Some thinkers argue that this is too thin a view of what matters morally about persons. Are all humans owed respect? What about those who lack rationality, such as profoundly mentally disabled individuals or human fetuses and embryos? Must persons always be respected regardless of moral merit, or can recognition respect be forfeited, for example, by evildoing? Some contend that remorseless evildoers warrant no respect; others hold that while they deserve punishment, they must still be respected as persons. What attitudes and conduct express respect or disrespect for persons? Humiliation, coercion, and enslavement are quintessential forms of disrespect; what positive measures (e.g., helping others pursue their ends, listening to their points of view) does respect require? What does respect imply for issues such as assisted suicide, pornography, poverty, and political rights for cultural minorities? Theorists also ask whether respect for persons is the foundation of all other moral duties and rights or simply one important moral consideration among others, and whether non-Kantian ethical approaches such as utilitarianism can accommodate the idea that persons are unconditionally owed respect.
A rich debate concerns whether things other than persons, such as other living things or the natural environment, which are often valued merely as means serving human interests, have a moral status that demands respect. Some thinkers argue that the basis of morally required respect is wider than rationality and can be possessed by nonpersons. Others hold that there are levels of respect such that while persons are owed maximal respect, other things may be due a lower level of respect that nevertheless rules out certain treatment, such as destroying them for trivial reasons. Widespread acknowledgment of duties of respect to nonpersons could entail significant changes in many human activities, such as eating, land and energy use, and biomedical research.
Self-respect, important in its own right, involves due appreciation of one's morally significant worth: worth one has either as a person or in some position or activity (recognition self-respect), or worth earned through the quality of one's character and conduct (evaluative self-respect). Both kinds of self-respect include an engaged understanding of the implications of having worth for directing one's life and interacting with others. Respecting oneself contrasts with, among other things, servility, acquiescence to disrespect, shamelessness, chronic irresponsibility, self-destruction, and self-contempt. Evaluative self-respect is distinguishable from self-esteem. The former involves regarding one's character and conduct as coming up to scratch; it is lost if one comes to regard oneself as morally intolerable. The latter is enhanced or diminished through believing that one has or lacks any highly prized quality.
Self-respect is regarded both as morally required and as essential to the individual's well-being. It is thus strong criticism to say that a person does what no self-respecting person would do or that a social institution undermines people's self-respect. For Kant, individuals have a moral duty to respect their equal dignity as persons and to do nothing that would degrade or disavow it. In A Theory of Justice (1971) John Rawls maintains that because the ability of individuals to respect themselves is significantly affected by their social and political circumstances and because self-respect is vital to individual well-being, justice requires that sociopolitical institutions support self-respect. Connections between self-respect and, for example, responsibility, self-identity, forgiveness, prostitution, oppression, and education are also of philosophical interest.
Buss, Sarah. "Respect for Persons." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 29 (4) (1999): 517–550.
Darwall, Stephen L. "Two Kinds of Respect." Ethics 88 (1) (1977): 36–49.
Dillon, Robin S., ed. Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Hudson, Stephen D. "The Nature of Respect." Social Theory and Practice 6 (1) (1980): 69–90.
Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Translated and edited by Mary Gregor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Taylor, Paul W. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Robin S. Dillon (2005)