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The moral primacy of basic respect.

We hear a lot about the word "respect" these days. Employers are supposed to respect their employees, children are told to respect their eiders, depressed people are advised to respect themselves, environmentalists tell us to respect nature, and everyone is exhorted to respect life. But what exactly does "respect" mean when it is used in so many different contexts? As an ethical injunction, it typically connotes recognizing another as a person (not an animal or object). Kant provided the major philosophical impetus behind the central role that respect plays in our public moral consciousness today. We are obligated to have respect (Achtung) for all persons as rational creatures. As Kant put it in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, each man or woman must be treated never "merely as a means" but as an "end in himself or herself."

Kant believed that the Categorical Imperative offered a reformulation of Christian love in terms acceptable to any rational person. The roots of the core notion lie in the Hebrew Bible, notably Leviticus 19:18, "Love your neighbor as yourself," a concern extended to the stranger in Deuteronomy 10:19. Jesus developed these themes in the love command and parables.

The independent value of the person is implied in the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:31, Matt. 7:12). This formulation has various proximate analogues in non-Christian contexts, such as the negative formulation found in the Analects of Confucius: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." In the third century before Jesus we find another negative analogue in Tobit: "What you hate, do not do to anyone." And at the time of Jesus we have the classic advice of rabbi Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else." These and other sages, of course, are not all saying exactly the same thing, so we should be careful not to suggest a lazy equivalence that ignores particularity. They do share a common appreciation of the worth of the person that is not dependent on reciprocity or on particular ties to the agent. One does not have to have any special qualities to be the object of the golden rule. Although often confused with it, the golden rule is not the maxim of reciprocity captured in the classical do ut des - "I give so that you will give in return" - but rather a unilateral moral commitment to the well-being of the other.

This appreciation lies at the core of the notion in our language of "respect." Like most other moral concepts, invoking the notion of "respect" is sometimes easier to do than either acting on it in concrete situations or understanding its ethical and social implications. Our understanding of what respect entails has developed over centuries. Thus even Kant believed that women are less deserving of respect than men, due to their nature as "passive citizens."

Be this as it may, the belief that we owe respect to each person as such continues to be regarded as summarizing some of our most noble moral ideals. Pope John Paul II has constantly reiterated the dignity of the person as created in the image of God. He invoked it, for example, in defense of the "dignity and rights of those who work" in Laborem exercens, the 1981 encyclical written in defense of labor unions, which were at the time under attack by the Soviet-backed Communist regime of Poland.

This principle was also employed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a famous letter to P. W. Botha, then State President of the Republic of South Africa: "The Bible teaches that what invests each person with infinite value is not this or that arbitrarily chosen biological attribute, but the fact that each person is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Apartheid, the policy of your government, claims that what makes a person qualify for privilege and political power is that biological irrelevance, the color of a person's skin and his ethnic antecedents. Apartheid says those are what make a person matter" (Rainbow People, 147).

We are inspired by the calls for respect enunciated by leaders like John Paul II and Tutu, who speak on behalf of people who may not otherwise have effective advocates. Such public figures give a badly needed "voice to the voiceless." In these cases, though, the notion of respect is applied to people who are suffering under oppressive regimes and in exploitative economic systems that give little opportunity or hope.

It is one thing to call for respect for victims of communism and apartheid, and another to insist on respect for everyone, including the perpetrators of such crimes. It is much easier to call for respect for victims and their rights than it is to extend respect to the perpetrators of such crimes. Does respect extend to everyone, or only to the victims and their allies? Does it extend to evildoers as well?

Ought we respect everybody? This question was posed sharply by Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking. Though often praised as morally heroic, Prejean's work with Death Row inmates has also been severely vilified as misplaced, simpleminded, and even unfair to victims of violent crime. Criminals are said to be unworthy of such concern. Proffering advice, the Catholic chaplain of the Louisiana state prison at Angola warned Prejean that "these people" are the "scum of the earth." More recently, court observers said that the lack of remorse shown by Timothy McVeigh made it easier for the jury to regard him as an "animal," who killed without feeling, and as one who therefore could be more easily sentenced to death.

A host of ethical questions emerge from this context, but I would like to focus on the moral standing of the criminal as a human being as a way of talking about the moral standing of us all. I would like to argue that we should reject the widely shared moral assumption that human beings can commit acts which are so evil that they should no longer be shown respect. The kinds of cases which occasion the expression of this view are by their nature extreme - malicious destruction, torture, rape, murder - but they reveal an underlying tendency to base human dignity on deserts which pervades our society (and indeed probably all societies). I believe that it is one which we must utterly repudiate: the assumed principle that respect must always be earned. My thesis is that we must instead acknowledge the priority of "basic respect" that is due to all human beings.

It might be helpful to begin by sorting out three meanings of the word "respect" found in ordinary usage. In one sense, for example, a person might say, "I respect her greatly because of what she has done for her company." This means I admire her accomplishments, her hard work, her talent, and so forth. "Respect" here expresses a positive appraisal or even admiration that I will call "esteem." In this sense people "respect" the athletic talent of Tiger Woods, the financial accomplishments of Bill Gates, and the political achievements of senators and governors.

On the dark side, it was recently reflected with bitter irony a few years ago in the case of Brooklyn teenager Corey Arthur, who, in a logic twisted by his own profound sense of worthlessness and insignificance, sought to gain "respect" among his peers by shooting his ex-teacher, Jonathan Levin. This meaning of "respect" is also discussed in Philippe Bourgois' recent book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Sometimes those most lacking in self-respect prove the most deadly violators of respect for other persons.

A second meaning of "respect" is more identifiably moral. "He is a wonderful priest," for example, transmits an appreciation of a person's moral excellence - e.g., that he is self-giving, faithful to his vocation, compassionate, and so forth. Unlike the previous sense, here "respect" constitutes a kind of "moral esteem." The good priest is not respected because he possesses a certain social role, which would be more aptly called "prestige," but because he is virtuous.

In some cases, of course, the social estimation of individuals playing certain roles is so high that their occupants are accorded both prestige and moral esteem. The priest or rabbi is assumed to be a highly educated and competent professional (and therefore due prestige), and possessing significant moral wisdom and exercising moral virtues (and therefore due moral esteem).

"Moral esteem" is not given to everyone; it must be "earned." Respect that is earned can also be forfeited. President Clinton's moral esteem was destroyed by the immorality of his conduct, yet the prestige due him as a sitting president was not destroyed. He thus continued to be accorded the kind of respect due to any president in virtue of holding office, yet he was not given the moral esteem directed to public figures who have developed greater stature.

If we say, "She treats everyone she encounters with respect," we judge that she deserves "moral esteem" because she is respectful. Note that the agent herself regards other people as worthy of "respect" in a different sense of the term. What might be called "civil respect" is given to people in virtue of acting decently as fellow members of a community or of society at large.

Unlike "moral esteem," "civil respect" is not directed to a few people characterized by special moral excellence. It is granted to everyone who is "civil" in the moral sense, something akin to "civilized" or "decent." The only people who are thought to be justly excluded from it - the McVeighs of our society - are those who have become unworthy by doing something to forfeit such a status.

Conventional morality considers "moral esteem" and "civil respect" to be the primary moral senses of the term. "I have great respect for Mother Teresa" is an expression of the former. "He can't go around 'dissin' people" registers violation of the latter. Both depend upon the principle of desert: people should get what we think they deserve. "Civil respect" is on the low end of the scale of desert-based respect; "moral esteem" is on the high end. Both establish respect on the basis of positive attributes in its object.

A kind of generalized reciprocity underlies "civil respect": I will respect you if you are yourself respectful; I will treat you with decency if you are decent; I will not harm you if you are not harmful. It is "egalitarian" in being granted to most people but exclusive in that it is no longer applied those who have acted in reprehensible ways. It is summarized in the version of the golden rule enunciated in Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents: "Do unto others as they have done unto you."

There are several advantages to this notion. First, it honestly looks evil in the face for what it is and does not try to assert that all people are "really good deep down inside." Nor does it naively ignore the great moral differences between people. Second, "civil respect" attends to the harm done by evildoers to their victims and does not give primacy to the well-being of the aggressor. Third, it displays a willingness to bring transgressors to retributive justice and a commitment to resist exploitation, manipulation, and other unjustifiable harm. Fourth, it plays a vital pedagogical role in publicly reaffirming the principle that decency ought to be rewarded and held up for emulation, and that evildoing is reprehensible and ought to be punished.

Yet for all these advantages, there seems to be, at least from a Christian standpoint, a strong case against considering "civil respect" to be the moral "bottom line," the most binding form of respect. Thus in the Christian archetype of altruism, the good Samaritan shows us that "being neighbor" to another is not dependent on the recipient's merit, virtue, or attractiveness. The good Samaritan did not verify the victim's moral standing before offering him assistance. On the contrary, he offered "no questions asked" altruism.

The problem with this simple rebuttal, however, is that in the parable the man in the ditch is pictured simply as an innocent "victim" - like the collective depictions of those for whom John Paul II and Desmond Tutu have spoken. He did not do anything vicious to forfeit "civil respect." Advocates of the primacy of "civil respect," then, might ask: What if the man in the ditch had been a murderous robber that, unfortunately for him, had simply gotten the worst of the situation? What if he had somehow, prior to being encountered by the Samaritan, acted in a grossly inhumane manner to others? Would then the good Samaritan have then been better off leaving him in the ditch where he found him, perhaps to let his painful wounds reinforce a badly needed lesson? Maybe "respect" is best upheld by correcting the wrongdoer, forcing him to comprehend more deeply the evil of his ways.

Critics will charge that some people simply do not deserve to be treated on the basis of the golden rule. Defenders of the primacy of "civil respect" insist that sometimes vicious people do act like animals (or worse) and that when they do so their actions undermine their human dignity. They argue that sometimes people do not really possess equal moral worth, or act as rational beings, or with any kind of "sacred dignity" invoked by Catholic social teachings from Pope Leo XIII to the present. Thus, the argument runs, vicious criminals properly forfeit respect and the immunity from abuse which flows from it.

In response, it has to be said that this criticism misses the point of the golden rule, which commands us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us - not as they have done to others. Though often confused with reciprocity, the golden rule actually takes no account of how the other treats the agent, feels about the agent, or even treats others. This nonreciprocal orientation underscores its difference from "civil respect" and "moral esteem." "Basic respect," which honors the dignity of every person simply as a human being, is essentially inalienable and non-reciprocal.

Christian ethics goes further than the golden rule. Disciples were commanded not to retaliate, not to return evil with evil (1 Thess. 5:15), not to exact revenge (see Rom. 12:17-31), not to hate enemies (Rom. 12:9). More proactively, disciples were commanded to love and actively do good to those who did not love them - indeed to those who hated them (see also Rom. 12:20; Luke 6:27). These attitudes neither depend upon some prior action by others, nor are calibrated to the moral achievements of their recipients. Indeed, they are directed precisely to those who have not merited such treatment by virtuous conduct.

Christians ought to love the neighbor, regardless of moral standing. Indeed, if anything, one honest reading of Scripture suggests that love of neighbor constitutes a "sign of contradiction" that directs concern in inverse proportion to social and moral approbation. Jesus addresses not the "righteous" but "sinners" - i.e., those whom society or religious authorities considered undeserving (e.g., prostitutes, tax collectors).

Why should we show "basic respect" to the McVeighs of the world? We ought to show respect because we affirm that God loves all human beings, including the wicked, and that each person is made in God's image and is the object of God's love. As Dorothy Day liked to remind her readers, when Christ took on human nature, he dignified and ennobled not just this or that individual who chose to follow him, but all human beings. Thus we are to love not only those we recognize intuitively as lovable, but all people.

There are indeed multiple and mutually reinforcing theological grounds for "basic respect" that flow from Christian theology. One is that disciples are to imitate God - "set no bounds on your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none on his" (Matt. 5:48). Since "basic respect" is a component of Christian love, by implication Christians should "set no bounds" on their "basic respect" either. Disciples should become children of God, who "causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike" (Matt. 5:45; also Luke 6:35).

The soteriological ground looks to what God has already done for us. Christian love is a response to God's saving action: we are to respect others because God first loved us - and as sinners. The eschatological ground, on the other hand, is forward looking. Thus the synoptic gospels warn that failure to love will be met with divine judgment (Matt. 25:33-45); the same is true, one can infer, of "basic respect." Finally, its ecclesial ground underscores the fact that Christian life is lived in a community of disciples who to be true to Christ must show "basic respect" for all (but also show "moral esteem" to those living up to Christian standards, like the "saints" of 1 Thess. 3:13).

What are the practical consequences of "basic respect?" First of all, it does not imply that we ought to develop some kind of mushy "sympathy" for criminals. It does not condemn righteous indignation or suggest moral equivalence between victim and perpetrator. A person showing "basic respect" can perceive clearly the evildoing of others and judge their behavior as such. "Not judging" the ultimate disposition of another person before God should not be confused with not judging evil conduct that harms others (Matt. 7:1 should not be read in exclusion of Matt. 7:2-5).

Secondly, "basic respect" need not be "soft on crime" or be like the sloppy and superficial sentiment of so-called "bleeding heart liberals." Respect is perfectly compatible with punishment as retributive justice. Augustine said that punishment can actually be an "exercise of mercy," and it can also be an exercise of respect - as long as it is assigned and exercised by those who have overcome all hate and desire for revenge and whose own judgment has not been perverted by ignoring the "logs" in their own eyes (Matt. 7:5). Indeed, as directed to third parties, it requires justice both for the victims and for the common good. This kind of respect is consistent with serious and even stringent punishment, including life in prison for the first-degree murderer.

Sometimes holding another accountable can in fact be the highest form of respect. To show respect for the criminal includes requiring him to face the truth about the destructive nature of his behavior, including its self-degrading dimensions. Indeed, respect generates an appreciation of the value of the corrective function of punishment for the good of the criminal. We hate the crime in part because we love the criminal. Nothing is less prosperous for the criminal than continued prosperity, which, as Augustine observes in The City of God, "nourishes punishable impunity and strengthens the evil will, which is, as it were, an enemy within."

Third, however, "basic respect" refuses to reduce people to less than human status and therefore prohibits their degradation. No one is to be treated as having subhuman status. Many hardened criminals will never repent and be reformed, but the main point is that we as a society continue to respect the humanity of all human beings.

We recognize that maiming and other forms of torture violate humane standards of decency in criminal justice and for this reason, unlike some other countries, we do not permit even heinous crimes to be so punished. If maiming and torture are violations of "basic respect" all the more so is capital punishment, the utter destruction of another person that effectively says, "You are worthless and deserve to die."

This would show that, no matter how vile the criminal's act, we as a society will continue to uphold the sanctity of all human life. We ought to teach by our action as well as by our words that we respect human life, all human life. We ought to show that we will not employ state-sponsored homicidal violence as a means of punishing renegade homicidal violence. The best deterrence against murder is not for the state to strike fear into the heart of potential perpetrators, but to teach respect for life by embodying it in its social institutions. One way to do this is to abolish capital punishment, the ultimate assault on human dignity, and another is to begin to take serious steps to develop correctional institutions that are truly rehabilitative.

The importance of affirming the primacy of "basic respect" cannot be underestimated. Of course we must allow for desert-based kinds of relations like "moral esteem" and "civil respect." Indeed, we ought to admire the moral greatness of people like South Africa's Tutu and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, but we also have to remember that desert-based evaluations are always secondary.

In personal morality, "basic respect" constitutes a core commitment to the well-being and dignity of others that is independent of individual taste, advantage, mood, or moral approbation. It always insists, as Helen Prejean likes to say, that people are much more than their worst acts. Closer to home, we often hear comments in our ordinary life that express contempt and detestation of other human beings - not only for those whose acts are wicked beyond comprehension, but also for immigrants, the "undeserving poor," AIDS patients, and other "undesirables." This is as true of those near to us - the relative who is scorned at family gatherings, the neighbor who is the outcast, the colleague who is marginalized - as it is of the more graphically violent cases reported in the evening news. The expression of these kinds of attitudes underscores our failure to fulfill properly the minimal obligations of Christian love.

In social morality, "basic respect" distinguishes civilized and humane communities from those that are neither. We have lived in a century in which collective refusals to recognize "basic respect" have resulted in massive death and destruction. Recent catastrophes in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Cambodia reveal that the attitudes which generated the ultimate dehumanization of the Holocaust continue to thrive in spite of countless well-publicized speeches and formal international commitments to the contrary. Given this state of affairs, there seems little doubt that the most important global ethical challenge for the next century will be to inculcate, practice, and promote "basic respect" as the fundamental moral commitment of all human societies.

STEPHEN J. POPE, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Boston College, is author of The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love. This paper was originally presented June 10, 1997, at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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Author:Pope, Stephen J.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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