'What is respect?'
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #22
‘WHAT IS RESPECT?’
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #22
I have often reflected upon what it means to ‘respect’ someone, in the sense of seeing them in a positive light. Does it mean that I agree with everything that they say? Or that I address them with a certain title? That I trust them? Is respect an ‘all or none’ phenomenon?
Perhaps it is best to start by realizing that respect, like most concepts, lies along a spectrum. From an ethical perspective, perhaps there must exist a minimum level of respect we have for each human being if we are to live with one another in a civilized manner. That means that regardless of how we perceive another’s behaviour, or their intentions and motivations, we grant that every person has certain fundamental rights that no one else can take from them. We say that we ‘respect’ these rights; we take them very seriously and don’t encroach upon them. These rights might include the right to existence, and maintaining that existence through the acquisition of food and shelter or through self-defence. Included might be the right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty if we suspect them of committing a crime against a fellow human, and the right to be allowed to speak and defend themselves in court. There are likely other basic rights that most of us would agree to ‘respect’, or defend, at all times.
However, most of us show respect, and want to receive respect, beyond this minimum. If I say that I generally respect a particular person’s opinions a lot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I believe or agree with everything they say. Rather, it likely means that I know enough about them, directly or indirectly, that I will take seriously what they say and at least consider it worth spending my precious time reflecting upon it. I may ultimately reject some of what they say, but my respect for them means that they are always worth a listen. The more I respect someone, the more open I am to their perspective, the more energy I am prepared to spend contemplating what they say, and the more willing I am to consider changing my mind. As well, I may have differing levels of respect for a person depending on the circumstances; for example more respect for their knowledge in some areas than others.
When it comes to choosing a course of action, I am more likely to follow the lead of someone for whom I have considerable respect than someone for whom I have much less respect. I may have developed that level of respect because of their knowledge, their experience, their wisdom or their moral character. We would say that they have ‘earned’ my respect.
Of course, we can lose respect for people as well. Perhaps we discover that their knowledge is not as impressive, or their moral behaviour not as admirable, as we initially thought and so our level of respect for them decreases proportionately. And unfortunately, like trust, it can take a lot of work to regain that level of respect.
Ultimately, I think respects relates to how we view humanity. Do we believe that human life is precious? If so, the words of Desiderata will ring true for you: ‘you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here’. In that case, we all deserve a minimum level of respect that entails safety, freedom of thought and the opportunity to grow.
We all start off with different gifts and talents, and if we avail ourselves of opportunities to grow those gifts, and become wiser and more loving in the process, we may find that we garner further respect. It is likely that such a journey of growth requires that we first must have self- respect, the belief that we have not just the ability but duty to use our gifts to contribute positively to the world, before we can expect more respect from others.
Although our talents lie along a hierarchical scale and all of us are at varying levels of personal growth at any given time, we are all worthy of a fundamental level of respect that should be protected and nourished. Such respect provides us with a considerable degree of personal control and authority over our lives, but it also requires us to accept responsibility for our words and actions in the context of living among other individuals and respecting them.
Do you believe that respect has been eroded during the pandemic? If so, should we do something about it? And what can we do?
Continuing to explore the importance of consent in health care may provide some insights. In my next article we’ll see that the third element of consent, capacity, directly addresses this issue of respect.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (boethics) CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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