(This article is still being developed – it is all sorts of more involved than I realized. Thanks, Ransom).
Am I morally obligated to show someone respect – or to respect their opinion? Is there a difference? Is there a difference between respecting someone’s opinion and acknowledging their right to have an opinion that’s different from mine? Am I obliged to show respect to the President – simply by virtue of the fact that he or she is President? Is respect earned or automatically deserved? On what basis?
Respect for Law
In today’s political climate, respect is often discussed in the context of free speech. It was common to hear pseudo-political commentary on sports blogs proclaiming respect for Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel during the national anthem, but expressing strong disapproval of his intentions. In this case, respect is simply an acknowledgement of Constitutional law and the freedoms that it grants, not support for the person or their opinions. In fact, this kind of respect is often used to feign patriotism in order to justify hatred for the person themselves and/or the ideas they are promoting.
If we are encouraged to respect diversity, we are not being asked to agree with someone’s opinion or to like them. We are again being asked to acknowledge something – that differences exist among humans and that we should recognize it as a good thing – something to support, whether or not we like or promote a particular difference in question.
Respecting a specific person and their opinions is another matter altogether.
Respect for Persons
The only thing we seem morally obligated to respect about someone we don’t know is their humanity. This is usually based on religious or philosophical assumptions – such as the Golden Rule and/or the belief that God’s creation is fundamentally good (something taught in diverse religions). While respecting someone solely for their humanity is no small thing, we need not respect them for anything else – until they demonstrate they are worthy of respect. Once that happens, we become morally obligated to acknowledge their behavior as worthy and upstanding. It is a value that society holds dear. It is how we differentiate between ordinary and extraordinary people. Infants are not respected – they are loved simply for their humanity. Children gain respect as they behave respectably – showing kindness, trustworthiness and commitment to the common good. People who persevere in the face of great danger and hardship or who accomplish difficult tasks earn our respect for those efforts above and beyond the respect we should show them simply because they are human.
Should I respect someone who comes to power just because they are in power? Well…I certainly respect the fact that they hold that power – just as I respect the fact that we (hopefully) have freedom of speech under the Constitution. But if the way they obtained and now hold their power is through deceit and cruelty, then I have no moral obligation to respect their person. They may show some qualities deserving of respect, but one virtue does not require me to give them wholesale respect. If they are despicable in every other way, we tend to agree that they have not earned our respect.
Respect for Opinions
Are we obligated to respect opinions? As with people, respect for an opinion must be earned. How that opinion was achieved has great bearing on whether or not we respect it. It is usually tied to our respect for the person expressing the opinion and to our trust in their ability to reach conclusions reliably (do they think clearly? do research using reputable sources? have other people’s best interests in mind?). But ultimately, respect for an opinion should be based on whether or not the evidence supporting it is solid – even if we can’t stand the person delivering it.