Respect –
What We Mean

Vices such as boastfulness, cruelty, vulgarity, spitefulness, pettiness, dishonesty, excessive ambition, violence, and/or greed, lead me to respect a person less.

I’ve been thinking about respect lately. I think people have pretty different working definitions. So maybe I’ll share, and you can add your thoughts? For me, there are different kinds of respect.

And I am not talking about deference born of fear. That’s sniveling and weak. (Though, in reading about the Holocaust experiences of Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, I can understand this sort of deference to be pragmatic when faced with a context of extreme and overwhelming evil.)

Here, I want to talk about admiration based on principle.

As a young child I recognized that some people deserved more respect than others. I was a small judge watching all the people around me. Sadly, I may not have changed much on that score.

Later in life, I learned into what it meant to be Christian. One of the baptismal vows that is common to almost all denominations is something like this: “I promise to respect the dignity of all human beings.”

Respecting the Dignity of Every Human Being – Unearned and Absolute


In fact, this tenet, “respect the dignity of all human beings” is found in teachings of Islamism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. So for me, in my spiritual practice, I am called to respect every single person on the planet this way. And it turns out that given the number of people practicing these religions, about 80% of the people on the planet are also supposedly doing this.

That’s nice. I can just hear whatsername saying “How’s that respect-y dignity thingy working out for ya?” It feels like we’re not seeing as much of it in the world as we used to.

My intent here (obviously) is not to tread into deep philosophical waters, except to say that, taken seriously, this spiritual respect means that we value the personhood of every single person in the world, and their right to live their life, as much as we do ours.

This is the basis of Law, where each of us has rights and freedoms that are likely to bump up against each other, and therefore must be negotiated fairly, that is equally. I love the law. Most of it anyway.

It also means for me that a person’s inherent value has nothing to do with his or her assets, bank accounts, property, color of their skin, race, religion, work, health, or relationships. Indeed, their freedoms should be identical.

So this type of respect is afforded to all strangers, from every nation, as well those people we know personally.

Respecting Virtues – Earned Respect

There is also a different kind of respect that is earned, a positive regard, admiration. This respect accrues with observed actions and words, and demonstrated competency for their role. It may be due to intellect, education
(knowledge), emotional intelligence, or offering wisdom, beauty, love, or humor in the world.

Not skin-deep beauty, because that is luck of the draw. Luck does not factor into this equation for me. Luck to be born into a higher socioeconomic strata does not increase my respect. Luck to have been born with less melanin in a world that values lighter skin doesn’t increase my respect.

Like most people, I do admire people who have struggled against life’s challenges, societal challenges, and succeeded.

I respect those who lives reflect virtues, especially more than one.

Disrespecting Vices – Earned Disrespect


Here’s the thing. The flip side is also true. Vices such as boastfulness, cruelty, vulgarity, spitefulness, pettiness, dishonesty, excessive ambition, violence, and/or greed, lead me to respect a person less. (No names, please.)

So on the Earned Respect scale, some people can go negative. Those who were born lucky, and choose to display vice are much more likely to earn my disrespect. I do not respect those who regularly deny the essential human dignity of entire groups of people.

Showing Disrespect With Respect

I confess. I’ve shown disrespect too often with not enough kindness. No excuse really, although I know I am not alone in feeling frustration lately.
As I reflect, I am more likely to take the time to challenge someone who 1) is embodying vices, and 2)

  • – I respect, or at least have given the benefit of the doubt, or
  • – Is in a position of responsibility, and therefore is likely to inflict harm on larger groups of people.

It gets murky, doesn’t it? How does one challenge vice while maintaining virtue? Aristotle observed that too much (or too little) of a virtue, becomes a vice, e.g. too much forgiveness can become self-destructive.

The challenge may be to constantly balance several virtues, and perhaps only calling people out on established patterns of vice when their actions have damaging effects, as opposed to occasional slip-ups. And doing it in a way that reflects both moderation and justice.

Tell me, what do you think? I’m curious.

As always, we begin again.

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