Respect is a strong concept in our consciousness. It incorporates politeness and courtesy, but is more foundational. It might be clearer to say that respect generates politeness and courtesy. To respect someone is to accord them value. Its opposite is contempt, which means that we accord someone little or no value. Prejudice can often determine the level of respect we show someone. We all want to be respected, and feel very aggrieved if we are not.
The large moral question is whether all people are due equal respect. Maybe one way to approach this question is to propose that everyone deserves a basic level of respect. Let’s define a basic person value and agree that all human beings have it and are therefore due respect. This may sound utterly obvious, but it has not been so in all human societies, and our prejudices easily lead us to accord people differential respect. We become ‘a respecter of persons’. We treat someone we regard as superior with huge respect, and a supposed lesser person with scant respect. We respect status and despise its absence. Identity also leads to asymmetrical respect – we tend to offer greater respect to someone we know, with whom we have a relationship, than we do to the unknown anonymous stranger, with whom we can be quite curt, if we don’t ignore them altogether.
Some may then increase the respect they are accorded. They may have accomplished great achievements, in which case they, or perhaps their capability, wins them greater respect. I respect what my doctor and what he/she tells me because they know more about medicine and my health than I do. But this increased respect is specific to their area of achievement. It doesn’t increase their basic person value. Neither does it confer respect on them in other subjects than the one in which they excel. These last two are common value mistakes. We treat the football star as a more worthy person, rather than more accurately as a great footballer with an unaltered basic person value. We then offer them the respect of standing in wider areas of life where they have no more qualification or achievement than any other person, and quite probably less.
In a performance and achievement conscious society, low achievers tend to get little respect. Here we slip into the opposite error, the reality TV syndrome, being tempted to reduce their basic person value. Only celebrities and superstars count, and if you’re not one of them, you’re not considered worth listening to. Like a lot of moral phenomena, respect easily become concentrated on the few. It is possible to lose respect. If I behave badly, I lose moral respect. If I perform badly, I lose achiever respect. And it is also possible to increase moral respect. People who demonstrate great virtue win our increased respect.
If we accept the premise so far, then we agree that all people are due a basic level of respect because all people have a basic person value. This is of course an arbitrary view, but it is one many people do want to adopt and practise. So how is this respect manifest? It shows in politeness and courtesy. These are qualities that we cannot demand by legislation. They have to be a natural grace. And they have to be sincere, and not just a formal outward show. Respect for people also shows in awareness and appreciation of what a person may have to offer, of their potential and their skill. It shows in respect for their point of view, even if we disagree with it.
Where is society heading in terms of the virtues of respect, politeness, and courtesy? The encouraging sign is that they are increasingly regarded as prescribed values, and are written into many organisations’ codes of practice. This states a requirement for outward behaviour, but cannot condition the heart. At a personal level, maintaining equal respect is ever a moral challenge. The test is the degree of respect, politeness and courtesy we find ourselves showing the person apparently least worthy of them – the lower achiever, the person with no social status, the anonymous stranger we will probably never see again. In French society, it’s normal to greet a stranger with a ‘bonjour’ when passing. In British society we more often tend to totally ignore them and walk by with no acknowledgement.