Respect for persons

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L084-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 30, 2022, from

1. Aspects and kinds of respect

The root idea of the word ‘respect’ is ‘to look back’ or ‘to look again’. People speak of respecting a variety of things in addition to persons, for example, talents, achievements, character, laws, authorities, social positions, opinions, powerful forces, and even nature. A common thread seems to be the idea of ‘paying heed’ or ‘giving proper attention’ to the object of respect. Respect is generally an acknowledgement of the value or importance of something (or someone) from some perspective (presupposed in the context). It is often associated with awe, reverence, uncoerced willingness to obey or conform, or at least symbolic recognition of status, excellence or power. Depending on the situation, we can show respect for persons in a variety of ways: for example, by praising, giving tokens of honour, and accepting orders or advice, or merely by maintaining an appropriate social distance and refraining from expressions of contempt and arrogance. We may respect enemies without necessarily liking them, agreeing with their opinions, approving of their projects, or obeying them; but respecting them is incompatible with regarding them as utterly ‘worthless’ or ‘insignificant’.

Is respect a feeling, a belief, a behavioural pattern, a disposition to act, or an attitude? Respect is often felt, for example, towards persons, standards, or institutions, but a mere feeling or sentiment would not count as respect without some corresponding disposition to treat the object in appropriate ways (‘respectfully’) and a belief that the object is worth such treatment. Respect is also more than merely respectful behaviour, for one can show respect deceptively when one does not feel or have it. In discussions of the morality of respect for persons, respect seems most often treated as an attitude that might be analysed as a combination of elements: beliefs, evaluative judgments, and policy commitments, as well as dispositions of behaviour and feeling, towards the person who is respected.

Respect for persons as persons is to be distinguished from respect for persons as professionals, officials, or members of more specific groups. We might, for example, respect an individual as a musician though not as person, if we thought that the person, though dishonest, is an extraordinarily talented and creative pianist. Even if we regard someone as both professionally inept and morally corrupt, we might, in a sense, respect the person as an official (such as a judge, a priest, or a prime minister) within an institution the authority of which we acknowledge. Here what is respected primarily is the office itself; but in other cases when we say we respect someone as, say, a judge, a priest, or a prime minister, we mean to imply that the person is a good official who fulfils the specified role well. Thus ‘respecting a person as a –’, where the blank is filled with a reference to a role or office, is ambiguous between, on the one hand, an attitude of due regard to the rights and privileges of the person’s position and, on the other hand, an attitude appreciative of the excellence of the person’s ability and performance in the position.

Although being a person is not the same as having a specific profession or public office, there is an ambiguity, similar to the one above, in the expression ‘respect for a person as a person’. In one sense, this indicates an appreciation that the person has good traits of character or personality, that is, traits that are generally considered desirable in persons whatever their particular roles and circumstances. For example, one might say of persons of known integrity, ‘They may be ineffective lawyers, but I respect them highly as persons’. In another sense, however, we might respect individuals as persons, even though we believe them to be immoral and lacking in most other human excellences. Here, ‘being a person’ is treated as if it were a widely inclusive, nonconventional status, analogous to holding a public office, with at least some minimum rights (or consideration due) independently of individual merit. To illustrate with an extreme and controversial example, some might say even of unrepentant Nazi war criminals that although their outrageous crimes deserve nothing but condemnation and they have forfeited their right to liberty, perhaps even life, we cannot simply discard them as worthless rubbish but must continue to respect them as persons (see Good, theories of the §3).

Darwall (1977) introduced the now common term, ‘appraisal respect’, for respect based on a positive assessment of the merits of individuals, whether as persons or as professionals. This is contrasted with ‘recognition respect’, which is a disposition to give appropriate weight in one’s deliberations to the fact that someone is a person (whether meritorious or not). It is obvious that we need not, and indeed cannot, respect every person as a person in the first sense, for in that sense respect implies a belief that the person in question has individual merits that deserve respect. What is controversial is whether we should respect all persons in the second sense – regardless of their individual merits – and if so, why.

When we say that persons should be respected as persons, the qualification ‘as persons’ may reflect, ambiguously and indefinitely, our view of the scope of the requirement, its grounds, how it is to be fulfilled, or several of these. That is, first, the point could be merely to say that all persons should be respected, without saying how or why. Alternatively, the suggestion could be, instead or in addition, that persons should be respected because they are persons. That is, the fact that people have the various features constitutive of persons might be seen as the pivotal premise in some argument, presupposed but not yet spelled out, to justify the claim that they should be respected. Finally, the point might be to give clues as to how respect is to be shown. Assuming a background of shared understanding about how various other things are treated appropriately, the injunction to respect persons as persons offers at least negative counsel: for example, persons should not be treated as mere expendable commodities, as instruments or playthings existing solely for our convenience or pleasure, as dogs, vermin, or dirt, or, more metaphorically, as mere statistics (as opposed to individuals with rights, feelings and particular interests). Again, assuming a common agreement on positive requirements for the appropriate treatment of persons, the injunction to treat persons as persons can serve rhetorically as a reminder to apply those standards to a particular case at hand. Here it says, in effect, ‘Treat these individuals in the manner that, as you know, is befitting their status as persons.’

Since commonly accepted standards for the appropriate treatment of persons and other things may be challenged, there is an obvious need for further thinking. Some ethical theories raise and respond to the following natural questions. Why must I respect all persons? What argument can justify the inference from ‘They are persons’ to ‘They should be treated in such-and-such a manner’? What, specifically, are reasonable, and not merely widely shared, standards for how persons should be treated (see Moral standing §2)?

Citing this article:
Hill, Thomas E.. Aspects and kinds of respect. Respect for persons, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L084-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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