Respect for persons

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

3. Some later developments and applications

The idea of respect for persons has been interpreted in various ways, and has served different functions, in philosophical discussions before and after Kant. Contemporary moral philosophers often appeal to principles of respect in support of their judgments regarding practical issues, and some have attempted to develop ethical theories with respect for persons as the basic moral requirement. Downie and Telfer (1969), for example, treat the attitude of respect as morally basic. This attitude is characterized as ‘valuing and cherishing persons for what they are’. It is identified as a kind of love, agapē, which requires ‘active sympathy’. The concept of ‘persons’ itself is viewed as an evaluative concept, though not in a way that makes the injunction to respect persons trivial. What is morally salient about persons is that they have ‘rational wills’; that is, they are ‘self-determining and rule-following’. This is understood in a sense, taken to be different from Kant’s, that includes affective and emotional capacities. Respect for persons requires that we make the ends of others our own and be ready at least to consider how others’ rules apply to them and ourselves. This requirement is supposed to be consistent with utilitarianism, but not derived from it; to the contrary, Downie and Telfer (1969) have argued that utilitarianism is in fact derivable from a principle of respect for persons (see Utilitarianism).

Alan Donagan (1977) also presented respect for persons as the core of morality. He interpreted Kant’s imperative to treat humanity as an end in itself as the principle, ‘It is impermissible not to respect every human being, oneself or any other, as a rational creature.’ This, he claimed, is the basic principle of those aspects of traditional Western morality not based on theological beliefs. Respect for persons ‘as rational creatures’, in Donagan’s view, is a descriptive term, difficult to define, but familiar in social science and everyday life. Thus he thought it possible to spell out the meaning of the phrase in ‘specificatory premises’ which enable one to derive from the basic principle a system of intermediate moral principles regarding truth-telling, promise-keeping, non-injury, charity, family, property, obedience to law, and cultivation of one’s own health and mental powers. Guided by prior work of Jewish and Christian casuists, he argued that the resulting principles would incorporate more flexibility for exceptional circumstances than Kant admitted but far less latitude than advocated by contemporary consequentialists (see Consequentialism). The system of principles, he claimed, is grounded in reason, not faith. Although he presented morality as a system of principles derived deductively from a first principle, he disclaimed the ‘foundationalist’ idea that the first principle is ‘self-evident’ or more certainly rational than the intermediate principles (see Foundationalism).

Attempts to make respect for persons a comprehensive standard invite various sceptical responses (see, for example, Cranor 1975; Frankena 1986; Hill 1993). It is questionable, for example, whether the idea of respect is sufficiently substantive and descriptive to serve the role it has in Donagan’s theory. Further, common usage suggests, and many philosophers agree, that respect is not at issue in all moral contexts, even though it is an important consideration in many. Rather than an all-encompassing first principle, it is one moral consideration along with many others (such as beneficence and gratitude) (see Moral pluralism). Treating respect for persons as the comprehensive source of all moral duties also raises serious questions about the grounds for decent treatment of nonrational animals and human beings with severe mental incapacities (see Animals and ethics). Also, most utilitarians would deny the primacy of respect for persons, and, to be consistent, all of them must object to principles of respect if they demand acts, rules, and motives that promote less than maximum utility.

Not all contemporary discussions of respect for persons, however, are focused on this controversy about the primacy and scope of respect principles. Many concentrate instead on the implications of respect for persons with regard to particular moral issues, such as racism and sexism, violent protest, pornography, punishment, privacy, legal enforcement of community values, and paternalism in medicine. Self-respect has also been a common theme. Most notably, Rawls (1971) has argued that his theory of justice is morally preferable to utilitarian theories because it better affirms and supports the self-respect of citizens. Sachs (1981) and others have noted significant distinctions between self-respect and self-esteem, and the idea that one should respect oneself is a common premise in recent moral arguments, for example, that no one should passively tolerate humiliation and oppression.

Citing this article:
Hill, Thomas E.. Some later developments and applications. 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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