The Role of Respect in Man's Life

By Lance Manion

Let us consider the question: do you have an obligation to respect someone, or does it not matter?

The mystical view toward respect is that it is automatically known whom to respect: “You must respect your parents/your teachers/your elders/God.” People who say things like that are advocating the epistemology of intrinsicism, the belief that knowledge comes from some higher authority that must be blindly accepted and obeyed. Their ethics is duty-based: “the moral necessity to perform actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal motive, desire or interest.”[1] 

The skeptical view toward respect is that there is no way to know whom to respect: “Don’t tell me whom to respect!” People who say things like that are advocating the epistemology of subjectivism, the belief that since there is no automatic knowledge, there is no truth. To these people, whether to respect someone or not is merely a baseless feeling. These people demand that others “respect” them simply for existing, and to deny them of unearned esteem earns their scorn: “Don’t judge me.” 

Both the mystical and subjective views toward respect are irrational. So is there a rational, objective view toward respect?

To respect someone is to have a feeling of admiration for his accomplishments and  other qualities. It is an evaluation, a value-judgment, which “is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality.”[2] I.e., there is a reality and you have to refer to it.

Contrary to the mystic, facts are not passively absorbed as they are revealed by the supernatural. Contrary to the skeptic, there is a reality and you have to base your evaluation on it. The way you do it, the way you evaluate, is the same way you get all of your knowledge: by reason.

In essence, to respect someone, you need to know what you value, to know what is good for you, to know what advances your life in the long term. (To be objective, you need a lot of knowledge to really understand what that means, e.g., that life is the standard.) Then you need to identify a person’s accomplishments that are expressions of your values. In effect, you say, “He strives for and/or attains values that are values to me, and that is good for me, and I admire him for it.”

Both the mystic and the skeptic divorce respect from your values: you are to respect a person without regard to your values, and he may even be a threat to you. For the Objectivist, respect is a consequence and expression of your values. In fact, the intensity of respect you feel would be commensurate to the significance of the achievement of the person you respect. A person who truly and deeply values what another achieves, could not help but have intense respect for him.

What about being respectful? To be respectful means to afford a special consideration to a person in acknowledgment of their achievements that matter to you. It means to treat them specially. It means to demonstrate in action your intellectual and emotional evaluation, to align your body with your mind, your actions with your ideas, and to show integrity in action to your values, and lastly to be just toward those who have earned and deserve your respect. For “to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement.”[3]

Finally, Objectivism holds hero worship to be a value for man's life, which is a most intense form of respect. 


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Copyright © 2012 Lance Manion, All Rights Reserved.