Measuring the Why

In my previous post, I defined respect as “a universal ethical obligation that believes all people have unconditional value as human beings and acting in accordance with that belief.”  Having defined respect in this manner, the next logical question is, How does one measure it?  In terms of an ethic of respect, measuring it presents a difficulty because we see the behavior but don’t know the attitude.  On the other hand, the socially constructed perception of respect is fairly easy to measure—or at least see—because we can witness the behavior.  But we cannot simply judge the behavior as respectful, because that person may not be acting based on her underlying ethical attitude.  So how do we go behind the curtain as it were and see what is pulling the levers making us act in a respectful manner?

The simple answer is that without inquiring from each person about their beliefs, one cannot measure respect.  Because I have defined respect as an ethic, using a scientific term such as measuring will not work.  Instead, we have to think more in terms of why people are respectful.  So, rather than looking at scientific measuring, let me briefly explore the difference between two ethics camps to help clarify the underlying reason for a person’s respect: utilitarian ethics and Kantian ethics.

Utilitarianism defends the principle that people should strive for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  At their core, utilitarians strive to maximize the general welfare and overall happiness of a group.  Thus, the decisions that one makes should always take into account how the consequences of those decisions will affect the hoi polloi and their happiness.  In terms of why one would respect someone, then, it follows that the person would make that choice to respect if the greatest number of people benefit from that respect.  Alternatively, you may disrespect someone to allow the largest number of people to benefit from that disrespect.

Immanuel Kant argued against utilitarianism as a viable moral ethic, instead believing that all people are owed some respect regardless of any extenuating circumstances or personal benefit.  For Kant, the inherent dignity of persons matters, and therefore people should be given freedom and rights based on that equality of respect.  Kantian ethics gets at the heart of the universal aspect of my definition of respect, and answers the question of why people should be respectful with a simple, ‘because people deserve respect.’

Thus, I think that the reason a person is respectful falls into one of three categories: (1) dishonesty in not wanting to be perceived as discourteous (social construct of respect); (2) for the perceived good of a group (utilitarianism); or (3) because all people deserve respect (Kantian).  Of these three reasons, the Kantian view is the one that most identifies with my defined ethic of respect.

Perhaps an illustration of these categories is in order.  Let’s say that I work for a large organization and have been chosen to write an article for the company newsletter about the company president who is receiving some prestigious award.  Complicating matters is that I don’t always agree with the president’s decisions, so writing this article will be somewhat tricky.  Nevertheless, I write the article showing respect to the president and giving kudos for the award.  What is not seen in the words of the article are my underlying intentions.  If I wrote the article to cover my butt and protect myself from getting fired, then I have shown respect only on the surface level.  If what I wrote was meant to inspire my fellow employees to rally around our president, then that’s more of a utilitarian way of showing respect.  However, if my article was respectful simply because I believe the company president deserves respect both as a person and as an awardee, then I fall into the third category of respect.

I don’t always like it when someone asks me why I do something.  But that’s exactly the question I need to ask myself in order to move me toward an ethic of respect.


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