What Does "Respect" Mean?

One of those philosophical and sociological questions that I find myself pondering: what does the concept of “respect” mean? Especially since some people say that you’re entitled to respect, while others insist that it is something that one has to earn.

After a bit of pondering, I’ve boiled it down to two categories in my personal dictionary, and I’m basically opening the floor for having them be ripped to pieces to see if they work as a functional set of definitions.

Category 1: Human respect. Humanity Respect is based on the fact that someone is human, and therefore deserves food, water, education, clothing, shelter, medical care, bodily autonomy, and basic dignity (equality before the law and such) as a result of their humanity. You don’t have to earn Human Respect, you are entitled to it, by virtue of being a human person.

Category 2: Personal respect. Personal Respect is based off of an individual’s behavior, ideology, courtesy, and other such interpersonal actions, and dictates how others treat them in those areas in response. This is the one that is earned, and is subject to the judgement of others. For example, if someone abuses Freedom of Speech to spew racism and bigotry, then they have earned the response when others do not give them Personal Respect as a direct result. This is also much more subjective, unfortunately.

Thoughts? Critiques? Identifications of overlaps or corner cases?


I see it as something that’s an indication of a mutuality, a reciprocal marker of good faith, something that shows a willingness to acknowledge another on an equal footing.

And like any reciprocal thing, outright demands for it just piss people off. It should always be given freely, but a reminder when one side isn’t living up to their end of the deal is perfectly fine.

Also, Aretha.


Either a subcategory of 2 or perhaps a third category is the sort of respect demanded by an authority, or perhaps, a capital A Authority. The Authority, often armed or otherwise dangerous, subjects those who fail to show “enough” or “proper” respect with the threat of, or actual, withdrawal of Category 1 type respect.


Both, definitely.

I have never once gotten a coherent explanation of what’s so special about having been born human. IMO, it is as rational as the “talent” of happening to be born Asian or female. What I think people try to do is push for apparent progress by claiming a larger “winner’s circle”, so if people are sexist or racist, pride in “humanity” provides a more inclusive outlook to attain. But ultimately, I think that speciesism works the same way as racism, sexism, classism, etc do - a tribalism of defining self in terms of arbitrary social ingroups and outgroups.

I work from a category of de facto respect much like what you describe here, but I think of it as “social respect”, or I suppose, trans-personal. And not necessarily human. I can and do afford such respect to non-humans.

I agree with what you outlined about personal respect, but I think that many aren’t aware of how permeable the boundaries of personhood are. Traditionally, people made the distinction that the organism = the individual, but science has long since demonstrated that the atom of individuality is much smaller. When you can easily meet a person who actually carries the transplanted organs, tissues, genes, etc of other organisms this needs to be reconsidered. Besides that even a single organism is not the same matter over time, they are only a pattern, which itself changes over time. The organism is a colony which can be considered a person for convenience, based upon the strength of its boundaries. But a person could just as easily be a small network within an organism, or be comprised of a cluster of organisms. Like most else in life, these boundaries are more accurately re-nogotiated rather than presumed as static.


I view it simply as knowing each person has a line, and I can dance as close to it as possible, but won’t cross it. That line could be dictated by social, economic, or employment related factors.

(Sock it to me)

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I’d argue that the notion of respecting ‘a person’ (while certainly a convenient conversational shorthand) is ultimately misleading if you treat it as more than a convenient shorthand.

Saying that you respect someone is far less unwieldy than saying “I respect qualities X, Y, and Z that the person has; and they don’t have any sufficently negative ones that I need to express qualified respect of the ‘I have to respect his dedication; but not his goals’ flavor”; but it’s arguably what you mean. If people were just respected because they are respectable, you end up meaning basically nothing by it.

That said, there do seem to be several different flavors of things you can respect:

You can respect properties that are seen as desireable; but not ‘good’ in a moral sense(eg. you can respect somebody’s knowledge of mathematics or a program’s stability). You can also respect good-in-a-moral-sense attributes, but only when moral agents possess them. Finally, the oddball category is respecting ends in the sense of viewing them as desirable and being moved to advance them(like “human rights”).

In the first two cases, people become respectable by the fairly obvious means of possessing qualities that are respected. If their overall collection of qualities is good enough, you can just say that you ‘respect them’ without further qualification; if they are a mixed bag you usually make sure to qualify your statement “Fred Phelps is a terrible person; but I have to respect his willingness to stick to his principles even when it alienates potential allies.”

In the last case, that flavor of respect arguably never inheres to people at all; but it may compel you to act toward them in certain ways, or at least express a wish for them to be treated in certain ways. If I respect rule of law, refraining from dishing out vigilante justice is something I do in deference to my belief that rule of law is a desirable goal; not because of any flavor of respect I have for specific people.

As for what people who demand respect or flip out because they are being ‘disrespected’; I’ve never been all that sold on the coherence of the idea. Some of them simply seem to be dressing up a demand for obedience or a certain amount of grovelling in nicer sounding language. “Respect” sounds so much nicer and more reasonable than “endure your position beneath me on the dominance hierarchy”; and making your demands sound like something that any decent and reasonable person would agree to is a classic negotiating tactic. Believing your own lies just makes you extra sincere about it.

The somewhat more sympathetic(sometimes accurate, sometimes not; but at least not pure sophistry) demanders of ‘respect’ are the ones who are advancing an argument either about the actual distribution of qualities we both agree are respectable(eg. we both respect diligence and hard work; but the janitor believes that I have no clue how much diligence and hard work go into cleaning the office between when I leave in the evening and when I return in the morning, so I do not give him adequate credit for the virtue he does possess) or about what qualities and ends ought to be respected(as in the perennial spat between people who respect your right to hold your beliefs and people who demand that their beliefs be respected because they take them really seriously).


speaking as a teacher i find your dichotomy of respect is nearly spot on. all students have my respect in terms of the brute fact of their humanity and are thus entitled to my best efforts to teach them my subject and allow them a level of autonomy commensurate with their age and the needs of my classroom. on the other hand i withhold those elements of respect which require time to develop trust. on the other hand the students are split about 70-30 between those who still adhere to the notion that teachers are worthy of respect automatically by virtue of their position and those who aren’t willing to even recognize the human respect category until or unless the teacher earns it.

[edited to note that i seem to have three hands :stuck_out_tongue: ]


Two sets of preliminary questions come up for me:

First, are these descriptive or presciptive definitions? If prescriptive, then what authority binds people of different cultures, genders and abilities to the definitions?

Second, why respect? Why not love or justice?


Descriptive, but potentially prescriptive.

As for binding authority, there isn’t one, although potentially the concept of reciprocity could result in mutual acknowledgement and mutual positive outcomes while still allowing for a potential maximum of personal freedom.

As for “why respect?” my immediate answer is “because that’s what was on my mind when I posted this :wink:” More seriously, I think that respect, at least in the sense above, underlies both love and justice. You can’t love someone that you don’t respect as a person (at least not in a healthy, positive fashion), and you can’t receive or administer justice if you lack respect from the other party.


Yay, an esp. interesting thread! Thank you.

For the first part, descriptive, roger that. And we’ll presume practical description rather than professional or academic since there is already so much ethical writing that overlaps the subject area depending on context. Works for me … and excellent definitions, if I may say so. :slight_smile:

For the second point, isn’t love described as more fundamental than respect in western traditions?

For example, when we think about the sh’ma, an ethical cornerstone, the injunction is to love.

Respect presumably follows love. Or does our experience contradict that tradition?


Because I think that it is the closest of the three to the actuality, although from many perspectives I think respect, love, and justice are fundamentally the same. It is dharma, a sort of basic operating system for agency and autonomy, where one is willing to help others to get where they need to be in life.

I don’t know! I grew up in the Americas, but in Europe it seems that love had more numerous nuanced definitions than I often encounter. The Greeks have agape (which I think is closest to my take on respect above), as well as philia (friendship), eros (sex), and storge (family). Agape seems to be the one which goes beyond the sentimentality and preferences of one’s superficial persona. Likewise, in indigenous western European cultures it was love in the form of agriculture, duty to each other and as reflected in cosmology which made the real difference in advancing human culture and overcoming adversity. The notion of Romantic courtly love as selfish relationships which mirrored devotion to a personal god (troubadours ahoy) seems to be a more recent development imported from the East.

In my experience, respect is the deepest and most vital kind of love. Precisely because it involves the interdependence of all things and thus transcends simple affection for self, couple, or family.

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You’re right. The word “respect” seems to be used for two related but distinct concepts. I wonder if other languages have a similar issue, or is English the only one that conflates respect(politeness) and respect(esteem)?


It’s the same in German, “Respekt” also covers both concepts. Personally I don’t respect persons demanding respect (ha!), for me it’s mostly exclusive used in the meaning of “be decent to others”*.

But - at least in German - Respekt as word is more often than not used in the meaning of “I insist on your respect to my person”, which is why I rarely use the word.

* Not sure about others but I am (try to be?) decent mostly because of me, not because I expect tit-for-tat reactions.


I think that defining respect as a kind of love does tend to dissolve any definitional problems and also looks to historical and cultural texts for help. Yes.

There’s a gap in the description of the two types of respect though.

What about harms caused by organizations to vulnerable people?

The organizations are potentially filled by respectful people who nevertheless deliver harm, e.g. in the form of lead in the water.

So some real harm is invisible or unattributable unless the agency of a disrespectful individual can be shown.

And that “disrespectful” individual agent may not exist, just the harm.

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