Institute 2007 -- Reflections on Respect

This year our College community is reflecting on the Benedictine value of respect. What does respect mean and what does it entail? How should respect guide our work here at the College? Respect is closely connected to other Benedictine values we have discussed recently, such as hospitality and community. We welcome the other who is different from us because we respect the other who, like us, is a human being. Respect is also the cornerstone for community. The rituals and the laws that govern our lives together are forged and maintained out of mutual respect. Properly understood, respect, hospitality and community are different faces of the same jewel.

In thinking about respect, I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead's saying that we should "seek simplicity…and mistrust it." What could be simpler and less controversial than the notion that we ought to respect one another? So, let's get on with it! But this idea is more complex than it seems on the surface. First of all, the Benedictine value we are talking about is not respect in general or respect for nature or respect for the law; it is specifically respect for persons. This opens up the question of who or what qualifies as a person.

Are all human beings persons in the full sense? At one time or another, thinkers and tyrants have argued that slaves or blacks or women or Jews or those incapable of reasoning or the unborn or the brain-dead or…are not human beings in the full sense, and so are not owed respect by the rest of us. The Catholic Benedictine heritage that shapes our college has been consistent and constant in its view that all members of the human family are to be accorded full status as human beings. Our mission/vision/values card defines respect as: "Cherishing and promoting the worth of all human life." The reverence that our students and faculty show in the cadaver lab here on campus is a reflection of this tradition and its deep insight that even what used to be fully human is still to be respected.

The other interesting question that the notion of "person" raises is whether there are non-human persons. Are dolphins or chimpanzees persons in any meaningful sense? This is not something I will explore this morning, but I want to acknowledge that it is a serious and important issue in any complete discussion about respect for persons.

The two questions I do want to think about with you are these: What does it mean to respect persons?, and what is the basis for the respect that we owe to persons? I will then try to draw out some implications for our work together. As in past years, I will also schedule breakfast and lunch discussions where we can continue this important conversation about respect throughout the coming year.

1. What does it mean to respect persons? One thing respect does not mean is "agreement." Literally, "respect" means to look back, to give something special attention or high regard, to hold something or someone in esteem. It's important to say up front that we can esteem someone without necessarily agreeing with them, as the phrase, "I respectfully disagree…," indicates. The point is that there are respectful and disrespectful ways of disagreeing with one another. In researching this question about what it means to respect persons, I was surprised to come across a discussion by Thomas Aquinas-considered by many to be the greatest thinker in the Catholic tradition-about "whether respect of persons is a sin?" Aquinas concludes a very careful analysis by citing the book of Deuteronomy that "respect of persons is a sin." Why in the world would he say this?

To answer this question, we need to make a distinction between persons as individuals and persons as human beings, or more simply, between individuals and human beings. As a unique individual, I have certain characteristics that distinguish me from others. I have such and such a personality, particular tastes, certain mannerisms, a distinctive history of personal choices, and so forth. These are my markers as an individual. As a human being, on the other hand, I am a member of the human family. I share fundamental traits with all other human beings, and these shared traits give us all certain basic rights. The Declaration of Independence counts among these the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These rights are inalienable.

This distinction between individuals and human beings is important for getting our arms around the idea of respect. The respect we owe individuals is not the same as the respect we owe human beings. For example, although you should respect me as a human being, I cannot insist that you respect me as Larry Goodwin. Respect for Larry is something that Larry must earn.

So, the distinction between individuals and human beings corresponds to a distinction between two types of respect: what I will call evaluative respect and absolute respect. Evaluative respect, as the name suggests, is something that can go up or down. It's a simple fact that we respect some people more than others. There's nothing morally wrong with saying that I respect Mother Theresa more than Paris Hilton, or Bush One more than Bush Two. Our respect for one another depends in part on how we each live our lives. Evaluative respect is like the presumption of innocence in our legal system. We are innocent until proven guilty. Likewise, our default mode ought to be to respect one another as individuals, although we know that respect can be increased, decreased, or even forfeited by how we live.

On another, more fundamental level, however, human dignity is unconditional, and the respect we owe one another is absolute and inalienable. It is in this sense that "all people are created equal." Dignity on this basic level cannot be earned or forfeited; it cannot be added to or subtracted from. So: As distinct individuals, our dignity depends upon the choices we make, and the respect we owe one another is conditional. But as human beings, our dignity is inviolable, and the respect we owe one another is absolute.

It was an odd moment for me last year when I heard that Saddam Hussein had been executed. I felt a sense of justice, but also a sense of sadness and pity, and I wondered, "What kind of reaction is that, Larry? Sadness and pity? This is the butcher of Baghdad! The world is better without him." I also noted a rather curious moment in an interview with George Bush where he admitted watching the cell-phone video footage of Saddam's final moments, but, he said, stopped short of watching when the trap door opened. How are we to understand these gut reactions? I think they are expressions of the distinction between the dignity of individuals and the dignity of human beings, between evaluative respect and absolute respect. Saddam the butcher deserved punishment, but Saddam the human being still deserved respect. This is at the heart of the debate about capital punishment: Is it a violation of fundamental human dignity or not? Some such moral calculation, I would suggest, is also behind the current debate about whether terrorist prisoners should be tortured. When we punish the guilty, we uphold justice. But when we degrade the humanity of the guilty, we degrade ourselves.

We draw upon this distinction between individuals and human beings in making many important ethical decisions. What is the fairest way to develop a system of taxation? Here it would seem that we should be evaluated as distinct individuals: those who earn more and can afford to pay more should pay more, while the working poor should not be required to contribute much to the common kitty. But, among a pool of medically qualified candidates-candidates that have been selected according to criteria having to do with chance of success and possible length of life-who should receive heart or kidney transplants, when there are not enough hearts and kidneys to go around? Who should live when not all can live? Should we allocate scarce lifesaving resources to persons as individuals-as mothers, for example, or as social contributors or as important professionals-or should we allocate such resources to persons just as fundamentally equal human beings? In these cases, it seems to me, we should be blind to personal achievement or social standing. We should evaluate candidates, not as individuals, but as human beings. When it comes to the right to life, we are in the realm of absolutes, and we cannot weigh one absolute right against another absolute right. First come, first served or a lottery are the appropriate ways to determine who will live and who will die in such difficult cases.

The difference between these two cases-taxing people fairly and allocating scarce lifesaving resources fairly-helps us understand Thomas Aquinas' enigmatic statement that "respect of persons is a sin." This is an important warning that it is wrong-not just logically wrong, but "a sin"-to confuse evaluative respect with absolute respect. It is wrong to evaluate persons as individuals when we should be evaluating them just as human beings. For example, it is wrong to withhold scarce lifesaving therapy from someone just because he is poor or an alcoholic or unattractive, just as it is morally wrong to give someone scarce lifesaving therapy just because she a mother, or an upstanding citizen, or someone we happen to like. When we are in the realm of fundamental human dignity, it is morally wrong to calculate individual worth. In this sense, "God is no respecter of persons."

(I realize that not everybody will agree with my analysis of the allocation of scarce resources; many utilitarians believe that we should allocate resources to individuals who are most likely to further the common good. We can discuss this point further in our follow-up conversations. But, however we sort out the scarce resources case, I think the distinction between considering people as individuals and considering them just as human beings is real and important.) So, what does it mean to respect another person? As we have seen, it depends. We legitimately may or may not respect a person as a particular individual, but we must absolutely respect every person as a human being.

2. This brings me to the second question. What is the basis for the respect that we owe one another? It should be clear now that the respect we owe one another as individuals is a function of the way we choose to live. Someone once said that we paint our own portraits, and it is a fact of life that some portraits are better than others. We all know what it means to live and to struggle in this world, and so we are pretty well qualified to recognize what it means to be a hero or a failure or both-and to adjust our respect accordingly.

But what is the basis of the absolute respect that we owe one another as human beings? As I see it, we have only three options: Either respect for human beings is absolute because we agree to make it so; or it is absolute because it is grounded in a human nature that we all share; or it is absolute because it is grounded in a transcendent reality, in God.

The first option will not work. I do not see how people's agreement can make anything truly absolute. If the dignity of human beings depends upon our agreement with one another, what happens if someone doesn't agree; what happens if that person has an army and heads a government? What will we say to the secret police when they sneer at us? In a world of regime change, human agreement is a fragile thing.

In the west, the thinker who is most closely associated with the second view, that absolute dignity is grounded in our common human nature, is Immanuel Kant. Kant made the dignity of human persons the centerpiece of his moral philosophy, and he expressed it in several ways, most famously the statement that "we should always treat human beings as ends in themselves, and never as means only." We are to respect one another as persons because we share the same human nature. I think this view is correct, so far as it goes. But, I also think that if we push hard enough about exactly why human nature has absolute dignity, we will be led back to something outside human nature, something transcendent, God. This is not the time to develop a full argument about why the absolute dignity of human beings implies the reality of God-although I would be happy to pursue this topic in our follow up conversations. The more basic point today is that this is the Catholic Benedictine view of the matter, and we are working at a Catholic Benedictine college. When St. Benedict advises the monks to receive whoever shows up at the monastery door as the person of Christ, he is saying that human worth is absolute and is a function of our relation to God. That person is precious to God, and therefore that person is precious to me. It's just that simple and that profound.

My view, then, is that respecting persons means honoring them appropriately as individuals and honoring them absolutely as human beings. Our dignity as individuals is a reflection of our moral choices; but our dignity as human beings is a matter of our relation to God.

What does this have to do with our life here at the College? The most obvious implication involves how we deal with one another and with our students. We must always respect one another as human beings, even if we must also make judgements about one another as individuals. Or, to put the point the other way, while we will need to evaluate individual performance on the job or in the classroom, all such activity must be conducted in a manner that respects the humanity of persons. Disagreements, arguments, confrontations, evaluations, warnings, even firings-these are all realities of organizational life. But in a Benedictine community they are done respectfully. All of us need to model this. We may not always like one another as individuals, but we must always respect one another as human beings. It occurs to me that our health care students probably learn this very well. Though they may be put off or even repulsed by some of their patients, yet "care must be taken of the sick that they may be served in very truth as Christ is served."

Outside the classroom, some in our campus community may object to the views of the College Republicans student group, or the Open Doors group, or the pro-life group, or the Third Wavers. Some of us have feelings about football players. We need to heed the wisdom of our Benedictine value of respect: "Treating persons with dignity and reverence without regard to age, gender, race, minority, sexual preference or economic status." It's not such a big step to add political preference or athletic prowess to the list. Our college community is growing and becoming more diverse. Respect means looking beyond our fears and our stereotypes to see the image of God.

Respect for human beings is closely related to respect for the self, since each self is also a human being. As educators, we need to think about how best to teach self-respect to our students, especially in such basic areas as sexuality, drugs and alcohol. When we say that we provide personal attention, this means-in large part-that we pay attention to what it means to be a human person. In this regard, I am very pleased with our first-year program-both in terms of its objectives and its name. Dignitas is a good place to start college.

We also teach our students self-respect by demanding quality. This summer I watched a powerful film, The Freedom Writers, about a teacher who transformed the lives of inner-city high school students in Los Angeles. Two things struck me about the teacher: she honored her students enough to really listen to them and become vulnerable to their stories. And, she respected her students enough not to let them give up on themselves. In the beginning, she respected them more than they respected themselves-and this is what turned them around. To a struggling black student who had given himself a grade of F, she says: "Your F is an insult to me and to all the other students in the class. Go back and work harder." As teachers, we honor our students when we demand that they perform at higher levels-because we know, we believe, that they can.

There are other implications of respect for our work together, and I look forward to listening to your experiences and ideas. For now, let us pause at the beginning of the year and celebrate how fortunate we are to work at a college that is committed to the absolute dignity of every human person as a child of God, and let us redouble our efforts to respect one another in this light and to pass along this precious tradition to future generations.

Larry Goodwin
August 2007