Must you always respect other people?

In a comment on my previous post in civility, Dan Fincke linked to this older post of his, where he wrote:

Emotions can be employed in ways that are consistent with helping people reason better.  But resorting to name calling is bypassing reason and attacking people in a personal, disrespectful, uncivil way.  Religious people deserve no more respect than any one else.  I am not saying religious beliefs are at all off limits to the same aggressive queries and critical analysis that all other consequential (and even many inconsequential) beliefs should be.  Religion deserves no special deference and has no right to insist any one hold anything sacrosanct.  But religious people also deserve no less respect than anyone else.  It is the moral-political hallmark of Enlightened civilization that everyone is treated with respect regardless of their personal merits.  Respecting people does not mean having in every context to humor their bad ideas or soft-pedal one’s critical remarks about them.  Respect, in many cases, means believing that someone is strong enough and smart enough to handle honest, well-reasoned, well-intentioned criticism.  People who we pander to because we have contempt or fear for their supposed inabilities to handle what we really think are not people we respect but ones we patronize.

In a nutshell, true respect means giving people the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—but with no name calling.

But do we really always have to respect other people? You can argue that everyone deserves respect in some minimal sense. But given some of the truly awful specimens in the category “people,” it must be a very minimal sense. Even ignoring the mass murderers, there are still the people who send death threats over broken religious taboos (most of whom are too cowardly to ever carry them out), the people who poison public debates with lies, the ordinary bigots, and many others.

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  • Ace of Sevens

    I have seen plenty of cases where people resort to undeserved name calling because of their emotional attachment to the issue. Think of death penalty debates where proponents start accusing opponents of wanting to coddle criminals and of not caring about the victims.

    I’d also agree that calling people names does little to change their minds and shouldn’t be resorted to too quickly. Even around here, I’ve seen plenty of people attacked for things they didn’t say based on inferring way too much.

    However, sometimes after talking to a person a while, it becomes clear that they really are reprehensible and don’t care about the people affected by the ideas they espouse (they usually won’t say this directly). Accusations of bigotry and such can help third parties understand the issue.

    • eric

      Yep. Though I’m sure there are exceptions, civility generally helps bring out the best in your opponent, so that the two of you can better reason together. You’ll get higher quality feedback on your ideas. Insults tend to do the opposite; bring out the worst in them, resulting in lower quality feedback.

      In a competitive debate, legal case, or sporting event you may in fact want to reduce the quality of your opponent’s performance. But in academic discussions, you generally want your peers to give you the best feedback/best performance that they can. It helps you when they are on the ball.

      I see blogs like this more like academic discussions than competitive debates. So I think in general, posters and bloggers should always start out being civil. However, if it becomes clear that someone is here for no better reason than to score rhetorical points (or advertise, or spam, or some other similar purpose), its reasonable to rethink whether you want to keep your speech detached and neutral. Doing so is not going to get you better feedback, which is probably one of the reasons you adopted that slightly more formal mode of speech in the first place.

      You might still want to be civil for reasons of personal ethics (e.g. for reasons of reciprocity or because you have beliefs similar to Dan’s), but when someone is trolling or spamming, the utility of civil language in improving the discussion and moving it forward has largely gone out the window.

  • John Morales


    But do we really always have to respect other people? You can argue that everyone deserves respect in some minimal sense.

    Well, no — we don’t have to.

    Me, I respect those I find worthy of respect — the which is not automatic and depends upon my information-base about them.

    I consider that respect is something earned, rather than a basic right.

    (At most, I’ll agree that any person is potentially worthy of respect, absent information to the contrary)

    • Tom

      I treat respect something like an analogy with a weighing scale.

      Everyone starts at a certain equilibrium, zero. This is the ‘basic respect’ I treat everyone with. And I at least expect the same in return.

      From then on you can only lose respect, going in the minus. Also, you can gain respect in all kind of areas. Most people you know very little of, but at least more than the starting point, are all at one.

      People who I know who have done certain things can be in a higher regard in points.

      Not an exact science of course, but it works pretty well for me. You’ll have a certain degree of respect (although that may look counter-intuitive since I said this was the ‘zero’ starting point) until you prove otherwise, in whichever direction of the scale.

  • plutosdad

    I think we should even respect mass murderers. In fact it’s almost easier to argue that we should respect them than people who are just cruel and dishonest, simply because the murderers are likely psychopaths whose brains simply don’t work “normally” (for lack of a better term). With no empathy, and no impulse control, among other things. This is best exemplified in the case of acquired sociopathy, which means someone whose personality changes after brain damage. Would we call that person evil, or would we feel sorry for them even as we sequester them from society because they are dangerous? I think we would do the second, because the link between the brain damage and the bad behavior is easy to see, contrasted with their earlier good behavior. I think that is the road to lowering crime and violence, and letting our righteous anger give way to vengeance and punishment is the road to just continued violence. Perhaps it served small societies in the past.

    Similarly, a lot of name calling and anger and drama happens when people are emotionally attached to their positions. Perhaps they can’t separate their identity from their position. That is probably why I could not deconvert until I stopped going to church. It was a few years after that, after the intense emotional tying of myself to my positions, that I was able to see things objectively. But until then, calling me names would only push me further into my religion.

    Different people react differently, of course. But even then, why would I call someone a name? Because I am angry and want to vent my frustration at them? Or because I think it will affect them in a way that will make them see things differently or wake up some other 3rd person watching? I think most often it’s the first reason. We are just angry.

    I think the real questions come in when we say what, exactly, is name calling? Is calling someone a bigot name calling, or is it an accurate description? I actually agree with Dan on the word “stupid”, saying “that argument is stupid” is pointless, it does not tell the listener anything, and it does not tell any 3rd party anything either. WHY is it stupid? What logical fallacies does it violate? Expressing that, rather than the word “stupid” will actually teach someone. It may not teach the person you’re talking to, but it may teach someone else.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I had this conversation with an expert on manners in the swedish press. And I won her over!

    At least here, we have the public ideas of tolerance and earned respect, at least as much as implicit respect (golden rule), rank respect (respect for authorities), or religious special pleading respect (“respect”).

    So my way of stating is that I respect freedom of religion (since it works to lower violence, it has earned my respect) but in accordance with that very freedom I only have to tolerate religion.

    If it is empty claims, or bigoted and special pleading behavior, I don’t have to respect either the group or the individual displaying the behavior.

    [Disclaimer: my sell of manners wasn't treating the individual case at the time, but re organized religion rites and locales. Most likely it would be considered bad manners.]

    David Fincke’s quote doesn’t seem to suggest any way to distinguish between criticism of subject as opposed to criticism of person. Agreed on the patronizing though.

    I think it comes natural in the individual case. If religionistas are badly behaved, and most are by way of their special pleading, we call out the individual (or the group) as much as the subject.

    @ plutosdad:

    In my experience it doesn’t matter whether you support your claim, which I always try to do so to keep myself from fooling myself (Feynman’s “postulate on fools”). The offended zeros in on the offense with the exclusion of the context.

    But yes, it is healthy to do so for more reasons than that you easily comes out as the fool we all can be. At the very least you don’t have to revisit the stupid as often. =D

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Maybe “default respect” or “prior respect” is a better description for golden rule respect. If both are done correctly, it should converge on earned respect, and the latter is consistent with golden rule tolerance.

    I could analogize this with science. I want my ideas or results to earn respect. Golden rule respect would be gumming up the works, it would be patronizing, it would lack respect.

  • Daniel Fincke

    But do we really always have to respect other people? You can argue that everyone deserves respect in some minimal sense.

    It’s that minimal sense that I am arguing for. Everyone deserves access to the legal system no matter how much we hate them, for example. That’s a hallmark of democratic civilization. That legal system may make harsh rulings and mete out harsh penalties like jail. But even then it should not go to dehumanizing levels like torture.

    Similarly, in public forums for debate, everyone participating deserves some basic civility not to be threatened or abused as a person. But it is fair game to criticize and civilly ridicule people’s ideas and to level stern moral charges even. And sometimes it is consistent with civility to banish them from a particular private forum for the sake of order or enforcement of the broader goals of civil discussion against the corroding influence of trolls, etc.

    • aleph squared

      Yes, everyone should be equal before the law, and the law should respect people equally.

      But I don’t believe that I am under any such obligation. I don’t see how I have any obligation to respond civilly and respectfully to people who dehumanize me and other people. Obviously I do, for example, in *your* blog comments, because those are the rules you have articulated. But that’s not proof of any sort of general obligation.

      I don’t tend to insult people or namecall. I’m a pretty civil person. But I simply do not think there is any rational reason why I should respect the transphobes, homophobes, misogynists, racists, etc. who daily demonstrate that they feel no such compunction towards me or others. That is what the legal system exists for, as you correctly note: to ensure that regardless of how disrespectfully someone behaves in society, they are treated equally before the law.

    • aleph squared

      Sorry for doubleposting, I’m not used to this trackpad and it sometimes clicks on things without me realizing.

      The point is that I’ve met a lot of the people who you want me to respect, even in your minimal sense, in real person. This isn’t just an online issue for me. And in general these are the people who have made these “debates” physical in one form or another. So, no, I have no respect for people who espouse homophobic, misogynist, etc. views because thinking gays deserve hell is not, to me, meaningfully distinct from beating a gay kid up. And I simply do not think you’ve brought forward evidence for why I should respect people who do the latter.

      (Again, the legal system is *different*. The legal system has to be different precisely because of the level of judgement and punishment it implies. Individual people are not under the same obligation as the police/courts/government)

  • mnb0

    I have zero respect for the brains of people who claim the Gospels cannot possibly contain legends. Either they are deliberately ignorant or they are lying. Anyway they don’t have any respect for science.
    Historical science has proven, just like Newton’s Laws are proven, that the Gospels contain legends. The infanticide is one of them.

  • beth

    Clearly you don’t *have* to, particularly on your own blog. Respect can mean many things, but you are entitled to treat other people however you think best here.

    Personally, if I am not treated with the respect I feel I deserve, I stop interacting with the person who is demeaning or belittling me. This is not an uncommon reaction. In some cases, that may be the reaction you want from them. In that case, you are using disrespect as a tool to silence someone else.

    If you want the other person to continue the discussion or if you want them to consider your points and reconsider their own opinions and perhaps even change their behavior, then civility is usually necessary to accomplish that goal.

    In addition, I have made it a habit to avoid insulting people at all because I don’t want to be the type of person who deliberately treats other people badly. That’s a personal choice I make because I think it is worth considering what kind of person your actions make you into. When you don’t treat people with respect, you are not just demeaning and abusing them, you are also making yourself into the kind of person who demeans and abuses others. Is that who you want to be?

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•


    You can argue that everyone deserves respect in some minimal sense. But given some of the truly awful specimens in the category “people,” it must be a very minimal sense.

    There are 2 people that I’ve encountered and dealt with enough that I have *no* respect for. I don’t wish them harm, but I don’t give two shits about them, or their views. They both disgust me.
    The same would hold for rapists or sociopaths.
    I had a friend relate a story to me recently. He told of how he objected to a former boss’ disparaging use of the word gay. This was a heterosexual man speaking to his boss with no one around to observe, and he stood his ground. I told him that I grant people I encounter a provisional level of respect and raise or lower it based on what I learn about them. After he related his story, I told him thank you and that my respect for him increased quite a bit.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•

    Respect mass murderers?
    I cannot remotely agree with you.
    For instance, I can’t respect
    Anders Behring Breivik

    I respect the hard work and accomplishments of my mother and father. I respect those that fight for social justice. I respect those that are intellectually honest and strive for truth based on reason, logic and science.

    I do *not* respect mass murderers.

  • ibelieveindog, the silent beagle

    That’s a personal choice I make because I think it is worth considering what kind of person your actions make you into. When you don’t treat people with respect, you are not just demeaning and abusing them, you are also making yourself into the kind of person who demeans and abuses others.


    It does irritate me when people conflate respect for a person to hold certain ideas and respect for those ideas.