One Moral Absolute

In many of my classes, questions of relativism vs. absolute truth come up. One especially important form of this question is the version that appears in discussions about ethics and morality. Those who advocate ethical relativism believe that there are no moral claims that can be said to be absolutely true — it’s up to us as individuals to choose our own ethical values. Those who disagree with ethical relativism claim that some moral claims really are absolutely true. What’s at stake in these discussions is really a question of whether ethics is just something we all make up (individually and collectively), or whether it is in some sense real beyond our individual and collective determinations.

I have been thinking about all of this for quite some time, and knew that I was inclined not to favor ethical relativism, because I believe that ethics matters just beyond our own thoughts about it. But for a long time I hesitated to try to list what I regarded were clear absolutes. Finally, one day I sat down and tried to clarify my thinking on this, and came up with one ethical claim that I knew I regarded as absolute. Here it is:

We owe everyone respect. Or, it can be put another way: Everyone deserves respect.

Upon further thought, I realized that I wasn’t the first one to think of this. What I’m getting at is in fact the very same point that Kant makes in the third formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, Second Section, 429).

While I have heard many say that people must earn respect, I disagree. People must earn trust, but not respect. Trust is appropriately based on what people are willing and able to do, but respect is rooted in who they are.

Here is more of what I think respect is:

  • Respect is the acknowledgement that there is goodness within everyone (even if people aren’t always acting on that goodness!), and trying to appeal to that potential of goodness within others.
  • Respect is the realization that people generally are doing the best they can, given the limitations of their knowledge, courage, background, and experiences thus far in life.
  • Respect involves honoring others’ autonomy and appreciating that everyone is trying to set worthy goals and chart effective paths towards those goals.
  • Respect involves the humility of knowing that you do not always know others’ motivations or feelings. Instead of guessing those motives or feelings, or attributing ignoble motives or harsh feelings to others, it is better to ask, and honor people’s answers.
  • Respect involves not trying to control others. (But respect may sometimes involve trying to persuade people to change — see next.)
  • Respect doesn’t mean letting people do whatever they want, whenever they want, however. If others are behaving in ways that are disrespectful or hurtful to others, it is respectful to call them into account on this (because it is not respectful to allow others to continue in disrespectful, hurtful behavior — they will very likely come to regret this later), trying to persuade them to change the problematic behavior.

These are some preliminary thoughts. I really do believe that respecting everyone is a moral absolute. What do others think?

(Reposted from previous SLU Philosophy Blog, February 12, 2006.)