I read that Sir Keir Starmer has chosen 'respect' as one of his key ideas for a Labour Party philosophy going forward into 2022. It is a good choice because it is difficult to disagree with, and is a handy term for multiple contexts. But it has a radical ambiguity which I shall discuss in two main contexts: the political and the environmental. So, what is respect?
Respect is basically an attitude, and its most common object is a person, although that is by no means the only object of respect, as I shall suggest. Attitudes give rise to principles of action and, in the case of respect, for human beings the principles must show awareness of the complexity of human nature. Thus respecting a person must show awareness that human beings are rational and require to be consulted on what concerns them; they must not be lied to; in terms of recent headlines, they must not be taken for fools. Humans also have feelings which can be hurt or damaged; they can suffer mental distress, or again in terms of recent pre-occupations, their mental health can be damaged.
Respect, then, is basically an attitude and its object is most commonly human persons, and showing respect for persons involves acting on principles which defer to our rational nature and do not damage our emotional nature.
Unfortunately, the above analysis does not explore a fundamental ambiguity. Does 'respect' require us to accept a person's views and/or do what they want? Or can we still be said to respect a person or their views while disagreeing or indeed opposing or preventing them from doing what they want?
This question is illustrated by a fault line that runs through medical ethics. Medical ethics stresses 'respecting the patient's autonomy'. But does respecting autonomy mean prescribing what the patient wants (such as an antibiotic) or prescribing what is in the long-term interests of the patient (which they may not want)?
The same problem can be seen writ large in politics. Does respecting democratic decisions require politicians to do what the electorate claim they want (such as Brexit) or what is in their long-term interests? I suggest that respect requires that a government (like a doctor) should listen to what the electors (or patients) claim to want and produce policies which in the long-term they would want if they had a better understanding of the issues. Some people might dismiss this as paternalism. I do not intend to defend my position on this because in this context my aim is just to expose the ambiguity.
Kant thought of persons as being the unique objects of respect. Sometimes he even uses the word 'reverence' for persons. He takes this line because he holds that persons, unique in creation, have the ability to stand back from their own desires and interests and consider the desires and interests of others. That may be so (even if the ability is not always exercised) but I question whether the attitude of respect should be limited in its application to persons, even if we adopt a broader view of our essential nature than Kant did. Nowadays, more and more people are recognising that we share the planet with others so the attitude of respect for the environment and the creatures with whom we share it is coming to the fore as a moral attitude.
But, even if there is a growing awareness about the claims of the environment and the need to respect it, there is once again an ambiguity involved in the awareness. Ought we to respect the environment because if we don't the seas will rise and swamp much land, and drought and fire will ravage the planet? In other words, are we coming to see that our human interests will suffer badly if we do not mend our ways and respect the environment? Or do we think that the attitude of respect for the environment makes a moral claim on us regardless of any environmental impact on us? These are two very different views of environmentalism and what it means to respect the environment. They will frequently, but by no means always, give rise to the same policies.
In terms of what I shall call the utilitarian approach to environmentalism, political policies will require us to restrict our exploitation of the environment in order to protect our population areas from flood and fire, while noting also our needs for industry, agriculture and so on. In short, utilitarian environmentalism leads to the protection of the environment for our human sakes rather than for the sakes of habitats, animal species, a sea free from plastic and fishing nets, and so on. The second approach suggests that we should respect the environment because the environment and the creatures in it make moral claims on us regardless of our own human interests.
At this point, it is relevant to introduce what is known as the 'Gaia Hypothesis'. Gaia was the ancient Greek goddess who personified the Earth. In more recent times, the British scientist James Lovelock introduced the Gaia Hypothesis (1972) which married the myth to science. What emerged is the hypothesis that the world is an ecological unity of which each aspect, including the human, can be seen as something like a cell. According to this approach, the Earth or Gaia is essentially a unity, rather like a living organism, that can adjust itself according to ecological and thermodynamic needs. The Gaia Hypothesis is a mixture of several complex sciences in the context of a persuasive myth.
It follows from the Gaia Hypothesis that the human race is not necessary for the survival of Gaia and could be dispensed with if human beings become more of a detriment than an advantage to her existence. Here we must think of the appearance of the green house effect, excessive carbon emissions, excessive populations with corrupt governments and so on.
The Gaia Hypothesis is helpful in reminding us that there is more to the life of the planet than we humans and our interests. We can easily become extinct just as several previous forms of humans have vanished. Indeed, Lovelock argues that this is bound to happen. As he dramatically puts it, we are bound to become extinct for Gaia customarily eats her children. Less dramatically, the death and decay of us humans is certain, but Gaia will continue. Some people may believe that we can be saved by science and technology. Perhaps, but it is also arguable that in the end science and technology may be what ends us. The scientific hubris of 'Ye shall be as gods' may not be pleasing to Gaia.
If Sir Keir were to include 'respect for the environment' as part of the Labour Party's philosophy going forward I question whether he would find the Gaia Hypothesis a vote winner. There is however a very different version of the general idea. It is memorably expressed in one of the great poems of English literature – Tintern Abbey
. In that poem, Wordsworth writes:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Wordsworth's 'spirit of nature' approach is more inspiring than the Gaia Hypothesis, although it is not at all scientific and again not a likely source for Labour Party slogans.
I reckon that Keir Starmer was thinking of something much more mundane. His side of his contract with society is presumably that politicians must respect the electorate in the basic sense that they must stop treating us as fools and themselves as immune from rules. I guess he may also be thinking of the total lack of respect which we, the electorate, show towards politicians. Programmes such as Have I Got News For You
are totally lacking in respect for politicians – their intellects, feelings or policies. But on the other hand, such programmes and cartoonists perform a great service by exposing fraud, pretence and pomposity, and are clever and funny. But politicians put up with them.
Our politicians, no matter their gross inefficiency, self-interest and misguided policies, have one great merit: they allow us to disrespect them. I don't think Have I Got News For You
could be shown in Russia or China, and I don't see Private Eye
or its contributors lasting any time at all in these countries.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow