The concept of respect arises in two major forms. We’ll call them respect (lite) and respect (full).

Respect (lite)

Respect (lite) is in play when being polite, considerate and mindful of another person. It can also be demanded from another as a mark of deference to their rank, seniority, experience or standing in the world. We see it in statements like: “respect your elders”, “show a little respect”, or “with all due respect”.

It tends to be allied to the claim that respect is best earned rather than demanded. However, the idea that respect (lite) needs to be earned is one of the most important ways of distinguishing the ‘lite’ concept from the ‘full’ form.

Respect (full)

Respect for persons may perhaps be the most fundamental principle in all of ethics. Respect (full) calls on each and every one of us to respect the intrinsic dignity of all other people. If something is intrinsic to us, it is essential to our being and cannot be earned. It is a property of being a person.

The source of intrinsic dignity has varied over time and across cultures. For example, within Judaism, Christianity and Islam (at least), the intrinsic dignity of persons comes from being made in the image of God. In each of these traditions, the image isn’t literal. Rather, the reference is to being made in the ‘moral image’ of God – and most importantly, being endowed with free will.

There are also secular sources of personhood. Perhaps most famous is Immanuel Kant’s linking of personhood and intrinsic dignity to our rationality. This quality of ours means we all belong to what Kant calls the ‘Kingdom of Ends’.

‘The Kingdom of Ends’ is a thought experiment Kant created in which all human beings are treated as ends (where they and their wellbeing are the goal), and not as a “means to an end” (where the benefit of others is the goal). You’ve probably heard someone say, “My job is a means to an end”, meaning they don’t care much for their work but do care about the rent, family or travel their work pays for.

Having made a distinction between means and ends, Kant goes on to say a person should never be used as a means. Unsurprisingly he had a prohibition against slavery, the ancient institution where people become the property of someone else who uses them as a tool for their own benefit.

Respect (full) is what we count on as the source of principled opposition to all forms of discrimination against persons – whether it be because of age, gender, sexuality, race, religion… whatever.

Joining the two ideas together

These two versions of respect are clearly related. It is just that we tend to lose sight of the connection. Polite, respectful debate about contentious issues is not just about avoiding harmful consequences. It can (and should) go deeper – right back to recognition of the intrinsic dignity of others.

That is ultimately the reason why we should listen to their opinion. It is why we should attack the arguments and not the person. It is why we should refrain from insulting, bullying, silencing or oppressing others even if we fundamentally disagree with them.

Of course, civilised and principled disagreement can help avoid matters getting out of hand when tempers fray. But safer, better forms of deliberation are collateral benefit of acting on the principle of respect for persons – and acknowledging their intrinsic dignity – even when we are opposing them.