An Idea That’s Time Has Come?

the place of respect in our human relations

Stephen Yearwood
11 min readFeb 9, 2024
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

As a rule, philosophers have used ‘ethics’ to refer to how we should treat one another as individuals in our direct interactions with one another. In general, ‘justice’ refers to that plus the ethically correct structure and functioning of the society as a unit. Basically, that refers to the political process and the economy (separately or together). While that summation could perhaps be challenged, it is definitely how ‘justice’ is used herein.

I am convinced that everybody who gives it any thought understands that justice is mutual respect, i.e., people being mindful of one another, some form of ‘taking one another into account as we live our separate lives together in this world’. People who emphasize liberty understand that each person’s liberty ends at the person and property of anyone else: everyone must respect all other people’s persons and property. For people who emphasize the moral equality of all people, respect for others informs their cultural ethos.

“Everybody” includes, I’m saying, all philosophers who have ever offered a contribution on that subject. Any account of justice anyone has ever proffered boils down to some variation on that theme. They all require every person to respect other persons, to take others into account, one way or another; justice is realized when all involved in any particular episode or event (at whatever scale) are doing that.

Obviously, no single human being, much less any society of human beings, will ever be perfectly just, but to attain as much justice as possible we have to have the best understanding of justice that we can obtain. Ultimately, that does mean going beyond merely asserting that mutual respect is what justice is, to why a requirement for all people to respect all others exists and how respect for one another can be realized in the actual governance of society.

In this essay, though, our sights will not be aimed that high. We’ll only be looking at — without getting lost in a fog of esoteric details — the place of mutual respect in various accounts of justice that have been proffered in history. We’ll be most concerned with philosophers of the Modern era.

Here’s the thing: Modern philosophers ended up emphasizing liberty (and to a lesser extent, equality) rather than mutual respect as being what justice is even though the same people who accepted liberty-as-justice also recognized the need for mutual respect to realize justice. That’s the most telling point I want to make regarding those historical takes on justice.

All of the ancient Greek philosophers arrived at some version of mutual respect in determining what the ethical governance of relations among people should be. (They expressed the broader concerns of ethics with the word ‘politics’: ethics related to the ‘polity’, the geopolitical community). For them, a requirement of mutual respect applied only to citizens. Even in Athens (the most ‘liberal’ city-state of that day by our contemporary standards), full citizenship was restricted to property-owning males. Some schools of philosophy, such as Cynics and Epicureans, did speak to a wider reach of ethics for the people in the community, but they focused on how people should live their lives as individuals and pretty much ignored the structure and functioning of the polity. Interestingly, Sparta, which is generally thought of as the ‘anti-Athens’, had the (very much relatively) most ‘liberal’ attitude as a community towards women, who were recognized there as actual human beings. They could even own property — though they still could not participate in government. [All of that — plus the casual acceptance of slavery — is why I have always considered going back to the Greeks in thinking about justice to be of very limited value; Modern philosophy introduced into the world the idea that all people could matter when it comes to justice.]

A more extensive ethic that was present in ancient times was ‘The Golden Rule’ (along with the negative of it: refrain from doing unto others what you would not want them to do unto you). It also leads to mutual respect. [There apparently used to be a Web site, www.religoustolerance.org (which my computer now says “can’t be reached”), that related how extensive the reach of that Rule has been — and not limited to sacral ethics, either.]

In earlier Modern times, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and the utilitarians (primarily Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), all arrived, via disparate routes, at a requirement to respect others, to take all others into account. Locke insisted on respect for other persons and their property as the limit on anyone’s liberty. Rousseau came closest to recognizing respect for others per se as the ethic for a just society because he considered a social — “civilized” — existence as the only ‘truly’ human form of existence; his subsequent rejection of the radical individualism inherent in Locke’s approach to liberty-as-justice necessarily entails a requirement of mutual respect. Kant’s ethic of respect is contained in his famous “Categorical Imperative.” For Hegel, respect among humans, as beings with wills, is “the necessary condition of right” (as Richard Dien Winfield put it in Reason and Justice). In utilitarianism all are respected in that all must be included in its moral calculus.

More contemporarily, mutual respect has come closer to being realized as being what justice is. The ‘discourse (or ‘communicative’) ethics’ of Jurgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, and Bruce Ackerman are clearly mutual respect in action. Alasdair MacIntyre’s moral philosophy, hailing back towards the Greeks, also boils down to mutual respect, if in a malleable, ad hoc form. Here in Medium, Dr. Marcus Giles advocates for “recognition,” which he attributes to (primarily) Axel Honneth and Cillian McBride, as the ethic (or ethical construct) that should govern human relations, but that, too, is essentially ‘respect’. Again, for anyone who believes in the moral equality of all people, that generates a requirement of mutual respect. Even Karl Marx, who rejected the idea that justice actually is a thing (but whom I count as the penultimate equalitarian, despite his self-proclaimed materialism), had a vision of a single, universal society of all people that would realize the ultimate in mutual respect (largely via the expedient of taking property out of the equation).

It is odd, then, that respect for others has never been put forth, explicitly and overtly, as the ethic for actually governing the governance of society.

In Modern times, I blame Locke for that. He touted liberty as the predicate of justice: justice is liberty. He was led to a limit on liberty by his belief (from the Bible) in the moral equality of all people (the subject of the first of his famous Two Treatises): hence, his injunction that anyone’s liberty “ends at the person and property” of any other person. Still, he emphasized that liberty is what justice is, not mutual respect for one another’s person and property.

Of course, like any person ever, Locke was a product of his times. To be fair, even if he had realized where his logic actually took him, for him to have proclaimed mutual respect as the ethic of justice would have been as foreign to the people of that time and place as talk of aliens from outer space would have been. He lived in England during the long fight for political power (1640's through the 1680’s) — including outright civil war — between parliamentarians and royalists/monarchists (and between Protestants and Catholics, though thankfully that could be resolved with simple tolerance — ‘live-and-let-live’ — as long as neither had an exclusive claim to political power). He sought to provide a philosophical justification for the parliamentarians. More generally, Europeans were chafing under the yoke of absolute monarchy (and for some, what they thought of as the tyranny of the Catholic Church), and liberty was the obvious antithesis of that. ‘Liberty!’ would be a battle cry of revolutionaries in every land. ‘Equality’ was there, too, but ‘liberty’ is what got people to the barricades.

So roughly a century and more after Locke’s famous book (1689), Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel all found a way to make liberty the ultimate essence of justice. Mill, in On Liberty, sought to relate utilitarianism as the font of (civil) liberty.

Locke had located the primacy of liberty in his “State of Nature,” in which people do not live together in groups, but exist as totally separate and independent beings. For ‘civil’ life to be just, that given (unfettered, supremely individualistic) liberty had to be maintained as much as possible. Some version of some place where liberty is the given state of human existence became de rigueur for those aforementioned philosophers: Rousseau located it in the “General Will;” for Kant it resided in a transcendent, immaterial “noumenal realm;” for Hegel it was inherent in the “Geist” (‘Spirit’) of the “dialectic” of the “Totality” (thereby being transmitted to the ontological condition of humanity within material existence — Kant’s phenomenal realm).* Similar to Rousseau, Mill had civil society as humanity’s given context, but his relation of utilitarianism to liberty then became the ‘highest’ argument for that ethic: philosophically, it became utilitarianism’s prime justification.

[For anyone wondering, I would say Thomas’s Paine and Jefferson were basically popularizers of the ideas of Locke, though both were more explicit about the place of equality in justice (despite Jefferson’s profound hypocrisy) and either eschewed (Paine) or at least questioned (Jefferson) the place Locke had for property (including determining who could participate in governing a society): hence “the pursuit of Happiness,” not ‘property’ as an “endowed” Right in the Declaration of Independence.]

Other than a few scattered individuals — all of whom got their start in life as members of some community — people have never lived as separate and independent beings. We are by our nature as humans separate and independent beings with respect to one another, but just as surely it is part of our nature to live together in communities of some kind.

Hence, coexisting has always been a problem for people touting liberty as the predicate of justice. Living together in groups does require somehow limiting liberty. If liberty is what justice is, then from the outset achieving the most just society possible means limiting justice. That makes no sense.

Mutual respect would maximize liberty, but liberty would be an incidental byproduct of justice. So with mutual respect governing the governance of society no conflict could exist between maximizing justice and maximizing liberty. The more people did respect one another, the more liberty there would be.

Even through the 1900’s, to proclaim mutual respect as the predicate of justice would still have been too much for people to grasp. Today, though, ‘respect’ (or its lack) has become the definitive standard in relations among human beings. Our common, everyday discourse tells us that we are crying out for the overt realization that respect for others is the ethic of justice. At long last we are now ready to recognize — and to realize in the governance of society, i.e., how we treat one another as individuals as well as what the structure and functioning of the political process and the economy will be—that mutual respect is the predicate of justice: justice is mutual respect.

As to the further questions concerning the why and how of mutual respect as the predicate of justice, at this point all of that is up for debate. Anyone can proffer any answers to those questions one thinks are valid.

I have argued that the democratic political process is already governed by mutual respect. With freedom of political speech and only just (non-arbitrary) restrictions on further political rights (i.e., restrictions that are universally applicable and universally applied, such as age), all members of the community are ‘taken into account’ because all are allowed to participate in that process (though any existing democratic political system could surely be improved).

For anyone interested in more about my answers to those questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’, “Alright, Already” is here in Medium (but not behind the paywall), the subject of which is the ethical governance of governance, which is what we mean by the word ‘justice’, but without invoking that apparently off-putting (these days) word.

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*I feel compelled to provide a bit more context where Hegel is concerned. From what I wrote it would be easy to get the wrong impression of Hegel’s philosophy, to think that “Geist” is some God-like entity.

First of all, as I understand it, as Hegel uses it “Geist” isn’t what we English-speaking people think of as ‘a Spirit’. It refers more to ‘the spirit of the thing’, that ineffable, much less expressible, ‘something’ something — especially referring to some immaterial thing — has. (‘Zeitgeist’ translates as ‘spirit of the time’.) Hegel capitalized it because it referred to “Being,” which is basically material existence + consciousness.

For him, “dialectical” merely describes the way the process of development in “the becoming of Being,” which unfolds over time, happens to happen. It is of the utmost importance that that process proceeds in an utterly autonomous way. That autonomy is what Hegel sought to convey in using the word “Geist.” For him, the development — the becoming — of Being transpires in a dialectical way of its own as if propelled by a spiritual force, which he, well, christened “Geist.”

He was developing his ideas in the late 1700’s, but that part of his thought can be thought of much like the way scientists have learned the Universe has developed. It started from the ‘Thesis’: essentially, ‘nothing’ (nothing with mass, anyway). It went from there to the ‘Antithesis’: ‘everything’ (when all of what would become material existence was contained in a teeny, tiny cloud of unimaginable energy). [Following sentence reworked 2/15/24] The result was the ‘Synthesis’: the Universe ‘becoming’ — eventually what it is today, including, according to scientists, the development of life on Earth (and possibly elsewhere), with at least some of that life (humans) being conscious of Being, on its way to becoming what the Universe will be in the future: interestingly, according to scientists, to become what Hegel understood would be the final development of a dialectical process, i.e., the ‘Thesis’ in a different form, in this case matter and energy so thoroughly diffused that the Universe will be in essence ‘nothing’ all over again. In that narrow way, “Geist” can be analogous to ‘the laws of nature’: immaterial ‘things’ (equivalent to noumena in Kant) that determine the development of the Universe but are not ‘a spirit’ (and they have been revealed in parts over time to human consciousness, but they exist — in a totality of which we humans may never be completely aware — whether we know about them or not).

Hegel, though, wasn’t concerned with anything as small as the Universe. He was thinking about consciousness — which does transcend material existence, even in our day-to-day lives — as the ultimate aspect of Being.

Kant, whom Hegel had thoroughly studied and agreed with in much, had located the “autonomous” wills of individual human beings in the noumenal realm, where it was free of the contingencies of phenomenal — material — existence. Thus it was imbued with a transcendently unfettered liberty that qualitatively exceeded even what Locke’s State of Nature provided. (David Hume had made the point that the contingencies of life within material existence in any form preclude making ‘liberty’ into ‘justice’: how people ought to act regarding one another). Similar to Kant’s approach, for Hegel we humans, who via our minds share to a degree in the consciousness of Being, also, by being imbued with wills, share to a degree in the autonomy of Being, which we perceive as ‘liberty’.

At the same time, just to get it all as straight as I can manage, Hegel was not a proponent of individualism in the way that Locke and even Kant were. Similar to Rousseau, and followed by Mill, he considered the only ‘true’ human existence to be realized in the context of coexistence with other people. Even (‘true’) liberty can only ‘be’ there.

[My understanding of Hegel’s philosophy comes primarily from Winfield’s book, along with from From Hegel to Existentialism by Robert C. Solomon.]

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice