Who Deserves Respect?


The week before last, Ryan Anderson (of the Witherspoon Institute and the Heritage Foundation) got into a revealing and troubling exchange with Josh Barro (of the New York Times).  Barro openly stated in this debate that some people do not deserve respect, based on the opinions they hold.

Rebecca Teti blogged about this last week for Catholic Vote.

And I have a piece about it at Public Discourse.


One part of my argument holds that there is no good principle by which someone like Barro could draw the line that separates those who deserve respect from those who do not:

This gets us to the deeper problem: it will turn out to be impossible for Barro to draw such a line convincingly. Any principle we can imagine him bringing forward would only beg the question. He might contend that anyone who denies equality should not be treated with respect, but this just raises a question about what are the just demands of equality. Or he might say that those who deny human rights don’t deserve civility. Again, this settles nothing when we are trying to figure out what is the proper conception of human rights. He might hold that anyone who stands in the way of progress does not deserve respect, but this would merely compel us to ask what changes in law and society actually constitute improvement and so deserve to be called progress.

No matter how long we tried, our effort to find a principle here would get us no further than this conclusion: people who disagree with Josh Barro and his friends don’t deserve to be treated with respect. This is obviously a non-starter.

The other part of my argument contends that, as a practical matter, respect is the best policy, even when you are dealing with people who’s opinions are way off base.  Those who have done the most to make our country better have usually treated others with respect in their debates:

Abraham Lincoln consistently denounced slavery as an institution without denouncing southerners for being slaveholders. On the contrary, he admonished his fellow northerners that they would be no better had they been raised in a slave-holding society. Lincoln reasoned with the South about the immorality of slavery. And when some southerners sought to dismember the Union, he reasoned with them about the illegality, injustice, and imprudence of secession, appealing to the “better angels” of their nature. Of course, his efforts at persuasion failed, and war came—a war that Lincoln was determined to wage with full force in pursuit of a just victory. Even in the midst of civil war, however, and even with the war won, he did not indulge a desire to denounce or vilify his opponents. The same was true, of course, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the most effective leaders of the civil rights movement.


The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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