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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A little respect - on Jean Kazez, trees, and the constraints on our actions

Jean Kazez has a lovely post about her recent trip to Northern California, complete with some beautiful photos of the local flora. Here's her great pic of a mighty sequoia in the Yosemite National Park.

Amongst it, I found this thoughtful paragraph on the subject of respect, and specifically respect for trees:
I'm going with the idea that respecting trees does make sense, but we've got to reject one idea about respect if we're going to apply the concept this way. Kant and Taylor both see respect as an equalizer. If you respect X and respect Y, then you've got to respect them equally. If your respect dictates you have to protect X, then you have to protect Y to the same degree. In my book about respect for animals, I reject that sort of egalitarianism as it applies to members of different animal species, and you're going to be even more obliged to reject it if you think trees and other plants are owed respect.

So, what is it for something to be owed respect? I doubt that judgments that "X is owed respect" are ever objective in the sense of binding on all rational beings, irrespective of their desires, attitudes, and values, but the language becomes awkward if we always try to reflect this. It makes sense to me to talk, albeit perhaps not strictly, about certain things requiring respect from us. It's an issue that I discussed some years ago when I wrote an article (much more than just a review) in response to Margaret Somerville's The Ethical Canary (this piece was originally published in Quadrant, but I've linked to version on my website).

Somerville talks a great deal about "respect", "profound respect", and the like. But again, what is respect, in any event? I wrote as follows:

Although Somerville does not put it in quite this way, it is arguable that to respect X, taken at its broadest, is to perceive X as a providing a constraint on our own spontaneity and self-interest. We must take it into account before we act unthinkingly, or as we think best for ourselves. This idea coincides with one definition of "respect" in The Macquarie Dictionary: "consideration or regard, as to something that might influence a choice". The idea is present if I state that I respect the power of the storm—I will not go driving in it, much less put out to sea, but will stay at home in relative safety.

In other contexts, X's influence on my choice might be moral rather than prudential, and it is this idea of respect as the perception of a moral constraint that I have in mind in the following paragraphs. There are other senses of the word "respect" in which we do not respect every human being whom we encounter, or read or hear about. Some individuals do not seem to deserve our esteem or deference, certainly not our reverence. But we do treat our fellows—all of them—as morally constraining our ability to act without thought, or wholly in our own interests. We must give their separate interests at least some regard.

When asked how other humans can impose this kind of constraint upon us, we may say that it arises from the fact that they possess certain attributes which we cannot ignore. In the case of other adults, these include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, the ability to formulate life plans, deep inner experience, and the burden of mortality that they share with us (I owe this composite list to thinkers as various as Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita).

Babies and children, it is true, do not possess all of these attributes, but they possess others that may compel us to have regard to their interests, making them seem uniquely compelling subjects for our care and kindness. Not least important are their developing human minds and personalities, and their social dependence if they are to grow and flourish. We are not absolute slaves to the interests of any child in our vicinity, but the welfare of a child is always something we must take into account when our actions, or inactions, touch upon it.

Non-human animals possess few of the attributes I have mentioned, but they do possess sentience, to varying degrees, and some appear capable of suffering in ways that include, yet go beyond, physical pain. These attributes of animals may be enough to create moral limits on how we can treat them. If we think about this seriously, we may feel compelled to become a vegetarians, though it is not clear that this is morally required of an historically omnivorous species such as ours. Perhaps an appropriate response is to kill with the minimum of cruelty, use as much of the animal's carcass as possible to minimise waste and slaughter, perhaps enjoy our meat with a sense of thankfulness tinged with regret. At the least, we may owe it to some animals to ensure that they are not subjected to extreme pain or to lives of suffering.

What about non-sentient things? Even these may constrain our actions morally, either because they have intrinsic value or because they have derivative value—harming them may harm other human beings or other sentient animals. Some forests and gardens may have sentimental, aesthetic or utilitarian value which requires that we treat them in particular ways. Certain individual trees that are famous throughout the world, such as the General Grant redwood in the US and the magnificent Tule Tree in Mexico, seem to possess extraordinary value, though there is room for argument as to whether this is intrinsic or derivative. To destroy or harm them would seem acts of reprehensible vandalism. The same can apply to works of art, as evidenced by the widespread sadness and condemnation provoked by the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues which it characterised as idols, or to certain landscapes and seascapes. It is meaningful to say that all these should be treated with respect: they cannot, morally, be treated however you or I like.

At the same time as I was pondering The Ethical Canary, I also read Rosaleen Love's delightful Reefscape: reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, which also expresses a sense of the connectedness of biological nature, including humankind. However, despite sharing with Somerville a penchant for that clichéd and irritating phrase "other ways of knowing", Love resists the attractions of worshipful "spirituality" and puts a level-headed, convincing plea for the Reef's remarkable beauty and unexpected fragility. Her words must surely resonate with anyone who has ever lived in or visited north Queensland. If I needed convincing, I am entirely convinced that the Reef's "intricacy and beauty" impose a moral constraint on our actions. We cannot just treat the Reef however we like, but must have regard for it, respect it. It is not exactly a matter of respecting its "interests" but, at one extreme, it would be morally wrong to destroy such a thing spitefully or on a whim.

What is interesting about this spread of cases is that the kinds of respect we show to a human adult (whom we may or may not hold in high esteem), a child, a baby, a non-human life form, some other natural phenomenon, or a cultural artifact involve quite varying moral obligations. It is not sufficient to state that "X should be treated with respect" for somebody to read off precisely how we should conduct ourselves in regard to X.

In the case of another human adult, I may sometimes feel constrained to accept decisions that strike me as foolish and self-destructive; that, of course, is the problem about paternalism. While I have an obligation to pay regard to the welfare of another adult with whom I interact, I must also respect her wishes, even if these clash with my perception of her welfare. She may want to take a course of action that I perceive to be harmful, such as using dangerous drugs, lightly abandoning a valuable friendship or a career with good prospects, or frittering away her time and money gambling. While I may take some actions, such as attempts at persuasion, in the hope that she will not do these things, there are many situations where my respect for her autonomy outweighs not only my perceptions about my own interests but even my perceptions about where her best interests lie.

With a young child, paternalism and autonomy are not such issues: my overriding obligation is to avoid harming the child and to protect and nurture her if she falls into my care, even when this means thwarting her own desires and plans. However, there are moral problems about the lengths I may go to in an endeavour to mould her personality to suit my own convenience, or my idiosyncratic beliefs and values. The case of non-human animals is different again.

In a case such as the Great Barrier Reef, what is called for is surely some kind of individual and collective care in preserving the seascape and the wider environment that sustains it. While that much is not controversial, it leaves room for detailed debate about development, climatology, marine science and similar matters. Nonetheless, if we agree that the Reef must be respected in a particular way, that it constrains specific aspects of what we can do unthinkingly or selfishly, we might reach consensus on these more detailed and technical problems. In any event, our goal is surely not to avoid hurt to the Reef's feelings, for example, or to offer it our reverence by never vacationing elsewhere.

It is salutary to be reminded from time to time that a fellow human being, a suffering animal, a beautiful, fragile seascape should be treated with respect. But this does not tell us just what we are obliged to do or refrain from doing, exactly how the person, animal or thing provides moral constraints on our actions. To the extent that we can know what these constraints are in a particular case, the knowledge comes from an appreciation of the person or thing concerned and an understanding, or intuitive sense, of its relevant attributes. The word "respect", then, can sum up the existence of moral constraints. It can also give a useful reminder to stop and look beyond ourselves, but it does not, in itself, contain any detailed normative content. We respect many and various things, and behave towards them in equally various ways.

As I argue in this piece, respect involves perceiving some sort of constraint on how you ought to treat someone or something. It means that you can't do just anything, but must take something beyond yourself into account. The idea actually fits in quite well with ideas of objectification - not treating others as merely fungible or solely as means to our own ends. However, we have reasons not even to treat all non-personal things in this way. Those reasons may require that we have certain desires, values, and attitudes, but they are none the less real for that. On the other hand, respect need not amount to reverence - what is needed is simply a reason to take something about the thing or person (e.g. a person's interests, feelings, etc.) into account.

Finally, I agree with Jean Kazez that not all things that we respect, or perceive as worthy of respect, must be respected or protected to the same degree. Nothing about the concept of respect, at least as I understand it, seems to make that demand.


Greg Camp said...

Respect has to be placed into a context, as you suggested. I see stickers on cars from time to time that show Albert Einstein's face and various comments that he made on politics and war. Now I respect Einstein on the subject of physics, since right or wrong, the man was brilliant in that field. Whatever he says on that subject deserves a second look. But in political and ethical matters, is he any more qualified than any other human being?

Regarding the redwoods, can a person do anything but stare in awe? (An industrial logger might, but industrial is often a poor quality in any subject.) The trees are doing what their genes make them do, but that doesn't take away from the achievement. In that line, I respect an athlete who can push the boundaries of what the human body can do (without drugs or similar), but I don't buy products just because that same athlete endorses them.

We owe human beings in general the level of respect shown at traffic lights--I'll stop for you if you'll later stop for me. To earn more requires doing more. As I tell my students, I'll respect them once they've shown me a willingness to learn.

Unknown said...

By the time I was able to visit the site of the oldest tree in the south-west of Tasmania, it had already been cut down by vandals. To me this was tantamount to spiritual desecration, as this tree had lived and breathed for a couple of thousand years. (Don't get pedantic: trees breathe, just not like humans.)

If everyone trod lightly on this earth, we could reduce the problems the world is facing today: famine, pollution, scarcity of resources, disposal of technology with mercury and other poisonous elements...

If adults treated one another with respect, we'd get a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, customer service would be a positive experience for both sides and no-one would be bitching about Telstra, Optus, mining companies, corruption...

Children are the future, not of us as individuals but of us as a species. If everyone came together as a village to raise a child, children and parents wouldn't be as stressed, families wouldn't be in decline, child protection units wouldn't be facing insurmountable problems with staff running the ragged edge of burnout...

I know this is all in an ideal world. I'm not blind to vandals, selfishness, profiteering, abuse, paedophilia and all those other problems. I'm just saying that respect could bring about general improvement.