8th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Nathan

Christopher Nathan

Respect as Explicating the Basis of Equality

There is an element of the literature on respect that is sceptical about the ability of that concept to do, by itself, much normative work. In this essay I continue this tradition by arguing that one particular conception of respect is unable to do one particular kind of normative work. My interest is in the sort of respect that involves abstaining from making specific judgements about the persons with whom one is dealing; instead one responds only to the fact of their personhood. We sometimes say that one should respect the office, and not the office-holder. We might think that personhood forms, in many contexts, an office that commands such a response. For example, in determining my basic entitlements, it seems disrespectful for a state to pay attention to my cognitive capacities. In that context, the state shows respect by responding only to the fact of my personhood, and not to the kind of person I am. It might be thought that this kind of respect is especially apt in a justification or explanation of the widespread liberal idea that persons have equal moral status. Such respect asks that we ignore what might otherwise seem to be morally important capacities. From the perspective of this sort of respect for persons, it is not possible to distinguish between persons, even if we might admit that there are important differences between them. So all must be counted as equals. A challenge to such an explanation of equal status arises from the need to say just where this sort of respect is appropriate. In this essay I distinguish two ways in which we talk of the appropriate kind of respect. First, we sometimes say that some behaviour displays too much, or the wrong sort, of respect. Second, we sometimes say that some behaviour is not truly respectful, because, insofar as it is meant to be respectful, it aims at showing the wrong sort of respect. I argue that, on neither of these two versions of the appropriate sort of respect, can respect ground our fundamental egalitarian concerns.