Kantian Respect

One of the fundamentals of Kantian ethics is a universal respect for people — not just those of whom we are fond, or those of whom we approve, or those who belong to a group with which we identify. This of course does not mean we should one-sidedly tolerate extremes of abuse. Respect for people is actually an Aristotelian mean. Like all ethical considerations, it requires a bit of thought in the application.

I used to worry about “metaphysical” or theological preconceptions about what it means to be a person. Even now, I would not base respect for people on a theological notion of substantial personhood, which carries too many presuppositions. Rather, I would start from the Aristotelian concept of rational or talking animals, understood as participating in Brandomian sapience.

I actually believe in respect for all beings, period — including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. At this level, respect just means a sort of general kindness. But Kant was right to note that there is a profound practical difference when it comes to our fellow talking animals. The fact that we can talk to each other and ask questions of one another makes our interaction with fellow rational animals unique. Even under a broad, somewhat non-Kantian notion of respect for all beings, the kinds of interaction that are possible among beings possessed of language are far richer, and entail more specific responsibilities. Kant himself chose to reserve the term “respect” for those more specific responsibilities.

Kantian respect for people has nothing to do with judgments of the competence or goodness of individuals. It is grounded in the sheer possibility of dialogue. (See also Recognition.)

Why Modality?

Why should we care about something as seemingly esoteric as modality? Without modal concepts like necessary, possible, and should, there could be no knowledge beyond mere acquaintance with particulars, and no ethics at all. Nothing we said could have any force. We could not really even form any general concepts. Nothing would really follow from anything else. The fact that necessary or should is sometimes applied in too strong a way — or that possible is sometimes applied in too abstract a way — does not negate their essential role.

I want to say that modal concepts are properly meaningful only when bound to a context. It is only the lack of proper binding to a context that makes their application too strong or too abstract.

This relation actually goes both ways. Modal assertions not limited by context sound like dogmatism or would-be despotism; but equally, an emphasis on context with no consideration of modality at all would lead to bad relativism or particularism. Modality and context have a kind of complementarity, and need to go together. Either one without the other causes trouble, but the two together ground ethics, knowledge, and wisdom. Their combination is another good example of an Aristotelian mean. (See also Modality and Variation.)