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Who Deserves Our Respect?

Are we respecting the wrong people?

Most of us sometimes feel under appreciated by colleagues, friends and family members Yet, it is by no means clear who deserves respect, or why. A lot of respect is badly misplaced in powerful people, in the rich, and even in talented people.

Why respect status and power?

Respect for powerful political and religious leaders is very common. Yet, such charismatic figures are full of personal flaws. Many are sociopaths driven by vanity, lacking empathy, and capable of unspeakable cruelty as illustrated by historical figures such as Napoleon and Stalin.

Amongst religious leaders, those most revered are founding “prophets,” many of whom are indistinguishable from confidence tricksters as I highlighted in an earlier post.

Why respect the rich?

In the modern world, status is synonymous with having a large hoard of money and other quantifiable possessions. Wealthy people such as business owners and celebrities are widely admired. Yet, many acquire their wealth through inheritance or via sheer good fortune such as winning the lottery, or benefit from corrupt political relationships like the Russian oligarchs who purchased huge state owned enterprises for a song.

Wealth is also generated through entrepreneurial activity and such “self-made” people are greatly admired in this country. Yet, one conspicuous problem with accumulated wealth is that it always involves exploitation of the weak by the strong. We remember Andrew Carnegie as a great philanthropist but he literally worked men to death in his steel mills with long hours, bad conditions, and low wages.

Not all wealth is so contaminated, of course but that is principally due to protective labor laws. Capitalists the world over try to pay their workers as little as possible and are willing to exploit children as recently exposed for the U.S. fashion industry and its cost-conscious outsourced manufacturing.

Even if the money is accumulated under comparatively clean conditions, it is still money that is effectively stolen from workers rather than earned by business owners. It may seem pointless to belabor the fact that entrepreneurs always exploit workers to the best of their ability especially given Adam Smith’s theory that such activity contributes to the common good by making merchandise cheaper.

Yet, there is a counter thesis which is that accumulation of a lot of wealth in the hands of a few individuals is very bad for the society as a whole (1). Unequal societies lack social trust and political involvement, have high crime rates, and low life expectancy and suffer from high rates of obesity and related disorders.

Making money may be a talent, but it is no more inherently admirable than political or religious leadership. What about artistic individuals and star athletes?.

Why respect the talented?

Many people respect those who manifest unusual talents in artistic fields such as fiction writing, acting, music, painting, and so forth. Yet, the biographies of many celebrated artists are a catalog of personal failings and neuroses with high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illnesses. We may treasure their contributions but we would hardly want them to live in our homes.

Sports stars also enjoy a great deal of respect from large numbers of people. Yet, many sports legends were exposed as small-minded self-serving cheats. Not content with having better genes than the rest of us, they chose to enhance their biological edge using steroids.

Respect those who help and serve us

The bottom line is that those we admire and respect are often no better than ourselves. In some ways, they are far worse. So who can we respect?

We can certainly respect those whom we know and love—our close friends, intimate partners, children, and selected relatives. Beyond that, we can respect everyone who helps us, or provides a service that makes our lives better.

When you are looking for someone to respect, my suggestion is to begin at the bottom of the social ladder and work your way up rather than beginning at the top of the tree.

Respect the person who cuts your hair, or picks up your trash, or the GI who risks life and limb on your behalf. If you feel that the president is providing an equally useful service, then respect him too. Ditto for the other popular targets of adulation.

1. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.