Common Respect: The Key to a Universal Moral Philosophy
How should you treat another person? How should you expect to be treated by them? What is the difference between what is right (moral behavior) and what is wrong (immoral behavior)? How should we teach our children to behave, and why? Your answers to these questions reveal your personal moral philosophy. Each one of our personal moral philosophies may look slightly different. Even members of the same fundamentalist church will give slightly different answers to specific questions about ideal behavior. Even among those who belong to the same political party, opinions and priorities may vary wildly when it comes to personal ethics. In short, we each (religious or not) make up our minds about the rules by which we live.
This essay relates to the search for a Universal Moral Philosophy. Such a philosophy would be a framework, a foundation, a starting point, for individuals (religious or not) that they can then voluntarily tailor to their own needs, hopefully with minimal distortion. The tantalizing prize is not just a complimentary ethic to the countless varieties already in use, but a truly universal philosophy, one that can be equally applicable to all people at all times. The concept of “Common Respect” can be one vital piece to such an endeavor.
Common Respect is a framework by which we can conceivably improve interpersonal interaction, regardless of the subjects involved. It takes into account the intrinsic worth of any individual, the inevitable injustices suffered by them, and the perspective granted thereby.
What is the Worth of a Human Being?
If we look to our world’s religions for the answer to this question, we find both embellishing and disparaging answers. This should not be of any surprise to us, given the diversity of belief. Is the person in question a member of the chosen people of the local deity? Then they are considered to be of great worth, perhaps obeying without hesitation the commandment to slaughter their neighbors who believe differently. It may be taught that another has infinite worth because they are merely a manifestation of the divine reality. Are they believed to have been reincarnated into a lowly caste? Then perhaps they are of less value because of their poor choices in a previous life. If a neighbor was also made in the image of God, how much should that factor into our treatment of them?
Ideally, we could all agree that a human being is of great worth. To perpetuate the opposite has obvious distasteful results. When a creature, a vehicle, or a book is considered to be of little worth or value, how kindly can the average person be expected to treat it? Worse still is when some sum of money is believed to be of greater value than a human being. For most of human history, it was commonplace to sell and trade people. In fact, this is still the case in many parts of the world. How could this answer be correct when it offends our modern sensibilities so egregiously? Indeed if anything can be considered immoral, it is the devaluing of human life and human wellbeing.
So is there anything beyond social convention or political theory that can justify an elevated esteem of a human being? Can we logically view others as more than potential allies, buyers, mates, or as simple means to an end? I propose that there are five sound elements found in every person that can inform our honest proclamation of their inherent worth:
1. The Rareness of One’s unique Consciousness, Perspective, and Imagination. Often, the value of something can be extrapolated from the apparent rareness of that thing. The chemical element rhenium, for example, is three times more valuable than gold simply because of its scarcity. In an observable universe of some two-trillion galaxies, each with about 200 billion stars, how many planetary systems do we know of in which life can be found with self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to contemplate this cosmic vastness? One. More incredible still, we each use our minds differently. Each of our experiences of consciousness is slightly different. No two people share the same imagination. Therefore, each thought process and perspective is of the highest value.
2. One’s membership in the Human Family. Human beings belong to a social species with natural instincts that drive us to promote the overall wellbeing of our family group members. With a scientific perspective, we can apply these instincts to every single member of the human race. Whether through the evolutionary processes revealed through our biology, or a belief in divine creation, we can accurately state that every human being is a member of the same family. We are all related to every other person who has ever lived.
3. The fact that each person is a Work in Progress, with untapped Potential to Improve the Self and the lives of others. When we think of a person, we tend to think of them as a history of their previous appearances and their behaviors. But we are, quite literally, not who we were yesterday. Even in the field of neuroscience, it is apparent that your brain is constantly re-arranging itself, changing what you understand and how you think. Thanks to each of our brains’ “plasticity” it is far more accurate to think of a person as a work in progress, with tremendous potential.
It is impossible to tell exactly how much of a positive impact a child will have on the future. The greatest scientists, leaders, explorers, philosophers, and inventors all started out as helpless infants. Each individual is budding with potential, potential that can be expanded through education, skill development, character building, and so forth. Even in the last moments of one’s life, the potential for impactful good remains. Of course, there exists the other side of that coin. Every person possesses the potential for untold horrors, something to be understood and respected just as seriously as their capacity for good.
4. One’s capacity for Empathy and Sympathy. Today, an AI assistant can help us find a pre-programmed source of valuable information, but can it feel our pain? A tool may prove its utility in one task, but can we ask it to share in joyous celebration? A special characteristic in all human beings (admittedly, to various degrees) is their ability to sincerely visualize the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of someone else. In a way, we can step into the minds of another and imagine the world through their eyes. Doing so allows us to share the burdens of problem-solving, coping with extreme emotion, and even containing exuberant ecstasy. On even a selfish level, the innate capacity of another person to share our joys and pains is of great worth in its possible synergistic application.
5. Curiosity, and the Adoption of Causes greater than Survival. Is there a greater cause than one’s survival or the survival of one’s family or species? For most living things, 100% of their behaviors have evolved to perpetuate their existence. The average animal spends their days concerned with eating, avoiding being eaten, and reproducing. But we are different, aren’t we? A phenomenon found in even the earliest humans is the propensity to live for causes beyond such. This can be considered our “spark of divinity.” We imagine a higher form of living in which we serve ideas greater than ourselves. Consider the fact that we all believe that we are either the creations of gods, that we are gods, or that we have created gods. Where else can we find beings earnestly searching for truth for truth’s sake? Whether it manifest in the search for mathematical equations that help us predict the nature of dark matter or the philosophical debate on moral realism, human beings possess this valuable and magnificent characteristic.
Are these Five Elements Unique to Human Beings?
No, but as far as we can tell, they apply in the highest degree to humans. This informs our treatment of other creatures. A dog, for example, may have a unique behavior but will fail several tests of self-awareness. We are (as apparent in our DNA) distantly related to dogs. A dog can also be trained to behave in a way that is beneficial to others. A dog can change their behavior and apparent mood with sensitivity to the mood of others. However, in these dimensions, a dog simply has demonstratively less capacity than a human being.
All creatures can thus be ordered from the ones that rank higher on this list (dolphins, great apes, cephalopods, etc.) to those that rank lower (worms, fungi, bacteria, etc.). In a legal or political sense, this classification can inform the “rights” that human beings should preserve in other living beings, even those who did not evolve from this planet or who possess an artificial mind. I argue that the more universal a moral philosophy, the better.
What is the experience of Beings of Great Worth?
When considering the glorious worth of a person, with respect to the five elements above, we may expect the life of the average person to be filled with meaning, fulfillment, and even happiness. One may argue that the opposite is true. Despite everything addressed thus far, what is the existence most of us know?
Just as there are elements of inherent worth we all share, there are also bleak tragedies of existence we all endure. Consider the following:
We all experience meaningless pain and suffering. This is not the kind of pain that helps us grow muscle, gain perspective, or develop character. This is the pointless suffering that only leads to more pointless suffering. Accidents happen. Some of us are born with cancer. Some of us devote our lives to raising children who grow up to disown us. Emergency rescue teams die in natural disasters. Whether it be sickness, the pains of growing old, or the unjust treatment from another, we all can add to this list.
We all imagine terrifying realities, much worse than the real one. This fact is not limited to nightmares, hallucinations, or superstitions. This fact has little to do with horror movies or jump-scares in video games. Our amazing minds allow us to predict the future, empathize, and imagine better versions of ourselves. However, these same tools, often without our intention or permission, are constantly jumping from unsettling possibility to unsettling possibility. An elk does not find itself constantly stressed about the possibilities of a wolf in the trees. A human, on the other hand, can be plagued with the constant threat of being evicted from their apartment. We can’t help but worry if a friend is being dishonest with us, if an employer can’t stand us, or if a loved one is disappointed in us. As we age and develop, we may grow more skilled at suppressing or ignoring these wandering anxieties, but we never silence them entirely.
We all deal with unresolved injustice. This concept is straight-forward enough. We will never receive compensation for our stolen bike. We will never feel loved by our childhood crush. We will never get the praise we deserve for coming up with a great idea at work. We will never be able to tell our grandfather how sorry we are. There are many parts of life that are simply unfair, and we have no evidence that that will ever be corrected.
Death is a permanent part of life. As far as we know, everything we love will be lost. Everyone we know will one day be gone. We, ourselves, will one day no longer be able to move, think, or feel. However unsettling this is to a social species such as us, no degree of denial will change that fact.
What is Common Respect?
Many people believe that “respect” is earned. It is something you show to someone who has impressed you in some way or acts in a way that you support. Under this logic, no stranger is inherently deserving of respect, and each individual may compose their unique list of requirements (however lofty) that must be met before they feel obligated to treat another human being in any way other than with apathy, contempt, or disgust.
Common Respect is different from that kind of respect. Common Respect is common. It is one helpful aspect in a universal moral philosophy based on scientific fact. It is what we ought to show every other person. It is how we should treat everyone else we meet, regardless of their past, their age, race, sex, nationality, belief, political leanings, or lifestyle. It manifests in an underlying acknowledgment of the supreme worth of an individual paired with an understanding that this individual has, or will, deal with all the tragedies of existence listed above, and many more aside.
Should this perspective apply only to those with whom we interact? Of course not. With our current line of thinking, is not the memory of those long gone deserving of consideration? Shouldn’t we look to those born in the distant future with such a state of mind? Of course! And let us not forget, “everyone” includes yourself. Seeing others in a moral light is important, but equally as important is understanding your own worth, and your own endurance through pain thus far.
Written by Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative