Is Respect Really All That Simple?

Last week, John Ruggie addressed the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, where a “new global architecture” for corporate sustainability was unveiled and celebrated. Ruggie started out by talking about the special challenges — the “problems without passports” — that the world’s “tightly-coupled” systems present, and the inadequacy of our “largely self-interested politics” to address them. This was not, however, the brief he’d been given, so he had to move on; and I hope he’ll have more to say on the topic in the future. Instead, Ruggie had been asked, he said, “to say a word about respect,” and — not surprisingly — he took the opportunity to talk about the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and how the framework helps companies meet their obligations to respect human rights.

I have been asked to say a word about respect, specifically about respecting human
rights. Its meaning is simple: treat people with dignity, be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders. But while the meaning is simple, mere declarations of respect by business no longer suffice: companies must have systems in place to know and show that they respect rights. This is where the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights come in. [pdf.]

Fair enough, but I found myself pausing here, and wondering whether the meaning of “respect” is really so simple as Ruggie makes it out to be, or at least whether “treat people with dignity” is sufficient guidance.

I understand that Ruggie’s intention here is largely rhetorical: we all know what respect means, but we need more than fine words, declarations and definitions. We need practical and consistent ways of acknowledging, checking and demonstrating human rights commitments — “systems” like the UN Guiding Principles.

Still, there are good reasons to start unpacking — and challenging — this simple definition, if only to ward off misconceptions.

First, to say that “[to] respect” human rights means “[to] treat people with dignity” (and leave it at that) invites confusion, because it passes the semantic buck from respect to dignity. If we are to treat people “with dignity” — if that’s our definition of respect — then we had better have a good working definition of dignity to govern or temper our treatment of others.

Of course, the word “dignity” is a staple of human rights discourse, so we’ve got to make allowances for shorthand here. If we don’t — if we want to take the long route and spell things out — we will most likely find our way back to Kant’s moral theory. I’m not going to attempt a summary here except to say that for Kant, dignity imposes absolute and non-negotiable constraints on our treatment of other people. Our dignity derives from our moral stature as free, rational and autonomous agents — ends in ourselves — and cannot be discussed in terms of relative value (or usefulness, or any other relative terms). It must be respected: in other words, dignity imposes strict and inviolable limits, absolute constraints, on how we treat others and how others treat us.

Most obviously people may not be treated merely as means to our ends; and that caveat is especially important when it comes to business, where, for starters, people are valued and evaluated as priced labor or “talent,” in terms of services of they perform or as “human resources.” To respect the dignity of people — “be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders” — is to recognize them as persons (or ends in themselves) and not just mere functions in an efficiency equation.

This is hasty pudding, but suffice it to say that in the Kantian idea of dignity there is the suggestion that respect follows from our recognition of others as persons: this is an idea suggested by the word “respect” itself, which comes from the Latin respicere, to look back, to give a second look. Every person deserves a second look — or I should say, demands it. Recognition is something we demand of others and others demand of us.

I like to put it this way: respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing we ask of each other. How we respond to this demand will depend in all cases upon whether we understand that our dignity as persons makes us mutually accountable or answerable to each other in the first place. So before we can talk about how we “treat” others — before we jump, with Ruggie, to considerations of behavior — let’s take a couple of steps back, and make sure that when we talk about respect we are also talking about recognition as well as accountability.

Of course all of this may be implied in Ruggie’s definition, and I wonder if recognition and accountability are just other ways of saying that companies must “know and show” that they respect human rights. My concern is that when you gather business leaders at the UN and tell them that to respect human rights is to treat people with dignity, you may leave them with the mistaken impression that dignity is something they have the power to confer on others, rather than something that makes them answerable to others. Dignity is not something the mighty can grant or deny the meek, and respect is not another word for benevolent gestures companies might make toward communities, workers and other stakeholders. Where people stand, business must yield.

One thought on “Is Respect Really All That Simple?

  1. Pingback: Leadership Mantras | lvgaldieri

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