Beyond the satisfaction of our basic needs – for safety, food, shelter and so on – we all have psychological needs; needs which have to do with what it is to be a creature who lives in community. Those needs are things like attachment and friendship and respect. And so creating a community which nurtures the wellbeing of all its members, means creating a community which meets those psychological needs for its members.
When it comes to the psychological need for respect, ethicists would talk about how vulnerable people have a special claim to the restraint of those with power or influence.
Now the ethicists largely think and write about this status or standing in terms of freedom. That is, if you have my respect, I will allow you to make your own choices and will not interfere. I won’t frustrate your choices, won’t arbitrarily remove options, won’t place penalties on some choices, won’t misrepresent or be deceitful about options. A clear example we’re all familiar with is, for example, in giving informed consent to medical treatment. It’s not ethical or respectful if the doctor doesn’t give you all the options or isn’t honest with you about what those options look like. But the basic principle goes far beyond the limited situation of medical decision making and includes all sorts of things like choices about whether or not to speak, and what to say; how to develop your own spirituality; how you spend your time, and what you do with your money or goods, and so on.
So much for the ethicists; their perspective is valuable as far as it goes, and there’s a lot to be said for it. But I would suggest that respect needs to go beyond passive non-interference with others (allowing them to make their own decisions; although that would be a really good first step), and into active building up of one another; encouraging, enabling and equipping one another; expanding the range of options available to others, and doing what we can to invite and give permission for others to explore the options available to them, to the full.
So respect might not just be about others not controlling what you do, what you say, what you wear… but actively creating opportunities for you to try new things, develop your gifts, and be involved in different ways, so that you can discover the place and role that is most fitting for who you are.
In the end, this kind of respect allows people to feel that they truly belong. That the network of relationships in a community will sustain them in a healthy way, allow them freedom and integrity, and encourage and equip them as they grow in maturity. And while ethics and “being a good person,” now often plays out for us on a much larger, even on a global, scale; taking care and paying attention to our local network of relationships, creating that space of respectful and safe belonging, allows us to create what one ethicist has described as a “moral homeland.” A place defined by its relationships where people can truly and deeply belong, grow, and flourish.
I would encourage you all to consider what you can do to help create such a moral homeland within your own sphere of influence.