The proper object of respect

When two people disagree about something as radical as whether or not there is a god, respect is critical. But let’s be clear. It is people who deserve our respect. Even when they don’t deserve it, it is good of us to grant it–or failing that, to do our best to ignore them. So let us be civil with one another.

The arguments of those who disagree with us do not deserve our respect, especially if they are bad arguments, or rely on false premises. Some arguments are so bad or morally bankrupt, it would be a very bad thing to dignify those arguments with anything other than scorn. Most arguments are not so bad. But the point remains: an argument as such does not deserve respect. People do.

One simple thing that follows from this view is that while it’s probably a bad idea to mock people, I see no reason not to mock bad arguments. It’s not the only or even main thing we should do with bad arguments–presenting counter-arguments is quite often the best approach. But it can be rhetorically effective and, well, satisfying, to demonstrate not just that an argument is faulty or invalid, but ridiculous.

Isn’t it unrealistic to separate people from their arguments in this way? Won’t some people take it personally if we attack their arguments? Yes. And so we need practical wisdom, discernment, and we need to be quick to apologize when we cross the line. And yet it would be disastrous to confuse people and their arguments. People change views. And we change our minds when we dissociate ourselves from even our most dearly held opinions and the arguments (we think) support them. Just as we need to learn to hold our views openly, so also we need to encourage others to do the same. Or else this whole search for truth business is a lost cause.

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