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Fr. 389

September 11, 2013

One way of further nuancing Stout’s position concerning whether or not to accord respect to one’s interlocutor would be through mapping Charles Taylor’s dual notion of respect from Multiculturalism onto the problem of subject, respect and moral cores in Stout. Although Taylor’s discussion concerns the respect that one displays towards other cultures and civilizations, the change in scale does not alter the essence of the notion.

Taylor begins his discussion by tackling the question of whether some cultures are inherently better than others. With this comes the attendant question: are we obligated to admire or, less strongly, respect other cultures? Taylor’s response is itself admirable for the way in which it manages the thorny issue of respect, for there is not one single form of respect at issue here but, instead, two: provisional and earned. What difference is there between the two?

Of the provisional, Taylor notes that each and every culture manifests a form of life and offers a glimpse at one particular development of “human fauna and flora in the wild”, as it were. Insofar as this form is to be remarked for its singularity and the fact of its existence and thus merits a certain respect in that a particular form of life has been developed, honed and promoted, singularity and existence do not of themselves warrant immediate and thoroughgoing respect. After all, the existence and form of a culture are contingent events and formations. Moreover, such cultures might promote behavior and practices that are to be found reprehensible by the wider population.

It with this in mind that Taylor puts forward the notion of a provisional respect. While this provisional respect does not secure admiration for a given culture, it does grant the culture in question the benefit of the doubt until such a time as the person being called on to respect or admire in some deeper sense has had sufficient time to explore and come to understand that same culture. Although this investigator will never fully come to know this culture from the inside, there remains with sufficient time, effort and empathy the possibility of a hermeneutic moment (“the fusion of horizons”) wherein the investigator’s background culture and that investigated coincide to a sufficient extent that the investigator may come to understand the culture in a way approximating that of its own adherents. More concretely, in the case of cannibalism, this moment might rule out denying respect to all cannibals merely in virtue of being cannibals.  On the contrary, it might well accord it to endocannibals, who, in certain cases, practice cannibalism as a means of grieving and mourning the dead, while refusing it to exocannibals for whom the practice is mere bloodsport.

It is only following this hermeneutic moment that earned respect can be granted or refused. To reprise the case above, whereas endocannibalism adds to the diverse web of emotionally charged human activities or enriches the proverbial human tapestry, exocannibalism (in its most stereotypical form) promotes mindless violence and suffering. Accordingly, while the former would meet with both the investigator’s provisional and earned respect, the latter would receive only the provisional, which would then be withdrawn when the earned respect does not obtain.

It seems that Stout’s question of respect and responsibility could be mapped onto this model easily enough. To all individuals, we would owe at the outset a provisional respect until such a time as the hermeneutic moment arrives and we come to forge or make an understanding with them, creating as it were a language tailored to ourselves and our interlocutor. If, at this time, we find their position to be worthy of respect, they would then be granted a deeper respect, that of the earned, and would be recognized as a subject to whom certain inalienable rights are owed. If, on the other hand, their position is not found to be worthy of respect, then the rights provisionally accorded to them as a subject would be at least temporarily withheld.

While this application of Taylor seems rather appealing in the present circumstances, Stout’s position carries with it other ambiguities, a subject for future reflection.

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