top of page


The Lost Art of Respect for Authority

The Challenges for Respect, Civility and Morality in Society

It used to be that we respected police, teachers, legislators and our parents. We respected people in authority positions because they had just that – authority to keep our streets safe, show us the way to a better life – a moral life; pass laws that improve our lot in society and give us the chance to better ourselves; and teach us right from wrong.

In today’s society in seems uncivil behavior is the rule rather than the exception. Some people make derisive comments towards police; teachers are shoved and even punched in the classroom; legislators barely register on the respect scale; and parents want to be friends to their kids rather than role models who teach respect and help their sons and daughters to become well-adjusted and contributing members of society.

Looking at other cultures, in Japan, respect is earned. Honor is owed. Respect is based on how a person performs. Honor is based on a person’s position. I go along with that because it emphasizes the moral dimension of honor. After all, if we honor another person we can say that we respect that person as well.

In our society we should honor police, teachers, leaders, and parents because of their positions. Whether or not we respect them is based on their attitudes and actions – but whether or not we respect them, we must honor them.

I don’t typically quote the Bible in my blogs but in this case it is instructive. The Bible tells us to honor our father and mother – not because we think they deserve respect or honor – but because of their position. The Bible tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated, and treating them with respect should be a given.

Turning now to morality, moral value comes from our obligations towards others and the rightness of our acts. Moral values or things that are morally good are reflected in our traits of character, dispositions, emotions, motives, and intentions -- in short, persons, groups of persons, and elements of personality. The distinction between judgments of moral and nonmoral value is a matter of the difference in the grounds on or reasons for which they are made.

Love of fellow man is a morally good disposition or emotion; it is normally also a source of happiness. Consider also the expressions "a good life" and "the good life." We sometimes say of a man that he "had a good life"; we also sometimes say that he "led a good life." In both cases we are saying that his life was good; but in the second case we are saying that it was morally good, or useful, or virtuous, while in the first we are saying, in effect, that it was happy or satisfying, that is, that it was good but in a nonmoral sense (i.e. accumulates wealth, power or prestige in life). In the latter case it is because of respect for the rights of others.

So, what does it all mean? That’s like saying what is the meaning of life. Here are some of my thoughts. We should give respect to others and honor them because it is the right thing to do. We want to be respected and honored so we should treat others this way. Unfortunately, all too often in society respect and honor fall by the waist side.

Today we watch as political candidates make disparaging comments about their competitors. We hear offensive epithets hurled at police. We watch and witness teachers being beaten up in the classroom. And then we read offensive comments sometimes in reaction to such behaviors on Twitter. Some people use that anonymous way of communicating to vent their own frustrations.

The ever-increasing violence in society is a by-product of the breakdown of respect, civility, and moral behavior in society. We can blame social media but we also need to look at the way we, as a society, are serving as that proverbial village to raise our children. We need to look deep inside ourselves and ask whether we are doing all that we can to better our society – make it more civil and promote respect for others.

Respect and position are key ingredients in promoting a more ethical society and in the workplace as I have blogged about many times before. I think one of the greatest leadership challenges for today's leaders is earning respect. In generations past, at least a certain level of respect was shown for positional authority. If you were an elder or a superior in some way, showing respect was a cultural norm. In today's culture, respect has to be earned. It's rarely a given based on your position in the hierarchy. In fact, our culture fights hierarchy at every turn. I understand why it is that way but also believe we should begin with a certain level of respect for those in authority positions and then see where we go from there based on their words and actions.

In conclusion, let me leave you with these thoughts:

Whether or not I respect a person says something about their life, values and character. Whether or not I honor a person says something about my life, values and character.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 17, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

Follow Me
  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey Instagram Icon
  • Grey Pinterest Icon
bottom of page