How to Show Deep Respect
It is probably common to hold that successful thin reading entails that the reader shows the author respect. Call this naïve respect for the author. I write “naïve,” as the view seems feasible that a deeper form of respect can be discerned. Let us consider John Stuart Mill himself, and not only Brennan’s defense of his individualism. What is it to show Mill respect as an author? It may be that naïve respect is necessary, but sometimes not sufficient for the deep form of respect that I have in mind, and which it is possible that researchers should do their best to show authors.
In chapter 2 of his book On Liberty, Mill argued in support of freedom of speech (Mill 1977 ). He defended his views on the grounds that freedom of speech would render desirable states of affairs, in the sense that unhindered debate leads our beliefs away from falsity and into the direction of truth. One of his well-known arguments for this is (p. 229):
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
An evaluation of Mill’s argument, as quoted here, should result in the conclusion that Mill was mistaken (see, e.g., Cohen-Almagor 2017). For instance, in our digital age it is quite easy to see that one thousand anonymous accounts on social media that systematically spread disinformation can overflow political debate so that the dozen-or-so intellectually honest accounts remain unheard. In reality, “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” is often absent.
This evaluation of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech is necessary to respect Mill as an author. But it may not be sufficient. In the view I explore here, showing Mill deep respect as an author also involves taking into account factors other than his words and sentences as they appear. My argument begins with some brief biographical notes.
John Stuart Mill was born on 20 May 1806 to Harriet Barrow and James Mill (Macleod 2016, here and henceforth). He was brought up by radicals intending to equip him with the education he needed to become the leader of the next generation of radicals. By the age of eight, he had been taught both Greek and Latin. At twelve, he had studied most of the classical canon, algebra, Euclid, and the most important Scottish and English historians. At fifteen, he started working on the major treatises in philosophy, psychology, and more. Later in life, Mill suffered from periods of mental crises and depression; it is probable that his radical and experimental upbringing had an effect on Mill’s well-being.
Consider further Mill’s extraordinary intellectual achievements in life. His contributions to logic, economics, ethics, and political philosophy are significant. To mention but one of them, Mill took Jeremy Bentham’s moral theory of utilitarianism, advanced its theoretical value-base of hedonism, and applied it to politics—thereby creating a coherent system-wide theory of political thinking that is still studied and applied by theorists and practitioners to this day. Finally, consider the content of Mill’s moral and political views. In a pre-democratic age, he wrote extensively on gender equality and advocated female suffrage both in his theoretical work and as Member of Parliament. It is no exaggeration to say that Mill was before his time; a brave and honorable political theorist and practitioner championing democratic values.
It is reasonable to say that Mill’s moral character and vast achievements give rise to a certain moral obligations, which are encompassed in a form of deep respect for him as an author. In this view, it is morally appropriate to conduct thick reading of Mill’s texts in addition to the thin reading which has already been discussed as an epistemic and moral necessity. This means that when reading chapter 2 in On Liberty, for instance, we should take the following into account (and possibly more).
First, Mill’s radical upbringing is likely to have induced in him a strong conviction that humans are generally moved by rationally intelligible reasons. It is probable that his belief in the effects of free debate, at least to some extent, can be traced back to his childhood’s extreme focus on the intellectual aspects of life. When reading Mill’s arguments for free speech, it is appropriate to consider his psychology; deep respect for Mill as an author warrants appreciation for how his life began, and later unfolded. As a consequence of this respect, we should refrain from judging Mill for having an, arguably, inadequate understanding of how human beings function (although we can, of course, disagree with him and express this disagreement respectfully). Showing Mill deep respect means that we feel sympathy for his optimistic worldview, and experience a deontic wish to respond to it appropriately.
Second, chapter 2 of On Liberty should be read not only as an individual work, but also as an element of Mill’s collected writings. There are epistemic reasons to study Mill’s argument for free speech in combination with studies of his views on utilitarianism and economics, among other things. But there are also moral reasons to do so. Studying chapter 2 of On Liberty as an element of Mill’s collected writings is to appreciate the chapter for what it is in a wider context, namely as an element of Mill’s liberal democratic political philosophy. It is deeply respectful to Mill to maintain that perspective of his individual works. Doing so means that the reader thinks about them as individual pieces in a puzzle, thus adopting an appropriate attitude toward to the complete picture.
Third, a thin reading of Mill’s arguments for free speech should render the conclusion that Mill was mistaken in this particular issue. However, on a thick reading of it one should realize that Mill stood on the right side of history. I do not mean the winning side (although this is true), or the majority side (Mill was in minority), but the morally praiseworthy side. Showing deep respect for Mill includes acknowledging that his overall project was ethical. We should sense this when reading him, making it an element of our experience of reading Mill.
This form of deep respect should be shown to most authors at most times. There are exceptions to the rule. One is that thick reading is sometimes impossible. For instance, when reading texts by anonymous authors readers cannot consider their psychology. Furthermore, in peer-review processes, reviewers should only conduct thin reading, as it is not their task to consider the societal effects of supporting or discouraging articles, books, and research projects. Therefore, it suffices that reviewers show authors naïve respect; only editors and grant providers should conduct thick reading and aim to show authors deep respect. Tentatively, the rule should be considered to apply when deep respect (1) is epistemically feasible and (2) does not jeopardize the purposes of reading. At least one obvious objection to this should be expected, namely that some authors do not deserve respect. I discuss this objection and the moral standards of deep respect in the subsections that follow.
Godwin’s law is the humorous theory that as an online discussion progresses “it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis, regardless of the original topic” (Godwin’s law n.d.). To anticipate this, I pose the question myself: Should we show deep respect to Adolf Hitler as the author of Mein Kampf? In short, my answer is yes. But the objection draws attention to the problem whether deep respect always entails that the author is dignified, or honored, in the sense of giving praise. In short, my answer is no.
Hitler dismantled democracy in Germany, threw Europe into war, and orchestrated the industrialized murder of six million innocent people. But he was also an author. Against the backdrop of the discussion above, and considering the positive connotations associated with the word “respect,” the claim seems counterintuitive that Hitler’s readers should show him “deep respect.” However, consider the essence of “respect,” as it is described above. The notion means showing “appropriate consideration or recognition.” Phenomenologically, showing respect feels like “trying to see the object as it really is in its own right.” In the case of Hitler, showing him deep respect as an author does not entail approval, but that the reader has an appropriate attitude and experience when reading his book.
These words, which end the autobiographical chapter VII of Mein Kampf, titled “The Revolution,” are the most chilling that I know of: “With the Jews there is no bargaining, but only hard either–or. I however, resolved now to become a politician” (Hitler 1941 , p. 269). The reason why I find them chilling is that I know the historical facts and am therefore aware of the social meaning and implications of Hitler’s writing. I show Hitler deep respect in a sense which is similar to how mountaineers show respect to hazardous cliffs and gorges. My attitude to his words, and my chilling experience when reading them, is appropriate.
“Godwin’s objection” nonetheless merits further elaboration. It is one thing to say that an attitude or experience is appropriate, another to motivate the standards according to which attitudes and experiences should be assessed. What is appropriateness in this context?
Standards of Appropriateness
The standards according to which attitudes and experiences should be assessed are objective; John Stuart Mill is good, Adolf Hitler is evil. For the purposes of this article it must be explained which those standards are and what justifies them. However, first, some clarifications are necessary regarding how the principle respect the author should be understood in the larger context of research ethics.
I think of it as a mid-level principle. Among other things, this means that it is not committed to any particular high-level moral theory. The principle, or more specifically its normative content, can be justified with reference to different ethical theories, such as Kantianism and virtue ethics. It also means that the principle must be balanced against other moral principles before a final conclusion can be reached in any particular case; at least in theory, the principle respect the author can conflict with other principles in research ethics, such as respect for privacy, and on the view defended here none of those principles trumps the others a priori (cf. Beauchamp and Rauprich 2016). Their utilization requires substantial moral deliberation, and some of their normative content is determined upon application rather than in the preceding theoretical work (Ahlin Marceta 2019, pp. 23–31).
The standards of assessment vary depending on the object toward which the reader’s attitude and experience is directed. So far in this article, the objects discussed have been the author’s psychology, their text as a social phenomenon, and their ethics. “Appropriateness” does not mean the same thing for each object. However, in all cases the author’s autonomy, i.e., her degree of self-governance, has a central role to the justification of the evaluative standards. In general, a reader’s attitude should vary according to the degree of autonomy of the author, so that less autonomy warrants a gentle and forgiving attitude whereas more autonomy warrants a strict and non-forgiving attitude.
(1) An appropriate attitude toward, and experience of, an author’s psychology should be assessed according to a standard building solely from the degree of autonomy of the author’s personal development. For instance, readers should relate differently to, on the one hand, an author who was born into a sect and has been manipulated since childhood to develop extreme and irrational behavioral patterns and, on the other hand, an author who has, to the extent that this is possible, chosen her own cognitive composition knowingly and deliberately. The latter should be judged more firmly than the former, as she is more responsible for how she functions psychologically.
(2) An appropriate attitude toward, and experience of, a text as an instance of some social phenomenon should be assessed according to the following standards. First, the degree of autonomy of the author’s contribution to the phenomenon in question matters for these evaluative purposes. Consider an author who adheres to an overarching agenda and writes individual texts than in combination contribute to it. For instance, returning to Brennan’s defense of Mill’s individualism as an example, Brennan has also written at least one book in defense of capitalism (Brennan 2014) and several research articles from a libertarian standpoint, including one in which he criticizes arguments supporting the view that employers have a duty to pay a living wage (Brennan 2019). Suppose, for the argument’s sake, that Brennan thus contributes to neo-liberal political propaganda. (To be clear, treating a text as an instance of any particular social phenomenon must of course be justified with reference to independent factors; see also footnote 1 above.) It makes a difference to which attitude a reader should have when reading Brennan’s defense of Mill’s individualism whether Brennan contributes knowingly and purposefully to an overarching neo-liberal agenda, or whether he does so unknowingly or accidentally. The former should be judged more firmly than the latter, as the contribution is then more autonomous.
Furthermore, it matters to the appropriateness of the reader’s attitude what the social phenomenon in question is. The reader should be neutral with regard to its ideological content, within the limits posed by democratic values as they are understood in the wide, liberal, sense familiar from the Western world after the end of WWII. This means, for instance, that neo-liberal propaganda is a legitimate social phenomenon toward which readers should adopt a tolerant attitude, whereas Nazi propaganda is illegitimate and obliges readers to adopt an intolerant attitude. What is more, readers should adopt an intolerant attitude toward social phenomena that deliberately or accidentally disrupt the conditions for meaningful intellectual debate, such as large-scale disinformation campaigns and ad hominem assaults.
(3) An appropriate attitude toward, and experience of, an author’s ethics should be assessed according to standards known from analytic moral philosophy. For these evaluative purposes, it matters to the reader’s attitude whether the author displays consistent or inconsistent moral beliefs, whether those beliefs are clear or vague, and whether they are justifiable with reference to valid and sound ethical theories. A reader should adopt a skeptical attitude to the extent that the author’s moral beliefs are weak according to these standards, and a trusting attitude to the extent that the beliefs are strong accordingly. Furthermore, as in (1), the reader should judge the author in accordance with the extent to which the author’s beliefs are autonomous, i.e., self-chosen, and to the extent to which the author should be expected to have developed justifiable moral beliefs. For instance, an old and experienced author should be judged more firmly than a young and unexperienced author.
In summary, to show authors respect, it is necessary but sometimes not sufficient to evaluate their words and sentences as they appear. To the extent that the reader is in the epistemic position to make further judgments, deep respect for authors requires that the reader adopts an appropriate attitude toward, and experience of, the author’s psychology, their text as a social phenomenon, and their ethics. Appropriateness, in this context, should be judged according to objective standards. These standards oblige readers to make firm or mild judgments, and to adopt tolerant or intolerant and skeptical or trusting attitudes.
I have argued that the objects toward which our attitudes and experiences should be directed include the author’s psychology, their text as a social phenomenon, and their ethics. However, it has not been made clear why these objects are on the list, nor whether the list is exhaustive. The explanations are that these objects seem relevant for these purposes upon stable and considered reflection, and for the reasons accounted for in (1) through (3) above, and that the list should be thought of as open-ended; it is possible that more objects should be added to it.