Sunday, March 2, 2014

Respect: the Deontic Cycle of Attention, Duty, and Obligation

Respect: we all know what it is, yet it's hard to define, and sometimes in short supply out there

I started on a familiar path, then went farther in order to explore a new-to-me section along the New River Trail. I rode out to the west end of the Arizona Canal, to the Skunk Creek area where I've been before, then crossed the bridge and followed the New River Trail northwards a few miles.

Maybe it was because I was riding this trail while the Arizona governor was deciding whether or not to veto SB 1062, I'm not sure, but the sign above caused me to stop and consider its many messages much longer than one might think necessary.

There are three main message areas: SHARE the trail. YIELD in a specified, logical hierarchy. And, most relevant to this particular post, RESPECT, itself also divided into three: OTHER VISITORS, THE LAND AND WILDLIFE, and TRAIL RULES. My first response to this sign, to be quite open, was that it represented some idealistic, utopian view which made me wonder what bright-eyed sign author would possibly ascribe to the typical trail users I encounter such lofty capacities of politeness and compliance.

But then (and I ask you to consider my probable mood, given that a majority of my state's legislators had just voted to pass a bill which tried to erase 140 years of progress in civil rights, betraying a strong desire to resurrect the horrible phrase "we don't serve y'all kind in here") I thought, you have to have high expectations of your fellow man in order to encourage civility. Perhaps this sign with its high aspirations would elevate the thoughts of my fellow trails users, to inspire them somewhat to aim higher.

SHARE the trail is a somewhat complex notion, given its relatively narrow width. Two pedestrians meeting from opposite directions, or one roller blader swinging his arms enthusiastically, more or less consume the entire width. For a cyclist, sharing this trail in itself involves a degree of dodging, weaving, slowing, increased awareness, and flexibility. Sharing is linked to Respect directly in this way, with the "slow down and communicate when passing" item under Respect.

The YIELD hierarchy is commonly displayed on its own around here. As I often do, I thought about the horses. I've mentioned it before, but I always do yield to horses, and will typically dismount and stand beside my bike, when it seems like the safe thing to do, on a narrow mountain trail, for example. But on this trail next to the end of the Arizona Canal, I wondered how many horses I would really see, since they are fairly rare. Six total, as it turned out. You never know.

It was the bottom section on respect that struck me most. I know we all think we know what it is, and that we all want it, and that we know how to give it, and so on, but I stood there next to sign and tried to define "respect" specifically, and got somewhat stuck. What is it, exactly? How does it work, in detail? What's "respect" really about? I had several ideas, but decided to set those questions on the shelf in order to continue riding along the trail.

When I got home, I looked it up, and found a satisfyingly complicated and thorough exploration on the Stanford site. A lot of it is relevant to respect on this trail and in the public or civil sphere in general, but in particular, I found this section particularly relevant: "respect is ... something that is owed to, called for, deserved, elicited, or claimed by the object. We respect something not because we want to but because we recognize that we have to respect it (Wood 1999); respect involves 'a deontic experience'—the experience that one must pay attention and respond appropriately."

"Deontic" was a new word for me, meaning something having to do with duty and obligation. And the part about paying attention, and responding appropriately because we have to, or because we must, or because it is the moral thing to do, resonated with my thoughts on the ride.

Sometimes respect is compulsory. I do not think I would be far wrong in thinking that for at least some of fellow trail users, including some close friends and even family members, one sense of this is the respect commanded by a cowboy packing a six shooter. This type I suppose is the one compelled by threat of violence. Dirty Hairy, Rambo, American movie archetypes fit here.

A related type, still in the authority zone, is something like the British Bobbie, still compulsory due to authority, but not so much by the direct threat of violence, but rather by a sense of propriety, order, governmental power, and at least in the older "Dixon of Dock Green" image of the Bobbie, because he is known to you and you to him. Police in the U.K. still often do not carry guns. Whatever respect they command, whatever authority they wield, does not issue (at least not close to hand) from a gun.

There is also respect due to an analysis of the utility of it. For example, bees are a type of wildlife we should respect and nurture, not merely from the threat of their stings, but more importantly because of the utility of their pollination of the plants which grow so much of our food. This respect is made perhaps a bit more rounded and wholehearted for me through an understanding of the methods and lives of bees, which are truly remarkable, and to my eye beautiful, creatures. Flowers, by their connections with bees and by their own merits, may fall similarly into this category.

Objects of respect, of both utility and beauty, that I encountered along the New River Trail
Self-respect, the lack of which is often very evident, seems to me a foundation for other types of respect. The Stanford article, referring to the philosopher Rawls, says "He argues that individuals' access to self-respect is to a large degree a function of how the basic institutional structure of a society defines and distributes the social bases of self-respect, which include the messages about the relative worth of citizens that are conveyed in the structure and functioning of institutions, the distribution of fundamental political rights and civil liberties, access to the resources individuals need to pursue their plans of life, the availability of diverse associations and communities within which individuals can seek affirmation of their worth and their plans of life from others, and the norms governing public interaction among citizens. Since self-respect is vital to individual well-being, Rawls argues that justice requires that social institutions and policies be designed to support and not undermine self-respect. Rawls argues that the principles of justice as fairness are superior to utilitarian principles insofar as they better affirm and promote self-respect for all citizens." With the veto of SB 1062 still an open question while this ride was happening, that seemed like a particularly potent observation.

I felt like the five kids on skateboards who were not sharing the trail, not yielding to pedestrians or horses, and who were harassing other users including cyclists, were not on board the respect bandwagon at all: not of civility in general, nor toward others using the trail, nor even toward themselves. One of them had a plastic bag of spray paint cans slung over his shoulder. The structures and walls built to enhance the bridges and infrastructure along the trail strike me as expressions of the respect of a society for persons who would use that trail, while kids defacing those structures with spray paint strike me as disrespectful of those very same ideas.

Three of the six horses and riders I saw on this ride

Globe mallow, one of my favorite desert flowers, tough (loves heat and dryness) and loved by pollinators

A bridge structure across the canal which can represent respect, and also its opposite when defaced

The city ordinances enumerated on the sign in the park also relate to a form of respect (for laws)

Some of the other visitors to the trail, who I communicated with when I passed

This map also expresses respect for visitors, on several levels, similar to other informative signage

Another form of the respect of persons: a place to rest, with shade, in a design pleasing to the eye

Out near the end of the Arizona Canal, the trail (along the left) is again shaded by native trees

Signs like one at the top of this post hold up a mirror to us. They remind us of what we know we ought to do, even what we ought to be. One has only to rise to the challenges it presents in order to do the right thing, and be the admirable, respectful person, who is also worthy of respect, I suppose. Why don't those taggers on skateboards follow the sign, too; why don't they try to do that, to be that better person? That's the question, isn't it? Why don't we take better care of bees, or flowers for that matter? Why don't all of us pay more attention to them, and to our duties and obligations? 

Where does this deontic insufficiency come from? I don't know. I think I wish to understand it better, though. Maybe I will understand more of it through further rides along trails marked by signs which try to remind us to do better. According to that trail map, the New River Trail goes all the way to Happy Valley Road. It's a long ride, but maybe it's where I ought to be.



  1. Dear JRA, I love your writing. It's a source of thoughtfulness and pleasure to me. I haven't said it in a while, because I only know a few ways to say "wow", but: wow. (Had to pay respects). Deontology is my wrestling mat, and you presented it quite well. Cheers, V.

    1. Thanks Vannevar, that's very nice of you to say. I think I was particularly struck by the "attention" aspect of it, and the way in which the sign itself plays a central role in that: if I understand it correctly, the sign draws attention to a duty or obligation which we must generally be aware of, which we then pay attention to, probably by then paying attention to the object of the obligation or duty (another person, wildlife, or, interestingly, other rule about the trail which themselves draw our attention to other objects of obligation or duty), and then by paying attention to what it is that we are supposed to do, or not to do, with respect to that object, in order to execute the cycle of respect. Which, often enough, results in or enables a cycle of mutual respect, a reflection of this from another. Wow, actually.


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