Disagreeing is not necessarily an act of disrespect. Neither is disapproving of another person’s choices or requests necessarily unempathetic. Conflating respect with agreement or empathy with approval obscures each beyond recognition. You can respect me and also disagree with something I think. You can empathize with me and also disapprove of something I request. Respect does not imply unconditional agreement, nor does empathy imply unconditional approval. Maybe you know something I don’t know or see something I’m not seeing. The only way we can find out is if we talk and think things through together, with mutual respect and empathy, and with a willingness to even have some conflicts and hold some differences.
Implying respecting someone necessarily involves agreeing with everything he thinks, or that empathizing with someone necessarily involves approving of everything she wants is mistaken. “Respect” and “empathy” are obscurely used to manipulate others into agreement and approval under the pretence of moral superiority whenever this is done. We vandalize real respect and empathy when we do this. Indeed, one of the highest expressions of respect is recognizing and honouring someone’s humanity and dignity, even if you disagree with some of his opinions. One of the highest expressions of empathy is seeing life from someone’s unique perspective, mentally and emotionally, even if you disapprove of some of her requests.
The integrity of our shared life together—at home, at school, at work, and in society—depends greatly on our ability to disagree in a spirit of respect and empathy.
Want to change the world? Start by changing yourself. Want to confront corruption? Start by confronting corruption within your own soul. I will not make the world a better place by blaming its problems on everyone but myself. Pointing out the speck in your eye while ignoring the log in my own will not benefit you or me in the long run. Be wary of anyone who is focused on changing everyone but themselves. Behaviour like this can hide manipulative desires to conform the world around oneself.
Perhaps the most extraordinary and daunting thing I can do is face the corruption within my own soul while assuming responsibility for becoming a better human being. A more honest, truthful, compassionate, loving, tough, courageous human being. To wake up each day and persevere in the hard journey of developing character. One of the greatest gifts you can give the world is good character. For we recreate whatever is within our hearts, for better or for worse. If your work is inspired by love and peace and compassion, then you will leave a legacy of love and peace and compassion. If your work is inspired by resentment and angst and hatred, then you will leave a legacy of resentment and angst and hatred.
Blaming others is easy. Blaming the past is easy. Blaming the system is easy. But choosing to change yourself, despite what you’ve been given—that’s hard.
Living by only one virtue can ironically devolve into unethical behaviour. An honest person can become mean, disrespectful, and uncaring. A respectful person can become afraid of offending others, even slightly, that she denies her needs and desires in chronic deference. A compassionate person can become focused on alleviating every distressful cry that he instinctively coddles others like infants, thereby undermining their development. A tough person can become emotionally callous towards the suffering and needs of others. A courageous person can become reckless and foolish, acting destructively towards herself or others. Indeed, ethical maturity comes not by embracing and elevating a single virtue to the exclusion of all others. Ethical maturity comes by developing multiple virtues in such a way that they balance and supplement each other.
Having uni-ethical vision leaves me blind to ethical issues that go beyond my field of virtue. It is a kind of moral myopia. It’s ethical tunnel vision. I see and interpret everything in one way only. I respond to every problem with the same solution. Sometimes compassionate people see tough people as cruel, and tough people see compassionate people as weak. Or sometimes kind people see honest people as insensitive, and honest people see kind people as insincere. Rightly or wrongly, they judge one another according to their own virtue. Broadly virtuous people learn to be honest and kind and respectful and compassionate and tough and courageous, among other things, responding to each person and situation with a fuller range of moral sensitivity and skill. They develop multi-ethical awareness. Like a musician who can proficiently play in multiple keys and genres, they add whatever is called for in a way that is ethically sensitive, relevant, and harmonious.