December 2, 2023


Respecting a person as a moral principle is anchored in the fundamental belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being.

More by Waweru Njoroge

The Ethical Tightrope: balancing respect for individuals and positions in politics

The Ethical Tightrope: balancing respect for individuals and positions in politics

Photo courtesy BBC

In the intricate fabric of political discourse, the tug-of-war between respecting an individual and honoring the position they hold is a labyrinthine journey, guided by the ethical compass of respecting persons and the dynamics of power.

Anchored in moral philosophy, the debate encompasses the complexities of earned versus demanded respect, intertwining with political positions, broken promises, and the contentious realm of freedom of speech.

Respecting Persons: A Moral Principle

Respecting a person as a moral principle is anchored in the fundamental belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being. This principle serves as the cornerstone of ethical conduct, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and valuing the humanity of individuals regardless of their societal standing or position of authority.

At its core, this moral principle urges us to treat each person with consideration, empathy, and fairness. It transcends external factors such as social status, wealth, or power, emphasizing the inherent value that every individual possesses by virtue of being human. Respecting others in this context involves acknowledging their rights, autonomy, and unique perspectives, fostering an environment where diverse voices are heard and understood.

By upholding the principle of respecting individuals, ethical conduct encourages a society built on justice, equality, and compassion. It guides interactions, decisions, and policies to ensure that the dignity of every person is upheld and protected. This principle serves as a moral compass, promoting a collective commitment to fostering a world where all individuals are treated with the respect and consideration they deserve.

Demanding Respect: The Facade of Influence

Let’s put the moral philosophy of respect aside and look at the contrary position. The concept of the facade of influence in the political arena revolves around the question of whether respect should be demanded or earned through actions and integrity. This notion suggests that simply insisting on respect without substantiating it with ethical conduct and responsible governance can be perceived as a superficial or artificial exercise in influence.

The connection between respect and trust is emphasized in this concept. Trust, a vital component of genuine influence, is built through the consistent demonstration of character and competence. Actions and ethical behavior play a crucial role in earning respect and, by extension, cultivating trust. If respect is not substantiated by these elements, it becomes a mere facade—a surface-level claim to influence that lacks the depth of substance and authenticity.

In the political realm, this concept underscores the importance of leaders focusing on ethical conduct, responsible governance, and a genuine commitment to the well-being of the constituents. True influence and respect emerge organically when leaders consistently demonstrate integrity, competence, and a dedication to the principles that foster trust within the society they serve. The facade of influence, in contrast, highlights the shortcomings of relying solely on demands for respect without the necessary ethical foundation.

Political Positions and the Broken Promises Quandary

The debate surrounding respect for political leaders in relation to broken promises centers on the connection between respecting the person and respecting the position, particularly in the political arena. In the context of the Kenyan political landscape, as highlighted in an article I penned in October 2022, the issue of broken promises becomes a crucial point of contention.

The argument is that, traditionally, political positions come with a certain level of inherent respect due to the authority they hold. However, the article emphasizes the importance of holding leaders accountable for the promises they make to their constituents. When political respect is tied to the position, citizens may feel a sense of betrayal when those in power fail to fulfill their commitments. This challenges the conventional notion that positions of authority automatically warrant respect.

The debate underscores the idea that respect for political leaders should not be unconditional but rather contingent on ethical conduct and the fulfillment of duties associated with the position. In other words, respect should be earned through the responsible exercise of power and the adherence to promises made during campaigns. This perspective aims to shift the focus from a mere acknowledgment of authority to a more nuanced evaluation of a leader’s actions and commitment to the welfare of the people.

Freedom of Speech: Critique Versus Disrespect

The incident involving Nuru Okanga’s arrest for insulting President William Ruto brings to light the complex interplay between freedom of speech, critique, and the boundaries of disrespect in a democratic society. In democratic settings, the ability to criticize political leaders is fundamental to holding them accountable and fostering an informed citizenry. However, this incident underscored the ongoing debate about when criticism may cross the line into disrespect.

Critique, in the context of political discourse, implies a thoughtful and reasoned analysis of policies, actions, or decisions taken by public figures. It is an essential tool for fostering transparency, accountability, and the overall health of a democracy. Citizens have the right to express their opinions and challenge those in power through constructive criticism.

On the other hand, disrespect involves the use of offensive language, personal attacks, or derogatory remarks that go beyond the realm of constructive critique. In the case of Nuru Okanga, his use of abusive language, calling President Ruto “very stupid” and an “idiot,” exemplifies a form of expression that can be deemed disrespectful.

The legal action taken against Okanga, charging him with the publication of false information under the computer misuse and cyber-crimes act, reflects the government’s stance on maintaining a balance between freedom of expression and preventing the spread of false or defamatory information.

In navigating this balance, societies must grapple with the challenge of distinguishing between legitimate critique and outright disrespect. Striking the right balance is crucial for preserving the integrity of democratic discourse while preventing the erosion of individual dignity and public order. This incident prompts ongoing discussions about the appropriate limits on freedom of speech and the role of legal measures in addressing disrespectful expressions in the public domain.

Striking the Equilibrium: Ethical Navigation

Navigating the ethical labyrinth of politics necessitates a delicate equilibrium. Balancing the reverence for individuals and their positions is akin to an intricate dance within this landscape. The clash between moral imperatives, the need to show respect, unmet commitments, and the freedom to critique authority figures forms a complex terrain.

Achieving this equilibrium hinges on a few crucial aspects. Firstly, ethical conduct becomes the cornerstone for earning respect. Political leaders must demonstrate integrity, honesty, and a commitment to ethical principles, as it lays the foundation for credibility and respect.

Secondly, fulfilling promises holds paramount importance. It’s not merely about making commitments but about honoring them. This action cultivates trust and credibility, forming a crucial element in ethical political leadership.

Moreover, navigating criticism demands a nuanced approach. Holding authority figures accountable is essential for a healthy democracy, yet this critique must thread the needle between holding them accountable and avoiding disrespect. Constructive criticism, rooted in a genuine concern for better governance, can foster growth and improvement without undermining the position or dignity of those in power.

Ultimately, ethical political leadership thrives on a delicate balance between these elements. It requires a continuous, conscious effort to uphold ethical conduct, fulfill promises, and engage in responsible critique, thereby fostering an environment where respect is earned and sustained through ethical behavior and actions.


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