Reflection 17: Decency Defined

“Decency” is a useful summarizing term, evoking certain attitudes and behaviors, and disqualifying others. But Radical Decency’s goal is broad and ambitious: To provide a more humane, orienting frame of reference for handling the endless variety of situations and circumstances that constitute our lives. To move effectively toward this goal, a detailed roadmap for understanding what we mean by “decency” is essential.

Toward that end, I have evolved this working definition:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

Testing this definition’s utility, over time, I always refer back to this intensely practical question, at the heart of Radical Decency: How well does it support us in making the day by day choices that can best guide us toward more nourishing, purposeful, and generative lives and a meaningfully contribution to a better world?


Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness, and justice – each is a broad concept, open to a wide variety of interpretations. And each is more commonly viewed as a distinct value, at best only loosely related to the others. However, operationalizing Radical Decency, we need to view these 7 values as a unified whole, with each working with – and magnifying – the others’ impact.

The discussion that follows describes each of these 7 values and then offers key examples of how they interconnect and mutually reinforce one another.


Respect is Radical Decency’s entry way value; the orienting context in which the other values can be more productively cultivated. When it is absent, our empathy and desire to do justice quickly dissipate in the face of behaviors we find uncomfortable or offensive. As a nonprofit executive once told me, far too many donors are only interested in “pretty little white girls in wheelchairs” – and are decidedly uninterested in “overweight, verbally abrasive African Americans.”

The mainstream culture typically associates respect with politeness: Expressing yourself with civility; making space for others. Properly conceived, however, it encompasses much more, challenging us to consistently presume good will and, with it, a seriousness of purpose; to sustain that presumption in the face of provocation; and to find value in the contribution of others.

The competitive, win/lose values that pervade our culture make manipulative and underhanded behavior all too common. So, it goes without saying, we need to apply these principles with an appropriate level of caution. But our self-protective instincts need to operate in a larger context in which we actively seek to interrupt our automatic inclination to (for example) label anyone who disagrees with our political outlook as a heartless conservative or knee jerk liberal; or to view a critical friend as selfish or mean.

A belief in the other’s bad motives needs to be our last option. We need to strive, instead, to make sense of people with whom we disagree; to see them as people who, seeking to get by in a difficult world, are doing the best they can.

Understanding and Empathy

Primed by our habit of “respect” to be curious, rather than judgmental and dismissive, there is a natural flowering of understanding and empathy: Our ability to be aware of, and receptive to, differing outlooks, beliefs and communication styles. We are better able to see the world as others see it (understanding, or cognitive discernment), and to experience in our bones what it feels like to be that other person (empathy, or emotional and visceral discernment).

Many people instinctually resist these “soft and fuzzy” values, seeing them as an invitation to bullying and domination. Far from advancing the goal of better lives and a better world, their consistent application will (they tell themselves) simply invite victimization. Driven by this fear, they are drawn to a “fight fire with fire” approach – seeking to overpower their adversaries, silencing their voices.

This approach will never succeed – if our goal is a more a humane life. Adopting it, even a “win” becomes a loss since it perpetuates the very value system we seek to overcome: Compete and win, dominate and control.

The stark truth is this: We’ll never be able to bully or manipulate our spouse – or the world – into being more relational and decent.

Acceptance and Appreciation

We live in a culture where the norm is to see our group as “good” and the other side as “bad.” But this dismissive/judgmental mindset flies in the face of a deeper truth: The full range of human thoughts, feelings, and actions are within all of us – from the most loving and generative to the most hateful and destructive. So while there is, indeed, a significant subset of “permanently stuck” people who are locked into ways of living that inflict pain on others, the great majority of us have, within us, the ability to nurture our better instincts and, thus, to lead more decent lives.

This understanding leads directly to my inclusion of acceptance and appreciation as key decency values. Cultivating these qualities we become active agents in the effort to nurture and support the emergence of this potential in others and, crucially, in our selves as well.

“Acceptance” is grounded in the Buddhist belief that, because we are human, all things human are within us and will come our way – from the most uplifting to the most painful and demoralizing. Thus, it makes no sense to treat an adversary – be it another person or unappreciated part of our own psyche – as an aberration or an affront. Better to view them as inevitable parts of living and, thus, with a sense of acceptance and equanimity.

“Appreciation” grows out of the realization, central to Imago couples therapy, that everyone (and every thought and feeling we carry within us) makes complete sense if we just know enough about this person’s innate disposition, history, adaptations to that history, and hopes and dreams for the future. Given this reality, appreciation for the pain, confusion, and struggle that we, and others, experience as we seek to get by in life – though highly aspirational – is a realistic and worthy goal.

Note, importantly, that we are talking about acceptance and appreciation of each “person” and not of that person’s beliefs and actions. Thus, even as we cultivate an increasing sense of acceptance oand appreciation of a person with whom we fundamentally disagree, we can continue to be fierce and determined advocates for the values in which we believe.

When we bring these mindsets to every interaction – accepting each person for who they are; appreciating the fact that a very human struggle has led them to this place in life – we turn away from the “right/wrong, good/bad” mindset that permeates our culture, nurturing instead the kind of mutual and authentic interactions that are the hallmark of decency.

Fairness and Justice

Being fair, we are alive to the consequences of our choices for our selves and others, and seek to balance them in an equitable way. Being just, we cultivate and maintain a sense of accountability for our own actions and the actions of others.

Notice importantly that, from a Radical Decency perspective, the goal is not to judge our selves and others. Instead, we are reaching for an ongoing, fearless inventory of what we and others are doing that will, in turn, push us to consistently challenge the inequities and injustices that litter our life and world.

A full-throttle commitment to fairness and justice is the crucial, rubber-hit-the-road test of our commitment to Radical Decency. It is at this point – and at this point only – that we become active agents for fundamental change. And our commitment to these values needs to be across-the-board, extending:

  • To our political and communal engagements;
  • To our personal relationships – fully recognizing that bullying or silencing a spouse or child perpetuates the same patterns of inequity and injustice that permeate the world; and
  • To our selves – being equally effective in countering these behaviors when they’re directed toward us.

The Interconnectedness of Decency’s 7 Values

To see how these qualities reinforce one another, consider “respect.” In the absence of “understanding,” “empathy,” “fairness” and “justice,” respect is pallid and incomplete, exemplified at its worse by the cold, even cruel person who is unfailingly polite.

Similarly, fairness and justice – uninformed by respect, understanding, and empathy – invite angry, adversarial, and dismissive behavior. And, when you think about it, history is littered with examples of this behavior: The person, devoted to the principles of his religion or utopian political sect, that is severely, even murderously dismissive of nonbelievers.

Another example of the 7 values deep interconnectivity is the relationship between empathy, on the one hand, and understanding and justice, on the other.

Because we live in an indecent world, we need to manage our feelings of empathy judiciously. Understanding this enables us to be more discerning, measured and appropriately protective when, viewing the object of our instinctual “empathic” concern through the lens of “justice,” we take his duplicitous or manipulative behaviors into account. And, on the flip side, embracing an active sense of “justice,” we are better able to act on feelings of “empathy” even when it involves sacrifice, risk, or discomfort.

Finally, notice how acceptance and appreciation reinforce and solidify the other 5 values.

We, humans, are wired to be tribal in our outlook, seeing the best in people like us even as we judge others by their worst examples. For this reason, our vocation of decency is deeply challenged when we are dealing with people whose ideas or ways of living feel alien to us.

How in the world can I maintain an attitude of respect, understanding, empathy, fairness and justice when “that” idiot shows up on the TV screen? When my overwhelming instinct is to yell at him or switch the channel? How can I maintain a decency practice – with these kinds of people – when the entire effort feels like a grim, uncomfortable and, ultimately, untenable exercise in pretending to be someone I am not.

This is precisely the point at which “acceptance” and “appreciation” come to the fore. Cultivating these values in every interaction and in every context of living – so that, with time, they become increasingly habitual – we are empowered:

  1. To vigorously resist the “unfair” and “unjust” byproducts of that person’s outlook and choices; and, at the same time,
  2. To “accept” the fact that he is just another human being struggling to find his way in the world and “appreciate” his essential humanity; a humanity that is, in the end, no different than ours; and, thus,
  3. To interrupt and displace our knee-jerk reactivity to this person, allowing us to engage with him with “respect,” “understanding,” “empathy,” “fairness,” and “justice.”


I have been developing, honing, and revising my definition of decency over the course of many years. But like everything else in Radical Decency, it is – and remains – a work in progress. So I invite you to evaluate it with these questions in mind:

  • How effective is it in moving you – day by day, choice by choice – toward a better life and a meaningful contribution to a better world; and
  • Are there ways in which it can be improved upon?