Human life is one of the paramount values, but it does not necessarily mean that it receives the respect it deserves. One may argue that contemporary American society leaves much to be desired in this respect, especially when it comes to families. As the place where respect for life usually begins, families are extremely important but do not fare particularly well themselves. Substance abuse, prejudice, and disregard for rights undermine respect for human life, which is why social institutions, including family, need to address these issues, although different psychological approaches may disagree on the solutions.
Family Disintegration and Its Impact
Family is the basic unit of most societies, including that of contemporary America. One may define it as “an intimate domestic group made up of people related to one another by bonds of blood, sexual mating or legal rights” (Oko-Jaja, 2020, p. 361). As the crucial primary group, family plays a key role in influencing people’s behaviors and worldviews, including respect for human life or lack thereof. However, it can only fit this role successfully if it is functioning stably for the benefit of all its members. Unfortunately, it had not been the case in the recent history of the United States.
Family disintegration, which refers to the gradual weakening of familial ties and the corresponding decrease in the benefits they can provide, presents a serious threat to the productive psychological development of its members (Oko-Jaja, 2020). It is especially important with regards to children because their behavioral scripts are particularly malleable, which means they can suffer the most from being raised in a dysfunctional, disintegrating family. In particular, such families rarely, if ever, can instill children the proper respect for human life.
Historically speaking, there are numerous reasons behind the increasing rates of family disintegration in the contemporary United States. The inclusion of women into the workforce produced a situation where both parents are working to support the family, which, in turn, can lead to a lack of time for the children’s upbringing (Oko-Jaja, 2020). Similarly, increased levels of work-induced stress in parents can lead to excessive criticism in relationships, which undermines families even further (Oko-Jaja, 2020).
Finally, the sexual liberation movement lowered the barriers to entering sexual relationships in general and marriage in particular, with a side effect of people creating families without being psychologically ready to foster a long-term loving and respectful relationship (Oko-Jaja, 2020). Thus, there are objective historical reasons that make contemporary families less stable than they might have been. It makes contemporary families more susceptible to disruptive influences, such as substance abuse but does not change the fact that they still can and should play a crucial role in fostering respect for human life.
Recreational drug use and substance addiction can hurt a person’s upbringing and undermine any attempts to foster respect for human life. To begin with, when family members are drunkards or substance abusers, they tend to neglect to provide for their close ones and care for children (Oko-Jaja, 2020). Moreover, people under the influence of alcohol or mind-altering substances can engage in violent and harmful behaviors. Even if the person is not a family member, they can still serve as a negative role model and impact one’s psychological development for the worse. In either case, the addict’s necessity to procure more drugs or alcohol can easily overcome prosocial and altruistic motivations. As a result, substance abuse can lead to the devaluation of human life and dignity that are perceived as secondary to the gratification of one’s substance problem.
Psychologically speaking, substance abuse impacts one’s personal development through the demonstration and gradual internalization of behaviors that assign no value to human life. Oko-Jaja (2020) rightfully notes that substance-abusing family members almost invariably turn out to be negative role models. Relations in the families affected by substance abuse are characterized by a lack of trust and care, general neglect, and psychological and physical violence.
From the behaviorist psychological perspective, a person growing up around addicts would learn to perceive such behaviors as a norm. Consequently, such a person would internalize and reproduce violent antisocial behaviors rather than altruist or prosocial ones, further undermining respect for human life. From this standpoint, it is necessary to limit exposure to substance abuse-related behaviors and promote positive role models instead. Family and educational institutions are the most important in this respect, while medical institutions and social workers bear the brunt of helping those already affected. Measures against substance abuse include but are not limited to educational interventions, medical help to addicts, and social work effort for the productive reintegration into society and preservation of families affected.
Normalization of prejudicial treatment is yet another factor that severely undermines respect for human life in contemporary American society. People may discriminate against others for personal reasons, but it usually extends to entire groups, often based on race, ethnicity, sex, or other easily assessable features. While prejudice degrades respect for human life among all population groups, its impact on children is especially severe because their social scripts are easier to influence and modify. Among children, prejudice leads to humiliation, bullying, and mobbing, both in schools and beyond educational settings (Ronay, 2019). Being exposed to prejudice or practicing it devaluates human dignity and, potentially, life.
There are different psychological perspectives to explain how prejudice can influence one’s attitude toward human life negatively. From a behavioral standpoint, growing up in an atmosphere of the prejudice reinforces corresponding behaviors. It may include being aggressive and dismissive or hiding the traits that provoke prejudice, being ashamed of them, and, consequently, severely damaging one’s self-esteem and self-respect (Ronay, 2019).
Alternatively, humanistic psychology would argue that overzealous behaviorism threatens to simplify the issue (Rich, 2017). Rather than focusing on behaviors learned by imitation, replication, and reinforcement, humanistic psychology would require a qualitative approach and an understanding of why specific people demonstrate prejudice in specific contexts. Correspondingly, behavioral psychology would advise focusing on monitoring and preventing prejudicial behaviors among children, with efforts involving family, peers, and educators alike (Ronay, 2019). Humanistic psychology, on the other hand, would advise working with specific perpetrators of prejudice to address the causes behind their disruptive actions.
Human Rights Neglect
Treating a person decently implies respect for physical, mental, and social well-being alike. Ronay (2019) notes that the right to live is closely related to other fundamental rights, such as dignity, liberty, security, or freedom of conscience. From this standpoint, a lack of respect toward human life is merely a specific case of a more general tendency to disrespect human rights as a whole. This disrespect can also be explained and rationalized in psychological terms.
Much like in the example above, behavioral and humanistic psychology would agree on the detrimental effects of disregard for human life but provide different explanations. Behaviorist psychology would interpret it as a result of learned and reinforced reactions. For instance, if an act of physical aggression that potentially threatens life yields gains, such as increased respect, and there are not enough discouraging factors, this behavior is reinforced (Ronay, 2019). Conversely, humanistic psychology would insist on viewing people not as philosophical zombies inventing or recreating behaviors but as individual actors with unique motivations. Thus, it would concentrate not on how negative behaviors are learned and replicated by on what produces them in the first place to address the reasons behind them.
Therefore, behavioral psychology would advise reinforcing desired behaviors, such as rewarding respect for human rights while discouraging disrespect. Alternatively, humanistic psychology would suggest instilling children with the understanding of every person as a unique human being with inherent value worthy of respect. In either case, family, educational institutions, and peer groups should be among the key actors in the process.
To summarize, disrespect for human life in American society can take many forms, and the answer to it depends on the psychological perspective employed. Family is a crucial institution for psychological development, and its disintegration can have a catastrophic effect. Substance abuse, prejudice, and neglect of human rights are common manifestations of disrespect for human life. Behavioral psychology would argue that these come from the actions learned and reinforced in the family as well as other social institutions. Conversely, humanistic psychology would stress the importance of qualitative approaches and understanding humans as individual actors. Correspondingly, these two schools of thought would advise a focus on either encouraging or repressive specific behaviors in families and other institutions or devising case-specific individual approaches based on qualitative research.
Oko-Jaja, C. (2020). Family disintegration: A threat to sustainable development. International Journal of Operational Research in Management, Social Sciences & Education, 6(1), 360-37.
Rich, G. J. (2017). Positive psychology and humanistic psychology: Evil twins, sibling rivals, distant cousins, or something else? Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 58(3), 1-22.
Ronay, Z. (2019). Respect for human dignity as a framework and subject of education in the light of present challenges. In M. Carmo (Ed.), Education applications & developments, vol. IV (pp. 183-191). inScience Press.