DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L092-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 27, 2021, from

2. Self-respect in moral and political philosophy

Though many philosophers have remarked upon self-respect, or related notions such as pride, integrity and dignity, self-respect figures most prominently in the work of Kant and Rawls. In Die Metaphysik der Sitten (Metaphysics of Morals) (1797), Kant claims that persons have a duty to respect themselves. Self-respect, on his view, is a valuing stance that one wilfully adopts or neglects to adopt towards oneself. It consists in an understanding and appreciation of the equal moral status one shares with other persons and a disposition to act in ways that express this understanding and appreciation. The requirement that persons regard and treat themselves as the moral equals of others is grounded in Kant’s contention that all rational beings have a special moral value, which he calls ‘dignity’, that is itself rooted in our capacity for autonomous rational agency. Since every person as such has dignity, each person as such is equal in basic moral status to every other person and ought to appreciate this fact and act accordingly.

Our special moral worth, Kant claims in Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) (1785), requires that all persons be treated and treat themselves as ends in themselves and never merely as a means to another’s ends. In other words, the capacity of rational agents to set ends freely for themselves should be treasured and respected by all (see Kant, I. §§9–11). This duty, which is one formulation of the categorical imperative, has been interpreted by some philosophers as a duty to respect others and to respect oneself. For Kant, the requirement that we respect ourselves consists not only in a duty to regard ourselves as having the same moral standing as others, but also in an array of duties requiring us to value our autonomy and rational agency and to treat ourselves in accordance with our special moral status.

In contrast to Kant, John Rawls views self-respect as an entitlement rather than a duty. In A Theory of Justice (1971), he maintains that justice requires that self-respect, or more precisely its social bases, be provided for all members of a society. Moreover, he sees self-respect not as an attitude that individuals may wilfully adopt, but as a social good that can be secured by individuals only when certain social and political conditions prevail. He defines self-respect as a conviction that one’s plan of life is worth pursuing accompanied by the belief that one is well-suited to pursue it. The value of self-respect, Rawls claims, lies in the fact that no one can carry out or achieve their aims adequately without it.

For Rawls, civil equality is the key to citizens’ acquiring and maintaining adequate self-respect. In the absence of civil equality, those with fewer rights and privileges will regard their life plans as less worthwhile than the life plans of citizens with more rights and privileges, for, by depriving certain citizens of goods essential to the effective pursuit of their ends, a society implies that the ends of those so deprived have a lesser value. Since self-respect is fundamental to the basic wellbeing of all persons, it follows that principles prescribing the design of basic social structures are just only if they foster or do not hinder civil equality. The two principles of justice proposed by Rawls, the equal liberty principle and the ‘difference principle’, are designed to ensure civil equality and hence help guarantee self-respect for all citizens.

Influenced by Rawls’ realization that self-respect is largely a product of one’s social and political circumstances, some political theorists have employed the notion of self-respect in their critiques of the oppression of white women, people of colour, and gays and lesbians. These writers point to the damage done to the self-respect of members of groups that are marginalized, stigmatized or exploited by the dominant culture. Oppressed people may internalize the disparaging images and views of them produced by the dominant culture and hence come to see themselves as inferior or as undeserving of equal treatment. Some writers discuss the ways in which both individual and collective resistance to oppressive institutions, actions and images can empower those who suffer from oppression, thereby augmenting and reinforcing their sense of worth. Boxill (1976), for example, claims that oppressed people can have faith in their worth only if they protest against injustices done to them. In the course of discussing the relation between oppression and self-respect, some theorists have attempted to reconceive traditional conceptions of self-respect so as to expunge from them features that are judged to reflect or champion objectionable aspects of the dominant culture. Dillon (1992b), for example, has argued that the Kantian notion of the person as an independent, autonomous, self-legislating will that underlies most conceptions of self-respect is androcentric (see Feminist ethics §4).

Recent philosophical explorations of self-respect have thrown into relief its value and significance. They have shown that self-respect is a central component of human wellbeing, since its absence is painful and debilitating, and illustrated its connection with many other important moral and social values such as rights, autonomy, dignity, freedom and equality.

Citing this article:
Stark, Cynthia A.. Self-respect in moral and political philosophy. Self-respect, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L092-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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