DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L092-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

1. The concept of self-respect

Self-respect is a multifaceted notion involving a constellation of attitudes, beliefs, desires, dispositions, commitments, expectations, actions and emotions that express or constitute one’s sense of one’s worth. It includes a recognition and understanding of one’s worth, as well as a desire and disposition to protect and preserve it. One can respect oneself as a person, as when one stands up for one’s rights, or in a specific role or capacity, as when one adopts the code of ethics associated with one’s work or profession. One may also merit one’s own respect, as a person or as the occupier of a role, by conducting oneself honourably or by living up to one’s standards. Since philosophers tend to be concerned with respect for oneself as a person, ’self-respect’ will henceforth be assumed to have persons as such as its object.

Most writers on self-respect agree that it can be divided into two kinds, according to its appropriate grounds. Robin Dillon (1992a) calls these two kinds ‘recognition’ self-respect and ‘evaluative’ self-respect. The latter kind is also widely referred to as ‘appraisal’ self-respect (see Respect for persons §1). Recognition self-respect is a type of regard towards oneself that all persons are obliged or entitled to acquire. Unworthy attitudes or conduct, such as servility or needless self-deprecation, are viewed as evidence of, or as constitutive of, its absence. The label ‘recognition self-respect’ derives from the fact that the attitude to which it refers consists primarily in recognizing that one is a person and weighing appropriately this fact in deliberation and action. Such recognition is not to be understood as mere acknowledgement of the fact that one is a person. It also includes appreciating the special status one has as a person and that this status may require certain kinds of responses, conduct, or restraint. One is obliged or entitled to respect oneself in virtue of the fact that one is a person.

The concept of recognition self-respect relies heavily on a normative conception of the person. Moreover, one must have some sense of what that conception entails to understand what would count as respecting or showing disrespect to persons. It follows that we can infer much about philosophers’ understanding of the nature and status of persons from their accounts of the content of recognition self-respect. The notion of the person that is presupposed by most contemporary discussions of recognition self-respect is either strictly Kantian, or Kantian in spirit (see Respect for persons §2). On this view, persons are essentially autonomous rational agents who possess a special worth grounded in their capacity for moral agency and who enjoy a status of moral equality with other persons on the basis of this special worth (see Autonomy, ethical). Recognition respect for oneself as a rational autonomous agent involves acknowledging and appreciating one’s autonomy, one’s rationality, the value one has in virtue of having these capacities, and the moral status of equality that is grounded in this shared value (see Kantian ethics).

In contrast with recognition self-respect, which all persons are required or entitled to secure, evaluative self-respect is a kind of self-respect that individuals may or may not merit and may merit in varying degrees. Where the presence of recognition self-respect prompts us to engage in worthy conduct or refrain from engaging in unworthy conduct, the presence of evaluative self-respect results from an assessment of conduct already undertaken. Because persons must earn evaluative self-respect by conforming their actions, emotional responses, attitudes and so on to certain standards of worthiness, not everyone is entitled to evaluative self-respect, and some people’s evaluative self-respect is unwarranted. Likewise, some people’s lack of evaluative self-respect is also unwarranted. The normative ground of evaluative respect is the quality of one’s moral character and those actions that reflect it. One merits evaluative self-respect, in other words, not in virtue of being a person, but because of the virtue of one’s person.

Self-respect is distinct from self-esteem, though the latter notion bears some resemblance to evaluative self-respect. Both evaluative self-respect and self-esteem involve having a favourable opinion of oneself that arises from an assessment of one’s traits or actions. Moreover, both attitudes can be undeserved as well as deserved but absent. None the less these two notions differ in their respective normative grounds. A favourable regard for oneself based upon features that do not bear directly upon one’s moral character, such as one’s sense of humour or one’s having won a chess match, is self-esteem. Evaluative self-respect involves the positive regard one has for oneself based upon one’s moral character. Although this method of distinguishing self-respect from self-esteem is by no means uncontroversial, it has the advantage of allowing us to distinguish clearly the positive attitudes towards oneself that are directly relevant to morality and those that are less so. Evaluative self-respect, since it involves one’s moral character, is certainly an appropriate subject for moral theorizing. Self-esteem, in contrast, if it is relevant to morality, is so indirectly.

On the preceding account, recognition self-respect was described as an objective notion. That is, it was assumed that there are certain attitudes, dispositions and responses that a person must have in order to be adequately self-respecting. Those who propound an objective view would probably claim, for instance, that persons who habitually ingratiate themselves with others for personal gain are lacking in recognition self-respect. According to the subjective view, on the other hand, so long as such persons do not themselves regard ingratiation for personal gain as objectionable or ’beneath them’, their self-respect is intact. It is compromised only if they behave in ways that they judge to be inappropriate. When moral philosophers claim that all persons ought to have recognition respect for themselves, they are generally treating self-respect as an objective concept. Their claim expresses the idea that all persons, regardless of those persons’ own views of what is fitting, ought to value their rights, assert their needs when appropriate, formulate and commit themselves to ideals and goals worthy of them as persons, abstain from self-destructive behaviour, avoid subordinating themselves to others unnecessarily and take responsibility for their conduct.

Evaluative self-respect can also be viewed either as an objective or as a subjective notion. Regarded as an objective concept, evaluative self-respect is judged to be warranted only if the standards by which one has appraised oneself positively are morally worthy. As a subjective concept, evaluative self-respect is seen to be warranted so long as one’s positive self-assessment is based upon standards that one deems worthy of oneself.

Citing this article:
Stark, Cynthia A.. The concept of self-respect. Self-respect, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L092-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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