From self-respect to respect for others

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Adam Cureton

Abstract: The leading accounts of respect for others usually assume that persons have a rational nature, which is a marvelous thing, so they should be respected like other objects of ‘awesome’ value. Kant’s views about the ‘value’ of humanity, which have inspired contemporary discussions of respect, have been interpreted in this way. I propose an alternative interpretation in which Kant proceeds from our own rational self-regard, through our willingness to reciprocate with others, to duties of respect for others. This strategy, which shares some similarities with moral contractualism, offers a way to justify other-regarding moral requirements from self-regarding rational dispositions.

The leading accounts of why we should respect others and what it takes to do so tend to assume the following picture: Persons have a rational nature, which is a marvelous thing, so they should be respected like other objects of ‘awesome’ value, and accordingly cherished, treasured, protected, exhibited, honored and so on.1 It is commonplace to take Kant as the deep inspiration, if not an outright adherent, of this kind of view, which emphasizes his exceedingly compelling and widely influential claims about the ‘objective’, ‘unconditional’, ‘incomparable’, and ‘absolute worth’ of persons, whose ‘dignity’ is ‘above all price’, ‘without equivalent’, and places severe constraints on how we may be treated (G 4:434-6; MM 6:435-6).2 These famous remarks are taken by Allen Wood and Alan Donagan to articulate a special kind of metaphysical, agent-neutral and intrinsic value or status that all persons are thought to share in virtue of their rational nature.3 This value is distinctive because it gives everyone sufficient reason to respect, not just promote or maximize, the dignity of all. We respect ourselves and others by, for example, choosing not to violate or sacrifice dignity in exchange for things that we merely desire or find useful, by refusing to weigh and balance or trade-off ‘amounts’ of dignity, and by exemplifying, appreciating and protecting this value in everyone.4

Against this backdrop, disagreement persists over what, more specifically, it takes to respect persons as persons. Stephen Darwall, Ronald Dworkin, along with Donagan and Wood, argue that to respect persons as persons is to treat them in all the ways that they ought to be treated; Joseph Raz claims that we respect others by believing they are intrinsically valuable and protecting them from harm or damage; Harry Frankfurt, Bernard Williams and Robin Dillon contend that to respect others as persons is to take proper account of their individuality; Joel Feinberg thinks of respect for persons in terms of respecting their rights, and Sara Buss suggests that respecting others in this way involves acknowledging their dignity in our practical deliberations.5

There is much to admire in this ‘awesome’ conception of respect, which regards persons as having an intrinsic, absolute and objective worth that must always be respected and never sacrificed or violated. It opposes purely consequentialist thinking; it refuses to compare or aggregate relative amounts of dignity; it rejects the idea of ‘negative responsibility’ that we are just as responsible for what we fail to prevent as what we do ourselves; it insists on agent-centered restrictions that disallow, for example, murdering one person to prevent five murders; it emphasizes honoring, cherishing, exhibiting and other ways of responding to value that are not just promoting or protecting it; and it is able to generate, in a direct and compelling way, more specific moral requirements about coercion, deception, murder, slavery, discrimination, rape, ridicule and humiliation.

While Kant is appropriately acknowledged as the catalyst for much of the contemporary interest in respect for persons, some have worried that neither contemporary moral philosophers nor Kant himself should accept the traditional picture. First, that account assumes, as an apparently ungrounded starting point, that persons have a metaphysical, intrinsic value that merits respect, without offering a deeper justification or grounding of this value.6 Second, while the ideal of respecting the dignity of persons can generate important presumptive prohibitions on murder, rape, torture, etc., the traditional picture seems to lack the structure and specificity to produce a determinate, consistent, and coherent system of moral requirements.7

These concerns have led some of Kant’s commentators, including O’Neill, Engstrom, Singer and Sensen, to attribute to him a radically different conception of basic respect for persons.8 Their strategy is to downplay the passages where Kant seems to endorse the ‘awesome’ conception and reinterpret them in light of the assumption that the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) – ‘Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ (G 4:421) – is Kant’s most fundamental moral principle and the foundation for all his other moral requirements. On this view, the Humanity Formula (FH) – ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ (G 4:429) – is taken to be essentially equivalent to FUL by prohibiting maxims that others could not possibly share, rather than as commanding us to respect an ‘awesome’ value we find in ourselves and others.9 Similarly, Kant’s vivid claims about the absolute and incomparable dignity of persons are read in a deflationary way, as saying that to have dignity just is to be free and among the set of people who must be able to will maxims as universal laws, which means that respecting the dignity of persons is to refuse to act on maxims, in the form of universal laws, to which they could not possibly consent.10

According to its proponents, this ‘universalizability’ picture of respect provides the determinacy and structure Kant favors without appealing to an antecedent substantive value, but it faces its own set of criticisms. The reading it gives of the Doctrine of Virtue and Groundwork passages about dignity seems strained; there are longstanding questions about whether so much emphasis should be placed on the ‘lying promise’ example when interpreting the Humanity Formula as a whole11; and it is difficult to see how this picture can generate the more particular duties of respect to oneself and others in the specific way that Kant derives them in the Doctrine of Virtue, which is most evidently by appeal to a value or worth that should not be thrown away, disavowed, belittled, defiled, etc. In addition, from a commonsense perspective, the correct moral explanation for not ridiculing or humiliating others seems more a matter of refusing to violate or dishonor their dignity rather than avoiding maxims that, if they were universal laws, others could not possibly agree to.

I aim to explore whether there is a new and different interpretation of Kant’s views about basic respect for persons that (1) does not appeal to an ungrounded metaphysical value, (2) is suitably structured and determinate, but also (3) captures the ideas about the incomparable and absolute value of persons that so many of us find important and inspiring.12

My reconstruction of Kant’s argument for respecting others as persons is of interest to moral philosophers and Kant’s commentators alike. It provides a richer understanding of his well-known texts regarding respect in the Doctrine of Virtue and his less familiar discussions of respect in Lectures on Ethics; it uncovers some wonderful ideas that commentators and readers of Kant may have missed about why we should respect others; it challenges some commonsense moral views about how, in particular, to respect others; and it reveals a deep justificatory priority in Kant’s moral framework for rational self-regard, which is, I claim, what ultimately justifies and grounds other-regarding moral requirements when combined with our rational dispositions to universalize our maxims and reciprocate with others. This kind of derivation is what we would expect from Kant in light of his remarks that duties to oneself are in some sense the foundation of duties to others (MM 6:417).

Briefly, here is a deep and pervasive argumentative strategy, which shares certain similarities with modern-day contractualist thinking, that Kant employs to argue for the duties of respect for others and for the duty of beneficence as well. Kant begins by assuming that, as rational persons, we have several substantive and self-regarding dispositions of reason that are part of our rational nature, including ones to avoid servility, to be free, to perfect ourselves and even to promote our own happiness (although we have no duty to do so). We also have deep moral predispositions to reciprocate with others and, more generally, to act only on maxims that all fully rational people, if they were rational, could will as universal laws. Our self-regarding rational dispositions provide standards of rational willing that determine what each of us could will as universal law – a fully rational person would not rationally will to sacrifice her basic needs, take up servility, become a slave or abandon all opportunities for self-development. Other-regarding moral requirements are therefore those that each one of us could will as universal laws in light of our various substantive and self-regarding rational dispositions. Because of our rational interests in our own happiness and self-respect, we all would rationally will other-regarding duties of beneficence and respect if we were fully rational.

My plan is first to review some basic points about the content, structure and place of the duties of respect toward oneself and others in Kant’s normative ethical theory. Second, I develop and illustrate this argumentative strategy by showing how it adds a new twist to the usual way of interpreting Kant’s account of the nature and grounds of the duty of beneficence. Third, I argue that, according to Kant, we are rationally disposed to respect ourselves, which means our reason drives us to value ourselves in a special sort of agent-relative way, as having a dignity that is above any price and inalienable, without relying on an antecedent metaphysical value or yet implying that others must value us in that way as well. Fourth, I note some subtle and important observations Kant makes about how susceptible we are to basing our sense of our own worth on the low opinions of those who have an inflated sense of their own value. Kant thinks, in particular, that when others place a low value on us or outright demand that we lose respect for ourselves, this has a tendency to undermine our own self-respect. Fifth, I claim that, according to Kant, if we were fully rational we would all insist on duties of respect for others that afford us the moral freedom to respect ourselves, and, sixth, I conclude by suggesting that my interpretation resolves several puzzles about those duties.

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