From self-respect to respect for others


Self-Respect out of bounds



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4. Self-Respect out of bounds


The perfect duties to oneself are a cluster of self-regarding requirements of reason that are meant to keep us from affording too little respect to ourselves – we must not, for example, debase, dishonor or prostrate ourselves. As rational persons, we are rationally disposed to satisfy these requirements and so to afford ourselves adequate respect.

Recall that the next step in Kant’s argument for the duty of beneficence, once he established that we are rationally disposed to pursue our own happiness, was that we can do so only with the positive help of others. Self-respect is different, however, because Kant thinks that each of us is capable of achieving an adequate sense of our own worth without the appreciation, admiration, reverence or ‘positive high esteem’ of other people (MM 6:467). This explains a puzzling feature of the duties of respect toward others, which is why they are only negative duties enjoining us to avoid interfering with others (MM 6:459). John Rawls has plausibly argued that in our world we can achieve proper self-respect only when we are part of a community that affirms, appreciates and values us.33 For Kant, however, there is no need to fawn over, flatter or otherwise help others to respect themselves, as there is a positive duty to help them pursue their own happiness.

The justification Kant gives for the duties of respect toward others is analogous to the other argument I mentioned, the one against making excessive demands on others to sacrifice their non-moral ends for the sake of our happiness. Kant emphasizes that, in our world, having too much respect for ourselves, valuing ourselves too highly, has a tendency to undermine the self-respect of others. It’s not that we require positive help from others in order to have self-respect; nor do we need their good wishes, beliefs, or feelings to do so. What we need is for others to refrain from infringing on, interfering with or undermining the respect we must have for ourselves, which they do by placing too high a value on themselves and a corresponding low value on us.

According to Kant, we are very susceptible to arrogance and to basing our own worth on the opinions of others (R 6:26-7; C 27:349; H 27:41; H 27:44). Just as placing too much importance on our own happiness at the expense of others can interfere with the ability of others to pursue their plans and projects, so self-conceit on the part of others can and often does interfere with the respect we have for ourselves. For example, we should not, according to Kant, disrespect ourselves by ‘needing and asking for others' beneficence’ because in doing so we place ourselves in the ‘inferior position of a dependent in relation to his protector’ and so violate our ‘real self-esteem (pride in the dignity of humanity in one's own person)’ (MM 6:459). Kant also warns against ‘any appearance of intending to bind the other by’ acts of beneficence, favors practicing such acts ‘in complete secrecy’, and enjoins us not to try to make others happy ‘in accordance with my concepts of happiness’ (MM 6:454).

Let’s consider in more detail why Kant thinks self-conceit on the part of others is so pervasive and troubling for our own self-worth. He says:

Self-conceit and timorousness are the two rocks a man runs into, if he departs, in one direction or the other, from the moral law (C 27:351).

Egotism, we saw, is defined as making excessive demands on others to improve one’s own happiness. Self-conceit or arrogantia is analogously defined as ‘lack of modesty in one’s claims to be respected by others’ (MM 6:462) and ‘an unjust desire to acquire superiority for oneself over others’ (R 6:27; cf. MM 6:434, 464; CPrR 5:116; C 27:349-350; V 27:620). One element of Kant’s conception of arrogance or self-conceit is that of valuing ourselves too highly, either with regard to others (MM 6:465) or to the moral law (CPrR 5:73). The other element is that by harboring an inflated opinion of our own worth, we thereby regard ourselves as superior to others, which disposes us try to dominate others and to demand that others value themselves less than they should (MM 6:462; MM 6:465).34 Self-conceit, in Kant’s sense, is thus distinct from more commonsense notions of puffed up posturing or inflated evaluations of one’s talents.

Even though we are rationally disposed to value ourselves as persons with dignity in virtue of having a rational nature, Kant thinks we also have certain natural tendencies that lead us to self-conceit, arrogance or what he sometimes calls ‘unsocial sociability’ (I 8:20). First, we are ‘very much inclined to take others as the measure of their own moral worth’ (C 27:349; H 27:41; R 6:27; MM 6:466). We tend to value ourselves on the basis of our popularity or fame and conclude that having them makes us better than those who do not. Second, we are inclined to ‘look for preeminence in trifles’ such as ‘smart clothes’, ‘a fine carriage’, ‘titles’, ‘positions’, appearing ‘genteel’ and other ‘externals’, so we tend to base our self-worth on our success in collecting these things ‘of no account’ and come to regard ourselves as having precedence over those if we have more things of price than they do (C 27:457-8; cf. H 27:41 MM 6:436-7; R 6:27). Third, every person has a natural propensity to think himself morally good by ‘tinker[ing] with the moral law, till he has fashioned it to suit his inclinations and convenience’ (C 27:465; cf. CPrR 5:73-4; R 6:29) or refusing to ‘compare [his moral worth] with the law’ (MM 6:435). Once we convince ourselves that we are morally good people, and value ourselves on that basis, we tend to regard ourselves as superior to others (MM 6:460).

To settle on an inflated opinion of ourselves, due to our popularity, external possessions or supposed moral purity, is in part, according to Kant, to acquire certain dispositions of thought and action. When we value ourselves more highly than others, we are disposed to treat ourselves better than we treat them, to express how we evaluate them relative to ourselves, to tell them and others how we think they should evaluate themselves, to claim that others should value us as their superiors, and even to demand that a supposed inferior ‘think little of themselves in comparison with him’ (MM 6:466).

When those who are not arrogant in Kant’s sense encounter self-conceited people, we are very susceptible to their opinions about our supposed inferior status relative to them. We tend to accept their low evaluations of us, and adjust our sense of our own worth accordingly, in spite of our rational predisposition to find our self-respect rooted ‘in morality; not in calculating on the opinion of other people’ (H 27:44). While we may not require active help from others in order to assign ourselves an incomparable, absolute worth in virtue of possessing a rational nature, Kant thinks that the natural propensity to self-conceit in others tends to undermine the respect we are rationally disposed to have for ourselves.

The deeper point, however, is that even if someone were to manage stoicism in the face of arrogant people and remain unshaken by their low opinions of him, Kant is still concerned with self-conceited people who solicit (MM 6:465), make claim (MM 6:462) or demand that ‘others think little of themselves in comparison with him’ (MM 6:466), ‘throw himself away in order to slave for my end’ (MM 6:450), ‘concern themselves with one’s importance’ (MM 6:465), or give us ‘a respect’ that we deny them (MM 6:465). Rational people are predisposed to value themselves as persons with dignity, so they are rationally disposed to insist on and protect a prerogative to value themselves in this special way.

Even when the opinions, intonations or suggestions of others roll off my back, their demands that I lose respect for myself are incompatible with my rational dispositions to respect myself and to have and exercise a prerogative to do so.35 When we make demands on others to lose self-respect, according to Kant, we claim that they owe it to us to think less of themselves. But in light of their rational disposition to value themselves as a person with dignity, they could not accept any principle that required them to do so. Moreover, demanding that others lose their self-respect, or even demanding that they acquire it, conflicts with their rational disposition to insist on and protect their own freedom to respect themselves properly. I am rationally disposed to regard it as my responsibility, not anyone else’s, to value myself as a person with dignity, according to Kant, so I cannot accept a principle that says I owe it to anyone other than myself to acquire self-respect.36

To clarify this point, Kant draws an analogy between property rights and duties of respect for others (MM 6:464). In the Doctrine of Right, Kant says that if there is a justified system of property rights then I can legitimately demand that you return what you borrowed from me (MM 6:299); a minimally decent government can make demands on its people for the continued preservation and functioning of the state; (MM 6:322); the police in such a system can demand to view the charter of a club or association within its borders (MM 6:325); our innate natural freedom and equality allow us to demand that others treat us accordingly as members of society (MM 6:315); and if I am in grave danger and you can save my life at little cost to yourself then the duty of mutual aid (presumably) justifies me in demanding that you do so. But if I demand something of yours without having the right or freedom to do so, for example, or demand government reform (rather than asking for it) or demand that others do you do me some small favor, I would be infringing on your property rights, violating the rights of the government, and infringing on your freedom to be beneficent as you see fit. There may be no chance that anyone could break into my fortress to steal my jewels, but nevertheless it is still wrong for you to demand them from me, for your doing so is inconsistent with my rights to them. Similarly, according to Kant, all rational people have a sort of right to respect themselves, so whether or not anyone can actually lead me to lose respect for myself, having the ability to demand or claim that I lose respect for myself is inconsistent with my prerogative to afford myself proper respect.

When slave-owners, for example, demanded that their slaves view themselves as inferior to whites, they were not just expressing their opinion that the slaves lacked dignity or trying to persuade or give reasons for them to adjust their self-conceptions. They were also claiming that slaves owed it to whites to regard themselves as inferior and they were taking themselves to have the freedom to place such claims on the slaves, whereas Kant thinks no slaves could accept moral principles implying either one of these possibilities. Even those abolitionists who demanded that slaves respect themselves as persons with dignity were attempting to pressure, coax and coerce the slaves by violating prerogative that the slaves were rationally disposed to protect in themselves.37

Arrogant people, in Kant’s sense, not only pose a threat because of their potential to lead us to lose respect for ourselves, but their demands that we do so conflict with our predispositions of self-respect. What we need, according to Kant, are universally acceptable moral principles that protect us from arrogance and self-conceit by affording everyone the moral freedom to respect ourselves in the ways we are rationally disposed to do and requiring each of us not to violate this freedom in others. This, according to Kant, is what it is to respect one another as persons, which requires us to ‘[limit] our self-esteem by the dignity of humanity in another person’, ‘keep myself within my own bounds’, refrain from ‘exalting oneself above others’ and refuse to ‘demand that another throw himself away in order to slave for my end’ (MM 6:449-50).


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