From self-respect to respect for others


Kant’s argument for the duties of respect toward others



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5. Kant’s argument for the duties of respect toward others


Kant’s argument for why we should respect others in these ways is contained in the following quote:

But just as he cannot give himself away for any price (this would conflict with his duty of self-esteem), so neither can he act contrary to the equally necessary self-esteem of others, as human beings, that is, he is under obligation to acknowledge, in a practical way, the dignity of humanity in every other human being. Hence there rests on him a duty regarding the respect that must be shown to every other human being (MM 6:462)

Pulling the various threads together with some of Kant’s background assumptions, we can now state Kant’s argument for the duties of respect toward others as follows. (1) According to the conception of what it is to be a rational person that Kant describes, such persons are rationally disposed to respect themselves, that is, to value themselves as persons with an absolute, incomparable dignity that is above all price and without equivalents. We do not perceive within ourselves a metaphysical, intrinsic value; instead we are predisposed to recognize and accept a cluster of rational prescriptions about how to act with regard to ourselves, including ones against debasing, defiling or prostrating ourselves, without yet requiring others to do so as well. (2) Our rational disposition to respect ourselves tends to be thwarted and undermined by those who regard themselves as more valuable than we are, which we all unfortunately have a natural propensity to do. Not only do the low opinions of others prompt us to value ourselves less than we should, but their demands that we lose respect for ourselves are incompatible with our rational dispositions to respect ourselves and the corresponding rational disposition to have and exercise the freedom to do so. (3) We are rationally required to will the necessary means to our ends or give them up. (4) Therefore, we are rationally required to will that others refrain from expressing low opinions about our worth, demanding that we lose respect for ourselves, and any other acts that threaten to undermine our self-respect. (5) The Formula of Universal Law, which we are rationally disposed to accept, requires us to act only on maxims that we could will as universal laws. (6) What each of us could rationally will as universal laws depends on our substantive and self-regarding rational dispositions. (7) Therefore, each of us, could will universal laws forbidding others from acting in certain ways that undermine our self-respect, that is, we would all rationally will Kant’s duties of respect toward others if we were fully rational.

The duties of respect toward others depend on the conjunction of the rational self-regarding disposition to respect ourselves and the rational disposition to universalize, reciprocate and grant the same to others, which is a very different from the way O’Neill and others typically understand and use FUL. As they see it, FUL prohibits us from acting on maxims that, if they were made into universal laws of nature, no one could possibly consent to as laws of permission or requirement. By contrast, I understand FUL as a principle of reciprocity that relies on independent standards of rational self-regard that determine what we and others could rationally will as universal law. All rational people are disposed, in virtue of their rational nature, to will her own freedom, self-respect, life, ability to think for herself and much else, so it would be irrational for a person not to protect her own life or her self-respect. But rational people are also disposed to afford protections and opportunities to others if they are willing to do the same in return. The duties of beneficence and respect for others are justified on these grounds – we are rationally disposed to pursue our own happiness and respect ourselves, but also to give the same help and respect to others in return for their help and respect, so duties of beneficence and respect for one another are justifiable to everyone in virtue of our self-regarding rational concerns.


6. Conclusion


This argument captures much of what is inspiring about the ‘awesome’ conception of respect regarding the specific ways in which we must respect others, and it does so by emphasizing and reinterpreting a central aspect of the ‘universalizability’ conception of respect, which is that the duties of respect toward others are justified on the basis of what we could rationally will as universal law.

I end by noting how this interpretation of Kant’s basic argument for the duties of respect toward others helps to resolve three longstanding puzzles.

First, Kant often uses the language of rights when discussing our duties of respect toward others. He calls the act of demanding that others lose respect for themselves ‘unjust’ (MM 6:465), and says that doing so ‘infringes upon one's lawful claim’ (MM 6:464), violates ‘a right to which he cannot renounce his claim’ (MM 6:464), and an constitutes an attempt to deprive him of what he ‘deserves’ (MM 6:467; cf. MM 6:449). Kant recognizes clear differences between what we own, which belongs to right and is defined by legally enforceable principles of property that govern our external freedom without taking account of motives, and the principles that regulate and protect our self-respect from others, which belong to ethics and so are unenforceable principles for personal motivation and deliberation. As I have tried to explain, his suggestion is that we have something like an ethical right to respect ourselves properly by regarding ourselves as persons with dignity. This right is not enforceable by law or protected by a court, but like other rights, it is strict, it is more or less determinate, and violations of it are clear enough (at least to our conscience) when they occur and are strictly forbidden.

Second, Kant insists that the duties of respect toward others are only negative, which makes more sense if we understand them as protections from the ways others can interfere with and undermine the respect we have for ourselves. Those who aim to go beyond Kant’s own views might employ a similar argument for the conclusion that we do have positive duties to affirm and appreciate the value of others because, contrary to Kant’s own view, Rawls may be correct that we need public affirmation in order to maintain an adequate sense of our own worth.

Finally, Kant has been criticized for his apparent failure to discuss in much detail prohibitions on profound moral wrongs such as rape, torture, bullying, holding people in prolonged captivity and racial and sexual discrimination. These types of acts are wrong on many of grounds, and a number of them, I suspect, can be captured by Kant’s ethical theory, but Kant’s discussion of respect for others highlights a particularly egregious element of these acts that should figure into an overall moral explanation for why they are wrong. In addition to the pain and suffering that these acts typically involve, part of what is so heinous about raping, torturing or discriminating against someone is that the assailant is attempting to influence the victim to lose respect for herself, to become servile, to seek his approval, to doubt herself, to feel worthless and insignificant, to see herself as an object for his enjoyment or benefit.38 And, what may be worse, the attacker is by his deeds demanding that the victim cease to value herself as a rational person with dignity and so, on Kant’s view, profoundly disrespecting his victims.
Department of Philosophy

University of Tennessee


Works cited


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Ronald Dworkin; Sovereign virtue; (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000)

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Harry Frankfurt; "Equality and Respect" in Necessity, volition, and love, edited by Harry G. Frankfurt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); pp. 146-55

Barbara Herman; "Murder and Mayhem" in The Practice of Moral Judgment, edited by Barbara Herman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); pp. 113-31

Barbara Herman; "Mutual Aid and Respect for Persons" in The Practice of Moral Judgment, edited by Barbara Herman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); pp. 45-72

Thomas E. Hill; "Pains and Projects" in Autonomy and self-respect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); pp. 173-88

Thomas E. Hill; "Kant on imperfect duty and supererogation" in Dignity and practical reason in Kant's moral theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992); pp. 147-75

Thomas E. Hill; "Must respect be earned?" in Respect, pluralism, and justice: Kantian perspectives, edited by Thomas E. Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); pp. 87-118

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Thomas E. Hill; "Editor's Introduction" in Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, edited by Immanuel Kant, Thomas E. Hill, and Arnulf Zweig (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); pp. 19-91

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Immanuel Kant; "Kant's practical philosophy: Herder's lecture notes" in Lectures on ethics, edited by Peter Lauchlan Heath and J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); pp. 1-36

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Immanuel Kant; "Moral philosophy: Collins's Lecture notes" in Lectures on ethics, edited by Peter Lauchlan Heath and J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); pp. 37-222

Immanuel Kant; "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective" in Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, edited by Pauline Kleingeld and David L. Colclasure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); pp. 3-16

Immanuel Kant; "Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View" in Anthropology, history, and education, edited by Immanuel Kant, Günter Zöller, and Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); pp. 227-429

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Joseph Raz; Value, respect, and attachment; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Oliver Sensen; "Kant’s Conception of Human Dignity"; Kant-Studien 100; (2009); pp. 309-31

Oliver Sensen; "Kant on Duties Toward Others From Respect (§§37-44)" in Kant's "Tugendlehre": A Commentary, edited by Andreas Trampota, Oliver Sensen, and Jens Timmermann (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011

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Allen W. Wood; Kantian Ethics; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)



1 For their generous feedback on earlier drafts of this essay, I am grateful to Susan Wolf, Geoff Sayre-McCord, Bernard Boxill, Richard Dean, Jon Garthoff, David Sussman, Oliver Sensen, Sam Kerstein, Sarah Holtman, Kimberley Brownlee, Macalester Bell, Jan Boxill, two reviewers for this journal, and especially Tom Hill.

2 This way of describing and labeling the ‘awesome’ conception of respect comes from, but is not endorsed by, Thomas E. Hill; "Must respect be earned?" in Respect, pluralism, and justice: Kantian perspectives, edited by Thomas E. Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); pp. 87-118.

3 See Allen W. Wood; Kantian Ethics; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Alan Donagan; The Theory of Morality; (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

4 I will refer to Kant’s texts with the following abbreviations followed by the Academy volume and page number: G –Immanuel Kant, Thomas E. Hill, and Arnulf Zweig; Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals; (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); CPrR – Immanuel Kant and Mary J. Gregor; Critique of Practical Reason; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); MM –Immanuel Kant and Mary J. Gregor; The Metaphysics of Morals; (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); R –Immanuel Kant, Allen W. Wood, and George Di Giovanni; Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); A –Immanuel Kant; "Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View" in Anthropology, history, and education, edited by Immanuel Kant, Günter Zöller, and Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); pp. 227-429; C – Immanuel Kant; "Moral philosophy: Collins's Lecture notes" in Lectures on ethics, edited by Peter Lauchlan Heath and J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); pp. 37-222; H –Immanuel Kant; "Kant's practical philosophy: Herder's lecture notes" in Lectures on ethics, edited by Peter Lauchlan Heath and J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); pp. 1-36; I –Immanuel Kant; "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective" in Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, edited by Pauline Kleingeld and David L. Colclasure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); pp. 3-16; and V –Immanuel Kant; "Kant on the metaphysics of morals: Vigilantius's lecture notes" in Lectures on ethics, edited by Peter Lauchlan Heath and J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); pp. 249-452.

5 While each of these authors may not be committed to viewing human dignity as a metaphysical value or status of a kind that makes him or her a rational intuitionist, part of my aim is to raise the issue of how to understand and explain this value. See Stephen Darwall; "Two Kinds of Respect"; Ethics 88; (1977); pp. 36-49; Ronald Dworkin; Sovereign virtue; (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); Donagan (1977); Wood (2008); Joseph Raz; Value, respect, and attachment; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Harry Frankfurt; "Equality and Respect" in Necessity, volition, and love, edited by Harry G. Frankfurt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); pp. 146-55; Bernard Williams; "The idea of equality" in Problems of the self, edited by Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); pp. 230-49; Robin Dillon; "How to lose your self-respect"; American Philosophical Quarterly 29 (2); (1992); pp. 125-39; Joel Feinberg; "The Nature and Value of Rights"; Journal of Value Inquiry 4; (1970); pp. 263-7; and Sarah Buss; "Respect for Persons"; Canadian Journal of Philosophy 29 (4); (1999); pp. 517-50

6 Allen Wood (2008, pp. 54-60), for example, reads the passage in GW2 where Kant says that because we each recognize our own rational nature as an end in itself, we must recognize all persons as ends in themselves, as revealing or uncovering to us an antecedent objective value we and others already possess rather than as an argument that justifies or grounds that objective value itself. Korsgaard’s influential rendering of this argument is different but nonetheless depends crucially on an assumption I hope to avoid, that when rational agents will ends they thereby make those ends valuable in an agent-neutral sense. See Christine M. Korsgaard; Creating the Kingdom of Ends; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

7 See John Rawls; A Theory of Justice; Rev. ed; (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) and Hill (2000).

8 Onora O'Neill; Acting on principle; (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975); Onara O'Neill; Constructions of Reason; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Stephen Engstrom; The form of practical knowledge; (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Marcus George Singer; Generalization in ethics; (New York: Knopf, 1961); and Oliver Sensen; "Kant on Duties Toward Others From Respect (§§37-44)" in Kant's "Tugendlehre": A Commentary, edited by Andreas Trampota, Oliver Sensen, and Jens Timmermann (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011.

9 Korsgaard (1996), Barbara Herman; "Murder and Mayhem" in The Practice of Moral Judgment, edited by Barbara Herman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); pp. 113-31 and O’Neill (1975:1990) agree on this much although they diverge about the precise relationship between FUL and FH.

10 Oliver Sensen; "Kant’s Conception of Human Dignity"; Kant-Studien 100; (2009); pp. 309-31

11 See Wood (2008), Thomas E. Hill; "Kant on imperfect duty and supererogation" in Dignity and practical reason in Kant's moral theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992); pp. 147-75; Hill (2000); and Thomas E. Hill; "Beneficence and self love" in Human welfare and moral worth : Kantian perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); pp. 99-124.

12 A different and interesting attempt to avoid the ‘awesome’ conception of respect without reducing FHE to FUL can be found in Richard Dean; The Value of Humanity in Kant's Moral Theory; (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) and Richard Dean; "The Formula of Humanity as an End in Itself" in The Blackwell Guide to Kant's Ethics, edited by Thomas E. Hill (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); pp. 83-101.

13 In Aristotle and Roger Crisp; Nicomachean Ethics; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) Nicomachean Ethics V.1–2 (1129b—1130b5) Aristotle distinguishes between these two forms of justice.

14 John Atwell; "Kant's Notion of Respect for Persons"; Tulane Studies in Philosophy 31; (1982); pp.  argues that this is the only notion of respect, for Kant, and that the particular duties of respect for others derive from it.

15 See Korsgaard (1996), Onora O'Neill; "Kant's Formula of Universal Law"; Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66; (1985); pp. 24-47 and O’Neill (1990), Singer (1961) and Barbara Herman; "Mutual Aid and Respect for Persons" in The Practice of Moral Judgment, edited by Barbara Herman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); pp. 45-72.

16 See especially Wood (2008) and Donagan (1977).

17 See Marcia Baron, Philip Pettit, and Michael A. Slote; Three methods of ethics : a debate; (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997); Thomas E. Hill; "Happiness and human flourishing" in Human welfare and moral worth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); pp. 164-200 and O’Neill (1975; 1985; 1990).

18 Herman (“Mutual Aid and Respect for Persons, 1993, p. 45)

19 Hill (“Happiness and Human Flourishing”, 2002); O’Neill (1985) and Herman (“Mutual Aid and Respect for Persons”, 1993).

20 Wood (2008, p. 232-3).

21 See Thomas E. Hill; "Editor's Introduction" in

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