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Self-Respect

An actionable definition of self-respect is sorely missing from the general public, academic and religious literature, philosophy, everywhere. By this I mean a useful understanding of what self-respect is, how it can be obtained and the positive consequences and advantage of having it. In addition literature often confuses self-esteem and self-respect without properly distinguishing between the two.

As with all things, change cannot occur without a solid foundation. In this case what are the prerequisites for self-respect? What is self-respect and how do you measure it? Is self-respect more than one thing? How are self-respect and self-esteem related? I will contend that self-respect is many things but ultimately all are related to valuation and regard of oneself and ones behavior as correct and legitimate. I believe that some agency, autonomy and a well developed sense of morality are required before one can properly respect themselves. In addition I will contend that self-esteem is predicated upon self-respect. The line between respect and esteem can be blurry and I imagine philosophers will struggle with this for some time including myself. The two go hand in hand but I will do my best to distinguish between the two. I have also done my best to be comprehensive in my coverage of the subject with a focus on measurement and self-assessment.

Respect has been discussed by philosophers since Aristotle but the subject remains ambiguous. Philosophy is particularly good at spelling out the ideal situation and particularly bad at explaining how to get there or how to dig yourself out of a hole. From what I can tell most discussion on the subject has occurred in the last 50 years. Most of it is based on the writings of Immanuel Kant, William James or Aristotle.

Ideally I'd like to avoid shallow definitions of respect. Such as the kind of admiration one has for a movie star. Or respect for the capabilities of an athlete or professional at their job. These types of respect are more congruous to what Aristotle refers to as basic. It is a kind of admiration or it is a regard to authority. They are also outwardly focused. My goal is to articulate a deeper kind of self-respect, one that turns inward to the attitudes one has towards oneself and if properly constructed one that can be a foundation of a satisfying and settled life. And that is the ultimate goal here: to be able to teach oneself how to construct the best set of beliefs and values about oneself in order to maximize self-respect, self-esteem and confidence that the philosophy chosen is legitimate, correct and not only should, but must be acted upon.

One definition of self-respect is that "human beings are objects of respect when they act as beings with the capacity for rational autonomous agency" (unsure of the source). Let's break this down. Autonomous, when we act responsibly of our own free will. Agency, when we self-possessed and act with specific intent. Rational, that we are acting logically and are basically not insane. Explicit in all this is action. Self-respect is only manifest in our actions. Putting it all together, we become an object of respect when our behavior reflects rational autonomous agency. This is a great, concise definition, but hardly a useful, practical definition. I'd like this definition to be the starting point of our discussion. Let's dive in deep and explore this.

I am indebted to Robin Dillon's work "Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect" for providing an excellent summary of the subject.

Hierarchy of Respect
To some extent this is a summary and organization of various sources ranging from antiquity and enlightenment to post war (contemporary) philosophy. I am always striving both for completeness and consistency in my philosophy and as always trying to strike that balance of the ideal (Kant) and moderation (Aristotle). So what I propose is that self-respect is built out of five concepts each built on top of the previous.

  1. Agency
  2. Autonomy
  3. Equality
  4. Integrity
  5. Accomplishment

Agency
Sufficient awareness is fundamental to understanding, perceiving and measuring the importance of the concepts discussed here. It is important to know your values, beliefs and what is important to you. It is necessary to hold all this in mind as you navigate your environment, interact with people and having the power to choose. It is knowing real-time how to make choices that reflect your beliefs and to give sufficient regard to yourself. It is knowing when to make adjustments not only to your environment but also to be able to reflect on events and your behavior and adjust those too.

Autonomy
Autonomy is the ability of a rational agent to make an informed, willful, uncoerced decision. The whole premise of self-respect is choice and self-governance based upon a self-chosen system of values and beliefs that one knows to be worthy of regard. One cannot have self-respect without freedom from coercion and control over their environment.

This implies taking responsibility for one's actions, not taking responsibility for others, standing by and defending one's beliefs and giving proper regard to one's beliefs by living by them.

Equality
The most basic and fundamental type of respect is regard for the inalienable rights all human beings are entitled to. As rational autonomous agents we are entitled to certain rights.

First and foremost is the right to life, the right to life and freedom from coercion, discrimination and bondage. Followed by the right to safety and the right to self-defense. Followed by physical and mental integrity. This is followed by legal and civil rights, like the right to expression, freedom of movement (e.g. pursuit of ambitions, assembly, education) and dignified treatment by peers (e.g. right to a fair trial, assembly).

With respect to our fundamental rights all human beings are created equally, none with advantage over the other. This means that individuals and states must grant every other individual these rights.

Integrity
Beyond rights self-respect is made by acting in a manner that agrees with your beliefs and aspirations. It comes from understanding and knowing your beliefs, your responsibilities and commitments, your goals and meeting them.

In a sense integrity is a moral commitment. It harkens to Kant's Categorical Imperative. It doesn't imply that other people admire or respect you. In fact they may not if they disagree with your ideals. This makes self-respect a personal commitment as well.

Those with a sense of value will still have self-respect even if they do not feel competent. But the path to esteem starts here by behaving in a way that you agree with or that you can feel good about. Because they believe in themselves they feel that their efforts are worthwhile, that they are worth the attempt and worth the risk of failure. They are not deterred by the possible negative outcomes because they are focused on the possible positive outcomes.

"Those who the conviction that they are deserving of fair treatment simply by virtue of the that that they are persons" by Laurence Thomas.

Accomplishment
The path to self-respect ends with action. The first two requirements are building blocks to self-respect. This goes further than accomplishing a difficult feat although those are always respectable acts. It's realizing your life plan, commitments and responsibilities and meeting them face to face. Living with authenticity.

The freedom of choice comes with the obligation to make the most of it. Awareness allows you to sense the direction and purpose of your life. Without purpose you have no reason for being alive. Nothing to be proud of. Ultimately no reason to have self-respect. Looking back on life this is the well self-respect is drawn from. How can one have self-respect if you cannot find value in all that you do? You may not take any pleasure or consolation in yourself but you can admire and respect a belief system and set of goals.

Esteem
Esteem for oneself is self assessment of a subjective form. It is based on a feeling one has about themselves. It is a measure of perceived value. It is not anger or sadness. Shame and guilt are related, but it is more fundamental. It is feeling and believing that you are a good, legitimate and valuable. Laurence Thomas defines this as, "the assessment that persons make of their abilities".

Esteem is a judgment about one's life and one's direction in life. It is the alarm that goes off when something, anything, is wrong in your life. For example if you are moving in the wrong direction in life or you've compromised your values.

Can you have self-esteem if you do not have self-respect? I would say no, definitely not. Self-respect is built slowly upon evidence of success. That is behavior that matches your beliefs and aspirations. Esteem can as well, but it does not need to be based on evidence. This is the demarcation between self-respect and self-esteem. Respect is judgment aimed at behavior and esteem is judgment aimed at the person.

Like any value, esteem and judgment can be twisted and marred by time or abuse. Over a long period of time if your subjective opinion of yourself doesn't align with your success then it could cause permanent damage to yourself in one form or another or worse a downward spiral in the esteem and respect one has for themselves. It is equally possible that the criteria by which you measure yourself is too severe or impossible to obtain.

In practice self-respect and self-esteem blur together. From a bigger picture point of view do you hold your self in equal esteem as others? Do you expect to be treated as an equal and do you stand up for yourself when you are not? Do you expect to be treated with same value as others? Can you strike a balance between lack of respect (servility) and overdoing it (arrogance)? And completely irrespective of how you act and all the things you've done: how do you feel about yourself? Does it feel good to be you?

Contingency
This model for self-respect is completely unconditional, or non-contingent. Should self-esteem also be unconditional? Contingent self-esteem is real no question, we all experience it but is it appropriate? Or is it an error in judgment? Should it have a place in a person's life?

I believe so. A person's emotional state should be reflected by life's set backs. They humble a person. They give a person pause to reflect and change direction if needed. Otherwise we would blunder ahead in life with no regard for anything. That leads to hubris and catastrophe.

And it's not necessarily true that respectable people feel good about themselves. We all know this isn't true. Everyone feels a loss of esteem at some point in their lives. Everyone faces set backs and I would argue that temporary losses in esteem are good for you because they impart the gravity of a circumstance and serve as a motivator to stand up, take a risk, try something new. A loss of esteem acts as a motivator because you naturally desire to restore it.

But seeking superficially contingent self-esteem is inappropriate and doomed to disappointment and failure. This is validation and from an external source. Regardless, bullying or insults ought not to cause permanent scar and constructive feedback ought to give pause and cause for reflection but should never alter your core belief that you are a valuable human being and equal among all others.

So I think what we are speaking of here are two different types of values that should not be conflated. On the one hand we have immutable being, ontological and intrinsically valuable human being. Completely a priori non-contingent value. And the other a set of values that needs no basis or rationalization and that is self-esteem. It also means that in a social setting you fundamentally believe that you are acceptable even if you are not accepted.

The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable. . . . This is the Pauline-Lutheran
doctrine of 'justification by faith. - Paul Tillich

Self-Respect vs Self-Esteem
The line between self-respect and self-esteem is in real life more ambiguous than I define it here and may never be well defined. As far as I can tell it starts to blur when considering whether your not your life plan is valuable and whether or not you can successfully accomplish the things in life you've set out to. In practice evaluating yourself and evaluating your accomplishments and behavior are about the same thing. On the one hand agency, autonomy, creating a life plan and measuring your performance are strictly rational, data driven things that don't involve emotion. Yet your own sense of inner self worth can significantly influence your objectivity. And esteem seems to be strictly an a priori act yet is predicated on your rational belief system and again your inner sense of value.

This assumes that respect is rational, based on thought and principles and rules which ultimately lead to a valuation of self. Whereas esteem suggests emotion and a personal, biased valuation of self. But the two cannot be completely separated.

It also assumes there is no connection between your life plans, interactions with others and the opinion of oneself.

Those with self-respect stand at the ready to defend their beliefs and actions while respecting that of others. The person with self-esteem simply likes his or herself.

Link to Authenticity
There is something implicit about the ability to make your own choices in life and that is authenticity. Authenticity here means living a life that is most appropriate to the person. It can be finding a lifestyle or geography that more closely fits your personality or more closely observing your belief system.

Being authentic is key to self esteem and happiness. One ought to take it upon themselves to explore their self and the world around them to find their way and their place in it. Only then does self-respect truly make sense.

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.

Gender
Is this definition male centric? Do women evaluate their sense of purpose and sense of value in the same way? One argument suggests men and women are identical as human beings and only differ in that a different set of values, beliefs and purpose can be exchanged depending on the person. Another argument could suggest that the entire hierarchy is invalid for women because women fundamentally inhabit a different spectrum of thought altogether. Or maybe this line of thinking is obsolete in an era when most women have careers and ambitions of their own.

Respect for Others
Respect for others is the act of reflecting the values and attitudes of respect in this article, and that which you expect for yourself, onto others.

I've broken it down into the following concepts, based on the concepts of self-respect above:

  1. Acknowledge and connect to every person you meet.
  2. Find each person valuable without any particular aspect of their self being a factor.
  3. Treat all people equally and as equals. This is the Kantian categorical imperative and is essential to maintaining dignity. This includes put downs and condescending remarks as well as the heavy stuff.
  4. Set responsibilities appropriately. Don't overstep or take away responsibility that rightfully belongs to them. They have a right to integrity.
  5. Discover each person's life plan, with their own unique goals. Fit into that plan.
  6. For those that lack awareness help them develop the awareness and knowledge. Educate, not punish.

It's allowing others the opportunity from the outset to be full, active, complete human beings with the same rights and opportunities as yourself. It means observing everyone's civil rights. It means protecting and standing up for others. It means treating them with dignity, never being demeaning, discounting or condescending. It means encouraging and supporting others.

Understand how another person can be valued, loved and respected by others even when you do not.

Summary
Self-respect is "a due sense of one's worth" - Michele M. Moody-Adams.

I think this is a good working definition of self-respect and self-esteem. It is a first attempt at something thorough and consistent. Something that is straightforward. I suspect that I will revisit this at a future point in time.

Gabrielle Taylor defines shame as the feeling when ones expected behavior falls short of actual behavior. Conversely guilt is a transgression, an action that results in an outcome contrary to your moral beliefs.

Sources
Aristotle, "Nichomachean Ethics"
Kant, Immanual "Critique of Pure Reason"
Kant, Immanual "Critique of Practical Reason"
Kant, Immanual "Metaphysics of Morals"
Nietzsche, Friedrich "Thus Spake Zarathustra"
Heidegger, Martin "Being and Time"
Camus, Albert "The Plague"
Tillich, Paul "Terry Lectures: Courage to Be (Yale University, 2000)"
Dillon, Robin, "Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect"
http://virtuefirst.org/virtues/self-respect/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-esteem
http://www.mcgath.com/sixpil.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights

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