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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? If not are they different? 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, but the relationship is complicated. 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 lust one has for a movie star's fame and lifestyle. Or admiration 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 to be aware of their 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.

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 for me that means 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 being exquisitely aware of your environment and 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 and these rights apply to us at all times.

First and foremost is the right to life, the right to life and freedom from harm, 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.

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

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

In a sense integrity is a moral commitment. It hearkens 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 an esteem that is credible starts here by behaving in a way that you agree with. 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.

Accomplishment
The path to self-respect completes 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.

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. This is an upward spiral that builds and builds as your action shows the value your contribute to society.

From a bigger picture point of view do you hold your self in equal value to 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)?

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. Esteem is a weather-vane, something we ought to maintain and calibrate so that it is an accurate indication of alignment between self and effort. This makes it an extremely useful tool for us.

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. Esteem is a necessary feedback loop to keep your mental health in check.

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. Self-esteem can be built on a set of invalid premises leading to an inaccurate sense of self or an overly harsh evaluation that is unfounded. But, given a reasonable assessment of one's life situation 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. And it also serves as a check when we overstep.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Ultimately 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.

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. A completely a priori non-contingent value. And on the other hand a set of values that needs no basis or rationalization. Conversely, you should expect self-esteem to be transient in nature, reflecting your current environment and situation. As such self-esteem is non-rational and a posteriori.

Contingency
This model for self-respect is completely unconditional, or non-contingent. Should self-esteem also be unconditional? Self-esteem that is contingent on the environment 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? And should self-esteem be contingent upon self-respect? I think that on paper there really is not much connection between the two. But practically speaking life's choices, circumstances and situations result in self-respect and self-esteem swaying forwards and backwards together such that they are often conflated as being the same thing.

Can you have self-esteem if you do not have self-respect? Ill founded self-esteem can be had at any time. But because they are measuring similar but different things generally speaking I would say yes. Both self-respect and (justified) self-esteem are built slowly upon evidence of success. That is behavior that matches your beliefs and aspirations. Practically speaking thought it would be difficult to have self-esteem when a person is behaving with little or no self-respect.

Link to Authenticity
There is something implied about the ability to make your own choices in life and living a life that is authentic. Authenticity here means living a life that is most appropriate to the person. In addition a person is content with that life. It can be finding a lifestyle or geography that more closely fits your personality or more closely observing your belief system. There is a safety and contentment that your action and beliefs are both consistent and correct.

Being authentic is key to self respect, self esteem and being happy. 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.

"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

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

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 including yourself equally and as equals. This is the Kantian categorical imperative and is essential to maintaining dignity.
  4. Set responsibilities appropriately. Don't overstep or take away responsibility that rightfully belongs to them. They have a right to autonomy.
  5. Discover each person's life plan, with their own unique goals, and make it a point to enable people to fulfill their goals.
  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." - Unknown

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

Respect is key to an honest, moral life. It is key to a consistent and complete philosophy. Respect, dignity, esteem and authenticity are all closely linked. And those are built on a foundation of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and ontology. Respect is the link between your entire set of beliefs and the self. Without authenticity and respect there is discord.

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

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

There were several corrections made on 11/4/2017 and 11/11/2017.

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