Rethinking Respect for Persons

Dissertation, Georgetown University (2002)
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Abstract

Contemporary discussions of respect for persons are typically framed in terms of the Kantian principle that persons warrant respect in virtue of their rational agency. This principle is supposed to ensure that respect for persons is cosmopolitan, prohibits oppression, and provides a rationale for liberal democracy. There is a deep tension in the ways that liberals invoke respect in moral and political contexts, however. On one hand, respect for persons is supposed to protect people's abilities to choose ends. On the other hand, people are imperfect, limited, and vulnerable in ways that compromise their abilities to choose and pursue ends. ;In this dissertation, I critique three liberal strategies for addressing the tension between respect for rational agency and what Kant calls duties of "practical love," as a response to the limitations of our abilities to achieve ends. Liberals tend to downplay the antagonism between respect and practical love by arguing that respect for rational agency should demarcate the boundaries of beneficence, gratitude, and sympathy. This idea, which I call the liberty-based interpretation, glosses over the driving concern behind Kant's account of practical love, however, the idea that besides simply respecting persons as rational end-setters, we should pay attention to the ways that their rational powers are limited. Ironically, by focusing respectful attention on rational agency, the liberty-based interpretation obscures some important ways that people's end-setting abilities are limited, particularly with regard to our abilities to conceive ends. ;As an alternative, I argue that the object of respect for persons should be sensitive to the full range of the limitations of our rational agency, including limitations on our abilities to conceive ends. According to this account, we should respect persons in virtue of our abilities to author, evaluate, and adopt good practical reasons, as opposed to any practical reasons. I refer to this new object of respect as potential for human excellence. Respect for persons in virtue of their potential for human excellence, defined in terms of the qualities that are conducive to human flourishing, helps diagnose violations that liberal accounts gloss. It also provides a firmer foundation for deliberative democracy

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