Securing Self-Respect

Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1993)

Cynthia A. Stark
University of Utah
Few would deny that self-respect is a moral good of tremendous value. Arguments for the moral worth of self-respect, whether it is viewed in Kantian terms as a duty one has to oneself or in Rawlsian terms as a social good to which all are entitled, generally rely, it turns out, upon a conception of the person that incorporates the ideal of self-respect. ;At the basis of these arguments is the idea that persons have a special moral status which either demands of them or entitles them to their own respect. Upon examination, however, we find that this notion often rests upon the assumption that persons conceive of themselves as having this special status. But this is just to say that persons, in an important sense, respect themselves. For Kant, persons necessarily regard themselves as having a special worth. Hence the duty of self-respect, on his view, is not a duty to acquire and sustain a sense of one's own worth, but rather to preserve or refrain from disavowing the worth that one, on full reflection, knows oneself to have. For Rawls, persons view themselves as having a special worth by stipulation. Self-respect is a normative dimension of persons conceived as such. When charged with the task of constructing a society, such persons, he maintains, would choose social institutions that foster self-respect. Hence the reasoning for claim that citizens are entitled to self-respect as a matter of justice presumes the moral worth of self-respect. ;The forgoing considerations reveal that the value of self-respect, understood as a conviction in one's special moral status, is assumed rather than supported by philosophical argument. Nonetheless, an argument for the value of self-respect can be constructed, within a Rawlsian social contract framework, if we revise the conception of self-respect that we take to be in need of support. This revision is motivated by the recognition that an alternative variety of self-respect, namely a conviction in the worth of one's particular identity, is more fundamental than the standard variety of self-respect, and so should be at the center of our inquiry concerning matters of self-worth
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