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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter August 7, 2020

Introduction: Self-esteem and social esteem: Normative issues

  • Andreas Blank and Judit Szalai
From the journal Human Affairs

Esteem (also called “social esteem”) plays a fundamental role in the motivation of human action and, in moral contexts, in individuals’ readiness to comply with the norms of the community. With much simplification, compliance is viewed positively, while non-compliance is viewed negatively, and the wish to be regarded positively motivates compliance, regardless of any compulsion. The topic of esteem-motivated compliance, prominent in early modern moral and political thought, has been revived in the past two decades in a philosophical debate initiated by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit. They use the notion of “moral economy” to analyze the functioning of esteem, a good that cannot in a literal sense be exchanged for other goods, but one that is often a reward for what a person does and that is often an object of competition.

Self-esteem (or its social bases) has also been regarded as a primary good in recent political philosophy, under the influence of John Rawls’s thought that (the social bases of) self-respect (for which, in this context, the more widely used term is “self-esteem”) is “perhaps the most important” kind of primary good, alongside rights, liberties, and material goods, and thus is an object of distributive concern. Regardless of whether there is justification for granting this status to self-esteem, it certainly indicates its intuitive significance to mental life and social functioning.

The value of self-esteem lies in its motivating potential (towards high achievement, moral behavior, etc.) and hedonic aspect. In psychological studies, low self-esteem has been associated with a lack of motivation and procrastination. Moderate to high correlations have been found between the measures of happiness and self-esteem. Positive self-affirmations— promoting self-esteem—benefit both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Thus, maintaining a sufficient level of self-esteem seems to be a prerequisite of functioning well and experiencing subjective well-being.

Besides moral psychology and action theory, epistemology is also interested in the topic of self-esteem. Epistemic self-confidence and self-doubt can be affected by the subject’s

general level of self-esteem. Persons with low self-esteem may adopt dysfunctional epistemic norms; high self-evaluation may, in turn, induce biased thoughts, especially concerning one’s own achievements or capacities. Thus, what is called “epistemic self-esteem” also raises non-trivial philosophical issues.

In light of the causal significance of self-esteem in action, social functioning, well-being, and cognition, it may come us as a surprise that there are no recent collections of papers addressing the philosophical problems related to self-esteem. This symposium is intended to help fill that gap by assessing and addressing the philosophical problems associated with self-esteem and the conceptual neighborhood, especially self-respect, which is sometimes used synonymously, but also other moral or psychological senses.

Rawls attempted to identify some of the empirical “circumstances” of self-esteem—that is, the factors that are not strictly necessary but factually conducive to self-esteem (Rawls, 1971, p. 440). One of these circumstances can be approached through the “Aristotelian principle” according to which we find satisfaction only in actions that are sufficiently complex relative to our capacities (Rawls, 1971, p. 440). In Rawls’s view, a “rational plan of life” is a life plan that follows this principle. Another circumstance that Rawls mentions is that of “finding our person and deeds appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed” (Rawls, 1971, p. 440). As with self-esteem, he understands esteem from others in an entirely non-normative way: others tend to value our actions “only if what we do elicits their admiration or gives them pleasure” (Rawls, 1971, p. 441).

The prevailing consensus in analytic moral philosophy is that the notion of self-esteem should best be understood as an empirical, non-normative notion. This consensus should, of course, by no means be taken as a sign of inadequate thinking; rather, it rests on a series of arguments developed by some of the most influential political thinkers of the late twentieth century. Thus, Michael Walzer has argued that self-esteem necessarily involves comparative and competitive elements, which is why not all humans seem to be capable of having the same degree of self-esteem and that self-esteem seems to be fraught with the adverse effects of competitive behavior (Walzer, 1981, pp. 274–276). Similarly, Avishai Margalit has argued that, if self-esteem is essentially comparative and competitive, it provides grounds for unequal treatment of persons (Margalit, 1996, p. 44). And Robert Nozick has argued that the negative effects of comparison and competition can only be avoided by giving up on the idea that self-esteem could be based on any commonly shared values even within one and the same society (Nozick, 1976, pp. 244–245).

However, as Robert Yanal has argued, it may be that normative aspects have to be included in a philosophically compelling account of self-esteem. Self-esteem cannot be reduced to judgments concerning one’s own value because a person whose judgments about her own value change would not be regarded as having good self-esteem (Yanal, 1987, pp. 363–379, 373–374). This is why Yanal maintains that momentary judgments have to be supplemented by stable dispositions to form judgments (Yanal, 1987, p. 375). In particular, Yanal identifies the following capacities which he considers necessary for good self-esteem: (1) “The capacity for honest appraisal of which qualities one has had a large share in bringing about;” (2) “The capacity for being able to assess accurately the worth of one’s major qualities;” (3) “A moderate desire for the esteem of others” (Yanal, 1987, pp. 375–376).

How these capacities can be realized, however, is a question that more recent work on esteem and self-esteem is far from answering. One reason for this lacuna is that esteem and self-esteem are typically treated as separate issues (see Sachs, 1981; Govier, 1993; Dillon 1994; Chazan, 1998; McAdams, 2005; Langton, 2009; Frank & Pettit, 2018), despite the fact that it is not uncommon to find approaches in the history of philosophy that treat both issues as integrated (see Blank, 2015; 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019a; 2019b; forthcoming a; forthcoming b). A few years ago, the connection between esteem and self-esteem was explored by Geoffrey Brennan. He first tried to identify the aspects of self-esteem that can be regarded as internalized forms of social esteem (Brennan, 2017).

While Brennan is still committed to his analysis, in his contribution to the present symposium he expands on it by highlighting a specific difference between social esteem and self-esteem. As Brennan argues, impartiality is crucial for the virtue-supporting function of social esteem. However, work in social psychology Brennan relies on shows that that individuals tend to be strongly biased in favor of their own character traits and achievements. The impartiality requirement in self-assessment would thus seem to demand something that is psychologically impossible. This is why self-esteem brings with it normative demands that set it apart from social esteem: the demand for modesty, understood as a behavioral disposition not to demand social esteem in inappropriate ways; and the demand for humility, understood as a character trait favoring lower assessments of the person’s abilities and action as an antidote against the all too well-documented tendency to overvalue our abilities and actions.

Tim Thornton addresses what he persuasively identifies as a tension regarding self-esteem and shame in the recovery model of mental health care. Mental illness and the interiorization of the social stigma associated with it can corrode so-called “recognition self-respect”, which in turn may undermine autonomy and free-agency. This may be a serious obstacle to the employment of the recovery model, which assumes a great measure of autonomy on the part of the patient in relying on her perspectives and values.

László Bernáth and János Tőzsér examine what they call “epistemic self-esteem” in philosophy, in light of the pervasive and permanent disagreement concerning substantive philosophical issues. Three ways of dealing with the systemic feature of a profound lack of consensus are proposed: (1) maintaining high epistemic self-esteem (“belief in philosophical superiority”); (2) moderating epistemic self-esteem (“belief without knowledge) and (3) having low epistemic self-esteem concerning substantive philosophical beliefs (“philosophy without philosophical beliefs”). The authors assess the advantages and downsides of each, coming to a bleak conclusion about the ambitions of philosophy.

The last two articles explore the link between esteem and self-esteem from the historical perspectives of early 20th century thinkers who developed their views by reference to ideas from antiquity to early modernity. Maja Soboleva’s article considers the views of Georg Misch (1878-1965), a prominent student of Wilhelm Dilthey (1933–1911). Misch’s work draws attention to an aspect of self-esteem that, as far as we can determine, has not been discussed in recent debates: the role of understanding one’s whole life in self-appraisal and the significance of different characteristics to that life. This autobiographic perspective also raises the question of how much a person’s values are shaped by social conventions. Misch discussed these matters extensively in his multi-volume work on the history of autobiography, which is particularly relevant to the normativity of self-esteem. In Misch’s view, autobiographies are both self-representational and present a particular cultural situation, in the sense that their authors offer both an idealized picture of themselves and derive the standards that guide their personality ideals from what is socially esteemed. In one sense, autobiographies can thus be indifferent to facts; in another sense, however, autobiographies express truths about how individuals want to be perceived and what they take to be estimable from the perspective of others.

Cristiana Senigaglia’s article is on the work of Max Weber (1864–1920), who in his writing on Protestant ethics discussed questions about valuing the self and its connection with honor, reputation, and membership of religious and professional groups. Weber’s discussions are particularly relevant to how self-esteem can take account of external feedback without becoming overly dependent on the judgments of others. Weber shed light on how strongly the different versions of Protestant ethics—Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed, Puritan—made trustworthiness and creditworthiness a function of membership of religious congregations and professional associations. In this sense, the desire for social esteem became a driving force for religious conformity and economic success. He also highlighted the extent to which Protestant ethics counterbalanced these conformist and capitalist tendencies with its wide-ranging duties of self-scrutiny in which deserving self-esteem was based on the fulfillment of strict ethical demands. Weber traced the way in which religious views of the need to ground self-esteem in self-knowledge influenced secularized versions of the duties of self-control by reflecting on values such as reliability and justice in economic matters and moderation in consumption. These were not only upheld for their instrumental value but because they were seen as constitutive of a morally valued form of life.


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Published Online: 2020-08-07
Published in Print: 2020-07-28

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