Fifth three: a more detailed examination of respect and self respect

The relationship between self respect and the environment looks a lot like a psychological question. After all, self -respect looks like something to do with self-esteem, with an idea of how we value ourselves. It looks like it will relate in some way to how we’ve been brought up, and this is a sociological, rather than a philosophical question.

The philosophical aspect of the question is this: what if self-respect is reduced to one part of its meaning: what if we understand self-respect as the ability that consciousness has to observe itself and out of that impartial self reflection, the potential for developing self regard in the positive sense? How might that help us understand self-respect as more than a sociological or a psychological idea? And what if this idea could be linked to the idea that the respect we have for things that we look out at, as it were, also arises as a result of reflective, impartial (or reasoned) understanding?

David Middleton’s idea is that there are three types of self-respect (as opposed to Stephen Darwall’s two kinds). Darwall, and Robin Dillon, wrote extensively about the importance of understanding different kinds of self respect and I want to use their ideas as a foundation so that I can explore what it might mean to take away the moral aspect of respect (the idea that it gives us or anyone else a sense of moral value) and replace this with the idea, from Dogen, that recognising how we interrelate with other species, and, from Sampson and others, how we interrelate as energetic systems, gives us a different sense of recognition respect which is more open ended. There is still the idea of self-respect based on our actions, and this (appraisal, or self-appraisal respect) is hugely important in the context of being motivated and inclined to take one’s activities and involvement in the world seriously. After all, without any sense of having qualities that allow one to contribute positively, one quickly becomes depressed or apathetic. Nevertheless, I want to focus on appraisal respect from a slightly different angle to Middleton and I want to suggest that if we appraise ourselves in the broader context of how freely we are allowing energy to flow through the relationships and systems within which we are enmeshed, then I think we can take our understanding of self-respect to a level that encompasses a much wider range of possibilities, and which incorporates the idea of meditation, or zazen, as a means of allowing both the appraisal, and the loosening of existing matrices, to emerge. We respect ourselves by the act of meditation and we also open up the possibility of being able to respect our activities through meditation, because meditation creates an arena within which we can allow the possibility of different ways of relating to emerge.

I want to compare this with Arne Naess’ idea of self-realisation. I need to do more research into this idea, but I think that the basic concept is quite similar to that which I’m attempting to describe as self-respect. What’s important for Naess, and for me, is that self-respect gives the impetus for activity that expresses respect for the environment. If we don’t have this kind of self-respect, we can’t hope to show authentic respect for nature (I’d argue that we also can’t hope to show authentic respect for one another or the world around us).

What I have to say about Naess too, however, is that I think the self-realisation he talks about is rather restricted by what Maslow called, the heirarchy of needs. It’s far more difficult to develop self-respect when basic needs are not met, and this is an enormous problem in the context of the environmental crisis because when people feel as though they have no control over where to get their next meal, then their ability to reflect on the broader context of their existence dissolves. I don’t think this an insurmountable problem: the whole nature of this thesis is basically concerned with creating a critical mass, and Dogen’s idea that everything becomes enlightened when just one individual gets it, sees the whole picture, sees the interrelationships and has that ‘ah-hah’ moment, is quite positive. Of course we have to work for social justice. And each context demands a particular response (which is why this thesis isn’t concerned with morality. Morality depends on inflexible principles and can actually create the very kinds of disempowering attitudes – despair, guilt, apathy, depression, and so on – that develop when people think that they can’t do enough. Every little act is important. That’s the key. That means that all of us who start thinking about this have to develop a compassion towards ourselves and what is going on, so the fear, and the sense of hopelessness that might threaten to overwhelm us are allowed to flow through as part of the free flow of experience, but that we know that whenever, and however, we can make an effort to step back and encompass our experience using the perspective of respect, we are creating, or practicing, enlightenment.

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