Category: self-respect and the environment

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.

First three pages


This thesis defends the proposition that respect and self-respect are identical, necessary and sufficient for a response to the ecological emergency

To begin at the beginning: in the global North, respect and self-respect have been treated as two separate attitudes. Respect has traditionally been attributed to persons. Immanuel Kant argued that respect was the pivotal attitude around which our moral activities revolved1 and that persons, that is, autonomous, rational agents, themselves generated that attitude (one which acknowledged that persons were ends in themselves, and not only instruments serving the ends of someone or something else). Self-respect, on the other hand, is the reflexive idea that an individual acknowledges that they, themselves, would generate that attitude among others. In other words, it is simply the acknowledgment that they themselves have interests that are as worthy of consideration as the next person. John Rawls used this idea of self-respect in his A Theory of Justice to show that the process of political justice relies on the individuals involved acknowledging their own worth before their participation in the democratic process could be assured2. Without self-respect, society’s members would not be inclined to weigh their interests as sufficiently significant to warrant representation, and would become less represented, and this, in turn, would impinge on their views of themselves. Self-respect, then, was, to Rawls, central to the realisation of a fair and participatorily just democracy.

Just as Rawls had extended Kant’s idea of respect to self-respect – the idea that persons as ends in themselves being extended to include the attitude towards the individual themselves – so Paul Taylor saw the possibility of extending respect outwards to include not just autonomous human agents but also any living organism, given that all organisms pursue their own ‘good’3. Taylor’s idea in his book, Respect for Nature, was to defend a thesis that limiting inclusion in consideration of interests to humans alone was problematic, since it failed to acknowledge the developments in modern scientific understanding that the difference between human and other organisms’ motivations and teleological drives had a common source: all were evolutionarily driven. Given this common ground, it no longer made sense to treat humans as a separate category of being from all others, even if humans were the only ones who had self-reflective consciousness (and therefore the capacity for self-respect). Instead, respect needed to be extended, according to Taylor, to include each and every organism, and thus his proposal was that we respect Nature rather than just respecting humanity as the solution to the problems we face, as a species, in light of anthropogenic impact on the ecology.

Respect in the tradition of the global North was extended further during the field of philosophy’s attempts to tackle the implications of anthropogenic ecological or environmental impact. I will use the term ‘ecological’ because the ‘ecology’ or ‘ecological systems’ refer to both living and non-living aspects of systems. That is, they include both species, and they focus on the relationships between them as much as the individuals within them, and they also include the non-living hydrological, geological, climatic and other conditions within which those species are interacting. The ecology is a term to describe the fluid dynamics of a system of interactions. The environment, on the other hand, describes the neighbourhood, the surroundings, and in a sense it is a more static term that only incidentally implies that the relationships between the organisms and species create the dynamic within which the perceiver is situatied. The ecology necessarily includes the perceiver, because, etymologically at least, ‘eco’ means ‘home’ and this necessarily locates the perceiver within the action of the ecology. The environment is segregated from the perceiver by that same etymological method: a neighbour cannot be oneself.

Respect and self-respect in the tradition of the global North4 were segregated primarily as a result of the historical development of ideas. The cradle of ideas for the global North was Greece, and although there was some struggle for a dominant paradigm, the overwhelming success of Platonic philosophy, with its emphasis on a clear dualism between the world of Forms, or Ideals, and the (grossly inferior) messy, ever-changing world of matter, became the standard against which all subsequent attempts to understand the world were measured. As a result, the understanding of religion, a meme that had taken hold and developed into the Judeo-Christian tradition, echoing this earlier division, posited an ideal, pure and immortal soul within the gross and ever-decaying physical body. In addition, religion divided the human realm from that of the rest of existence, including the rest of living existence, a move it justified with myths that told how the beasts (particularly the serpent) had betrayed us, and how the rest of creation had been designed specifically for human use. Rene Descartes’ thought experiment with the deluding demon proved, he argued, that consciousness, like the immaterial soul, was insubstantial and yet inhabited the physical, human form. Animals did not have souls and therefore could not suffer (they had no idea of time: this argument is still used to justify animal experimentation and factory farming). There were two realms for human existence. The material world, including the living world, was insentiate, mechanistic. Consciousness was the realm of the will, the spirit, and the possibilities for human advancement.

Fitting the history of self-respect into this picture is delicate. The institutional shifts between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries meant that there was a shift in focus from an aristocratic defence of personal honour to more bourgeois one of personal dignity. The age of chivalry was overtaken by an age of rationality and the result was more reflection on the rights and dignities of individuals than on whether or not their honour had been upheld or defiled (although in southern Europe, as Peter Berger points out5, and in the gangs that accompany this culture elsewhere, the principles are still strongly held). As a result, the dualism of respect and self-respect developed around the rational humanism of a growing bourgeoisie and the appropriation of traditionally aristocratic virtues by the new industrial class. To respect was to hold up the worth of another individual on the basis that they were, literally in essence, worthy of equal consideration. While this was limited, in the nineteenth century, to white, male individuals, the core idea remained important even as the circle of considerability expanded. Alongside the development of the idea of respect grew the idea of self-respect, just as important a consideration since it encompassed, according to David Hume in his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), a ‘habit of surveying ourselves, as it were, in reflection … and begets in noble natures a certain reverence for themselves as well as others, which is the surest guardian of every virtue.’ This idea that self-respect was both a reflection on our public selves, and a means by which we might revere ourselves enough to act worthily, shows how the dualistic divide struggled to make sense of an increasingly conflicted dichotomy. Was the ‘self’ being created by the ‘other’, or vice versa?

Meanwhile, at least one tradition of the global South offered an alternative perspective on respect. Instead of this tension between attempts to shore up an identity worth maintaining, and the rationalised justification of universal consideration of individual interests, Master Eihei Dogen’s Shobogenzo illustrates how the practice of self-reflection empties the self of any substance whatsoever. The response to the realisation of emptiness is one of compassionate non-attachment, a practice-enlightenment that makes respect the central attitude around which all activity revolves. Since the concept of the self as a separate entity is foreign to the Soto Zen tradition, the problem of self-respect does not arise. Without the dualism that evolved in the historical tradition of the global North, none of the difficulties associated with an inflated idealised transcendent ‘I’ emerged. Instead, the contemplation of the boundaries of all things enabled the practitioners, with great effort, but eventually also with compassion and even with joy, to bring the activity of respect into every aspect of living existence, and just as importantly, into the acknowledgment of the temporary nature of this existence, and therefore into the cultivation of non-attachment. Therefore what is cultivated in Zen is not love, but compassion, a more measured frame of reference in which experience is held as a sphere of activity within which one’s own activity is simply a relational perspective, shifting as dynamically as day and night.

1He was wrong: our activities do revolve around attitudes, but these are not moral. I will explain this below.

2I wholeheartedly agree with Rawls, which is ironic, given that I am going to defend the proposition that respect and self-respect are identical. However, a little thought shows that those who participate least in the political process are those that respect the process least. This does not mean that those who participate least in the political process because they are disenchanted or disillusioned by the political possibilities on offer exhibit a lack of self-respect. Far from it: critical thinking is itself a mark of self-respect, since it indicates a willingness to value, and therefore use, the intellectual problem-solving skills at one’s disposal. Those who are not keen to participate, but who can give no indication why, exhibit a lack of self-respect, however, because they are not even willing to critically question the political possibilities on offer, or consider potential alternatives.

3The use of the term ‘good’ here is problematic. ‘Conditions that support their continuing flourishing’ is better, but unweildy. We will return later to a consideration of the language of morals because it is a central part of the problem created by dualistic thinking.

4I use the terms ‘global North’ and ‘global South’ to indicate the cultural exploitation and dominance of the former over the latter: the ‘global North’, as a result of the idiosyncracies of history (see, for instance, Jared Diamond’s explanation in Guns, Germs and Steel), including its reliance on dualism as an explanation and justification for differential treatment of different groups, has had a far greater influence on the kind and level of impact of the species on the ecology, both through the development of the scientific method to ensure technological advances, and through the economic model of capitalism.

5Berger, Peter, The Obsolescence of Honour, in Michel Sandel (ed), Liberalism and its Critics, 1984, pp 149-58.

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