Respect and Membership in the Moral Community1 Abstract

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Ethical Theory and Moral Practice,10/2 2006, pp. 113-128
Carla Bagnoli

Respect and Membership in the Moral Community1


Some philosophers object that Kant’s respect cannot express mutual recognition because it is an attitude owed to persons in virtue of an abstract notion of autonomy, and invite us to integrate the vocabulary of respect with other persons-regarding concepts or to replace it with a social conception of recognition. This paper argues for a dialogical interpretation of respect as the key-mode of recognition of membership in the moral community. This interpretation highlights the relational and practical nature of respect, and accounts for its governing role over other persons-regarding concepts.

Key words

Respect. Mutual recognition. Kantian ethics. Blame. Care.

Respect is a moral attitude typically addressed to persons in virtue of their being persons. On the Kantian view, respect is due and exacted on the basis of recognition of autonomy, the capacity to act on the basis of reasons, that in which humanity resides.2 To relate to persons as autonomous is to take them as “self-originating sources of valid claims”.3 As a mode of recognizing and responding to persons as rational agents, respect puts important constraints on how we deliberate and relate to others. To this extent, respect accounts for the very experience of morality as the experience of being at the same time free and bound by mutual recognition. The question I consider in this paper is whether the Kantian conception of respect adequately expresses mutual recognition and captures the institution of morality.4

That respect aptly serves this purpose may appear doubtful. To many it seems that communal ties play a more substantial role in the experience of morality than the presumption of autonomy does. In formulating this objection to the Kantian conception of respect, several philosophers appropriate Hegel’s legacy. They insist on the constitutive role of social recognition, and argue that it clashes with the Kantian pretense of autonomy. To account for the constitutive role of social ties and personal relations, they claim that morality should be defined in terms of attitudes that govern membership and withdrawal of recognition in concrete communities rather by attitudes that focus on autonomy.

My proposal is to address these issues by emphasizing the continuity between the Kantian and Hegelian conceptions of the source of authority of moral norms.5 I will propose a dialogical interpretation of Kant’s conception of respect as the key-mode of recognition of membership in the moral community. I will argue that this thesis does not deny that social recognition plays a constitutive role in the formation of our personality and greatly affects our effective capacity for autonomy. To treat respect as a structure of morality and as a mode assigning membership in the moral community is to argue that such a practical attitude should serve as a normative standard to identify our vulnerabilities and strengths in our dealings with ourselves and with others, against the background of actual practices and institutions.
1. Respect and reflexivity

Respect is a mode of recognition of others as persons, that is, as autonomous agents accountable for their actions. This recognition comes with reflexivity. Differently from non-rational animals, we do not act directly moved by the urgency of desires. As rational beings, we question the authority of natural desires and we examine their legitimacy by considering whether they should be taken as reasons for action. This is an issue that arises solely for us, animals endowed with reasons. We face the problem of the authority and legitimacy of our desires because we are capable of reflection. Reflection gives us also the instruments to solve it.

It is when we reflect on our own status of rational agents that we encounter others: we encounter them as self-originating sources of legitimate claims. The recognition of others as autonomous normative sources constrains the content of the reasons upon which we act. According to Kant, we feel this constraint in the guise of respect. Respect arises out of the contemplation of the idea of lawful activity and is directed toward this very idea. When deliberation is informed by this idea, it operates a selection of self-centered reasons. This selection strikes down our arrogance and constrains our self-love. It thus frustrates the desires that pretend to be satisfied and humiliates us (Kant 1788, pp. 75, 79). In recognizing others as sources of valid claims we learn that our desires do not have priority qua ours: we occupy no special place in the world (Kant 1788, pp. 75, 78). We are constrained by this recognition, and we feel this constraint as painful. By feeling this pain, we become conscious of the distance between the way we are and the ideal of rational agency we are endorsing. Kant thus describes respect as “the feeling of an incapacity to attain to an idea that is a law for us” (Kant 1788, p. 57); it is the experience of a pain which comes from understanding our limitations.

At the same time, however, respect is also the exulting experience that such limitations can be forced if not completely overcome: this produces a feeling of enhanced self-esteem or elevation (Kant 1788, pp. 78-79). In this sense, the experience of respect is also the experience of being freed from the direct urgency one’s desires and, most importantly, the experience of being moved by the recognition of others. The recognition of others does not simply limit our deliberation by excluding self-concerned reasons, it also generates a new ranking of incentives and proposes that we act on the basis of such a recognition. In this sense, respect is “the sole and undoubted moral incentive” (Kant 1788, p. 78). According to Kant, the experience of respect as a motive for action shows that pure reason can be practical, that is, it becomes causality: it drives us. We experience this causality in the guise of respect.

To distinguish this kind of authoritative necessitation from the mere pressure that desires exert on us, Kant often insists on the peculiar nature of respect. It is a peculiar feeling in that it is not pathological, that is, grounded on our sensibility but is produced by the very idea of lawful activity. The distinction between pathological and moral feelings is generally objected as presupposing a dubious psychology (Blackburn 1998: Chapter 8, Galvin 1991, Reath 1980). In my view, however, such a distinction can be accommodated within a naturalistic picture of human mind. The suggestion is that there are feelings distinctive to animals endowed with self-reflective minds. Since what is peculiar to rational beings is their capacity for self-representation, it is plausible to suppose that there are feelings that arise in virtue of and are directed to this kind of self-representation, such as respect. In fact, recent development in neurology, empirical psychology and cognitive science support the Kantian claim that the ‘moral mind’ is a mind shaped by the representation of itself as autonomous, and that human animals are endowed with a psychological make up that specifically allows for social recognition.6

It can be further objected that if we explain respect on the basis of empirical psychology, we thereby deny that morality is grounded on pure reason and thus contradict the main purpose of Kant’s philosophical project. However, to account for the phenomenon of the genuine authority of morality is sufficient to show that there is a difference between empirical reason and practical reason. The (Kantian) claim that there is a difference, which is signalled by the experience of respect, is compatible with the (naturalistic) claim that practical reason arises from nature as well.7 The latter claim concerns the genealogy of the moral mind, the former its constitution.

We can endorse two important Kantian theses about respect without undermining our committment to a naturalistic conception of the world. First, respect arises out of self-reflection and is directed to a certain kind of self-representation, that is, the ideal of rational agency. Second, undertaken as a motive, respect is distinctive of animals capable of sustaining an ideal of rational agency.
2. The dialogical view of respect

Respect is a reflective, practical attitude that we undertake toward one another.8 It is reflective in that it emerges as we consider our capacity to sustain an ideal of rational agency. It is a practical attitude of holding each other accountable, rather than an attribution of freedom. We regard ourselves as capable of accounting for our actions on the basis of reasons. In that, we feel and act as free. We regard others as equally capable, hence, equally free. Moral relations are structured by mutual acknowledgment of accountability. Any form of moral address and moral appraisal is based on mutual accountability. Hence, we can say that respect regulates relations among self-reflective animals that are held accountable for their actions and attitudes and responsive to reasons. Under this capacity, respect commands that we relate to each other as “self-originating sources of valid claims” (Rawls 1980, p. 546). When we enter a moral relation we offer and demand reasons of justification because we hold each other responsible for what we do.

To emphasize this relation of reciprocal accountability, I propose a dialogical view of respect as mutual recognition. When I reflect on particular actions and attitudes we account for what we do and feel by proposing reasons that others can take as intelligible. Recognizing others as constraints on our deliberation implies that we formulate reasons that must count as reasons also for others. That is to say that justification takes the form of an ideal dialogue with others.9

It is particularly important to explicate the notion of respect as mutual recognition in dialogical terms, and understand its implications. Some prominent Kantian philosophers interpret the claim about respect and recognition of others as requiring that morality is the perspective of an impartial spectator. For example, Th. Nagel treats respect as the structure of morality and understands it as a sort of epistemic awareness of the reality of other persons, whose counterpart is the awareness of oneself as one among others (Nagel 1970, pp. 100-102). Being a moral agent is in no interesting way different from viewing the situation from the perspective of a spectator. According to Nagel, this awareness makes it irrational to plead in one’s own favor, and thus it is tantamount to the requirement of impartiality. As mode of awareness, respect is grounded on the metaphysical certainty of the reality of other persons, and its denial is a form of solipsism (Nagel 1970, 14, 85-88).

In section 1, I proposed to understand respect as a practical relation that we entertain with ourselves and with others, rather than as a form of epistemic awareness. It is in order to emphasize the practical and relational nature of respect that I invoked the dialogical account. Perhaps Nagel would object that, whether practical or epistemic, the recognition of others is nonetheless a warrant for impartiality. And impartiality is the thesis that reasons are neutral regarding the special position of the agent (Nagel 1970, p. 102). This idea grounds the suggestion that in order to account for the impartiality in the content of the reasons we must put oneself in the spectator’s perspective and thus abandon the dialogical perspective. But this suggestion mistakenly assumes that anything that claims to be a reason for the agent must be translatable in terms that a spectator can accept as a reason or is a case of special pleading. Against this assumption, I contend that there is something peculiar to the agent’s perspective which is not a form of partiality, and that is the claim to authority and authorship on action. The agent proposes herself as a source of authority when deliberating about what to do. This claim is peculiar to the agent’s perspective, and yet it is not a plea in her own favor.

The issue at stake is not the partial content of reasons, but the authority of someone’s claim and its consequences. Respecting others as originating valid claims means respecting them as constraints on our deliberation. Recognizing others as having equal standing commits us to enter dialogical practices of exchanging reasons, but it does not force us to share the content of these reasons. We can respectfully disagree. In fact, respect requires that we do not impose our view on others, but it also requires that we engage in a frank dialogue with them. The purpose of entering a dialogue is not necessarily that of reaching an agreement. The main aim is the exchange of reasons. We can discuss the ends our partner has, her conception of well-being, or the ways in which she exercises her practical rationality. The conclusion of this dialogue may be an informed disagreement, the conviction that we are dealing with informed and competent agents endorsing ends rather different from ours and yet morally permissible. This acknowledgment of moral diversity follows from the attitude of respect toward the dignity of others as capable of setting their own ends.10 On some occasions, we show that we respect the dignity of others by making our disagreement explicit. The phenomenon that the dialogical view is supposed to account for is the claim for universal authority, not the homogeneity of contents.11 Therefore, the aim of the dialogical account is not to grant convergence on a set of reasons, but to explain on which grounds we regard them as authoritative.

The advantage of the dialogical interpretation of respect in contrast to Nagel’s view is that it directly addresses the phenomenon of the authority of morality. Authority is the question we face as agents, not as spectators. It is not the mere awareness of another’s existence that command respect, but the practical recognition of the other as a self-originating source of valid claims, that is, as a source of authority. The problem of the universality of the content of reasons is posterior to the issue of authority, and something that is decided on the basis of deliberation. It is a problem exactly because to respect others is to consider their reasons as authoritative claims. We can challenge such reasons as reasons, that is, dispute their normative resonance, importance, priority or validity; but we cannot merely ignore or dismiss them beforehand. To acknowledge others’ claim to reason is to grant them equal standing and thus enter in a dialogue with them as our interlocutors. The key issue in this dialogue is not, as Nagel says, the transmission of the influence of reasons from one normative source to another (Nagel 1970, p. 99, Chapter XI),but the identification of the basis upon which reasons are authoritative claims. To understand such a basis, we have to investigate further what recognition is and what it implies.
3. Moral and Social Recognition

The Kantian phrase I adopted to qualify mutual recognition is rather abstract: it merely pinpoints a practical relation of reciprocal conferral and limitation of authority. Recognizing one another as persons means that we recognize each other as normative sources, that is, as self-originating source of authoritative claims. On the dialogical view, this recognition is mutual and simultaneous, and this is what warrants and reciprocally limits authority. This double effect of mutual recognition, that is, its simultaneous conferral and limitation of authority explains the complex phenomenology of respect. Respect is the double-face experience of being free and being bound by the recognition of others, and it is a practical attitude rather than a form of awareness, I argued against Nagel. As a structural principle of rational agency, this practical attitude defines morality as mutual accountability.

Because of its abstractness and insistence on the bare structure of morality, the dialogical approach seems vulnerable to a battery of objections, which echoes Hegel’s critique of Kant’s morality. Like Kant’s, this approach may appear to discount the institutional dimension of morality and downplay the role of social recognition of our practical identity. This is because the dialogical account of respect takes into account others insofar as and to the extent that they are autonomous beings. If autonomy is construed as the capacity of bracketing and suspending our relations to specific traditions, practices and people, it is a freestanding form of self-determination. Ultimately, this requires that we step out of ourselves. But this is an absurd requirement: we are not free to question all our roles and social practices. More importantly, such a radical stepping out would eventually be self-defeating. If we were at liberty to question our actual practices, roots and identities we would be left with no firm grounds for choosing.12 This is because such communal ties serve as “authoritative horizons” within which choices make sense exactly because they are themselves beyond question (MacIntyre 1981, pp. 204-205, ch. 9, Sandel 1982, pp. 55-58, 149-154, 183, Friedman 2000, pp. 40-41, Meyers 2004, p. 292). By understanding autonomy as the capacity to call into question the authority of such normative horizons, we misconstrue self-determination, and overlook the social conditions that allow for such a capacity to be exercised. So runs the objection.

This objection is based on two related assumptions: first, that to question the authority of social ties and relations is to deny their role in the constitution and development of the self; and, second, that in order to choose, we must base our choice on unquestionable grounds. Because of these assumptions, the Kantian thesis that our autonomy resides in the capacity of bracketing and criticizing seems to force us to give up our particular identity and with it the very capacity for choice, that is, the capacity of choosing within our own normative horizons. But neither of these assumptions is granted: we can and, as a matter of fact, we do question our identities and communal ties without that they stop to serve as normative horizons for us. Questioning the normative horizons may well be the very same activity as deliberating and choosing.13 This does not imply, of course, that we choose who we are by a sheer act of will. It is true that we do not experience ourselves as freestanding and “unencumbered”, but it is also part of the phenomenology of choice that we do experience ourselves as capable of choice, and not determinated by our traditions and communal ties. To agree that such communal ties serve as normative constraints is not to imply that we cannot critically examine their role and legitimacy. We experience ourselves as responsible for how we choose, even when our choices fall within the normative horizons that we inherit from the situation.14 The Kantian view requires that such choices be attributed to the individual on the basis of her accountability, not on the basis of her membership in a concrete community. Whether her choice is grounded is something to be decided against rational standards.15 Such a critique does not amount to rejecting all values and practices, and embrace the path of invention, but to submit one’s beliefs and convictions to rational scrutiny. This rational scrutiny takes the form of a dialogue that recognizes others and is recognized by them. Others are represented not as competitors exchanging benefits, but as partners having equal standing.

The objection is interesting because it demands that any adequate account of authority ought to take into consideration the relation between the self and the community. But the objection also implies that such a relation ought to be one of priority (of the self over the community or, viceversa, of the community over the self). The dialogical account takes seriously the claim that an adequate account of authority should focus on the relation between the self and her community, but it does not hold the priority of either parties. It accepts the Hegelian suggestion that we become individuals by interacting with others and partaking in the social practices of a concrete community.16 In fact, this claim about the genesis and development of our identity and autonomy is not alien to the Kantian tradition. Kant is well aware of the impact of social forms of recognition and approval on the conception that individuals have on themselves; and he repetitively warns us against its dangerous effects.17

The Kantian vocabulary of recognition allows us to account more adequately for this phenomenon by distinguishing between “self-esteem” and “self-respect”. Our self-esteem is a practical attitude generated by others: we care about how others judge us, and form our esteem of ourselves correspondingly; hence self-esteem depends on the opinions and attitudes others have of us, and presupposes the superior authority of others. Self-respect, instead, is the appropriate consideration of ourselves as having equal standing. Differently from self-esteem, self-respect does not depend on what people actually think of us, but on our capacity for autonomy. It is directed and originated by our intrinsic value, that is, by a value that is not dependent on how others value us but that demands and commands a certain kind of treatment.

In order to make room for the constitutive importance of social and communal ties for the self, several Kantian philosophers, notably Christine Korsgaard and Barbara Herman, propose to revise Kant’s moral psychology.18 In my view, these proposals are not so much concessions to the Hegelian objection as efforts to make clearer what the Kantian view requires. In the same vein, I suggest that we further examine the relational structure of respect.19 As the experience of autonomy, respect is twofold: it is the experience of being free and at the same time it is the experience of being constrained by the recognition of others as having equal standing. While autonomy is a quality of the will, it is also something that we acquire and practice always in relations with others as peers. The recognitional aspect of respect is to be understood as providing morality with a relational structure.20 We cannot relate to ourselves as autonomous sources of authoritative claims unless we also and at the same time relate to others as self-originating sources of authoritative claim. This form of recognition does not result from a comparison or a contest. It has the structure of a dialogue. It is reciprocal not in the sense that it is modeled on the voluntary exchange, but insofar as it is a simultaneous and bipolar bestowal of authority. This relation of authority between equals can be altered and undermined, and we need a normative criterion for judging these alterations.

A Kantian conception of respect as the basis of membership in the moral community is thus compatible, and indeed hospitable, to a conception of self-esteem and individual formation as dependent on actual practices and processes of social recognition. It is exactly because we are sensitive and vulnerable to the opinions of others, that we need a normative standard that identifies such vulnerabilities. That our relations with others deeply affect our autonomy and identity is more than a psychological and sociological truism because autonomy and practical identity are modes of relating to others. This remark highlights a crucial aspect of the dialogical view of mutual recognition. The claim that respect is a normative mode of framing the relation between agency and membership implies that the relation between the self and the community of which it is a member is not an ontological relation. Rather, it is a practical relation and more precisely a relation of authority. The claim about the simultaneous and reciprocal recognition is not merely about the genesis of autonomous individuals. It is a claim about how their respective authority is established. To this extent, this conception of respect as a mode of mutual recognition also offers a normative standard for assessing relations, practices and institutions, and takes autonomy both as a condition of moral membership and as a value to protect. We can avail ourselves to this conception to decide when membership is unjustly denied or withdrawn. Differently from substantive principles, respect does not give direct and determined instructions as to how a community should treat its members and punish the wrongdoer. Differently from descriptive (anthropological or sociological) accounts of such practices, it does not merely say under what conditions we can attribute any community a moral code (that is, a system of norms governing identity and membership). As a structural principle of morality, respect gives us the conditions upon which we can say that any determined, concrete community is governed by moral and morally correct relations. To this extent, the Kantian conception serves as a diagnostic device for testing our vulnerability to social practices.

The merit of the dialogical view in this regard is that it highlights the normative role of respect but it also makes its relational nature apparent. Adequately accounting for this relationality is crucial to correctly appropriate Hegel’s legacy, I want to argue next. The formative activities that Hegel places within communal practices have one important task, namely, the development of the capacity of conceiving and pursuing our own ends (Newhouser 2000, p. 149). Famously, for Hegel this capacity ought to be developed within communal practices and social traditions. This is not simply because we need a public structure and institutional setting to exercise our capacity of self-determination. Rather, this is because we need a public structure to think of ourselves. We become conscious of our selves in the eyes of the others. Our reflexivity is fundamentally public, and as a consequence we become free only to the extent that we are recognized as free (Pippin 2000, p. 163, Williams 1997, p. 52). Mutual recognition is necessary not only to exercise a capacity we have already, but to develop this capacity. Communal ties, social and personal relations play the active role of transforming how people understand themselves and take themselves to be.

To appreciate the practical and relational structure of respect and of morality is thus the route to uncover the social roots of the self and the constitutive role of personal relations. This route is generally taken to mark the main divide between the Kantian and the Hegelian camps in recent debates. Kantians are depicted as giving priority to the self and to treat of autonomy as a property of the giddy will, and Hegelians are portrayed as reducing the self to a social creation.21 This way of framing the disagreement seems to me to overlook a more interesting continuity between the Kantian and the Hegelian tradition, and particularly to misunderstand and misappropriate Hegel’s legacy. Hegel’s most profound insight, as I take it, is the idea that the effective authority of either normative agencies requires mutual recognition.22 Neither the self nor the community is prior. They are instituted reciprocally and simultaneously by the very same modes of recognition. Individuals and communities become normative agencies simultaneously as they recognize each other as such, thereby limiting their respective authority.

The dialogical interpretation acknowledges the relational nature of our identity and thus vindicates an important Hegelian claim about the social nature of the self, but it does not argue for the priority of a community over the self. It does so by resorting to an aspect of the Kantian conception of respect that it is generally underappreciated, that is, its being the key mode of mutual recognition.To this extent, the dialogical view of morality insists on the continuity between the Kantian and the Hegelian tradition in approaching the issue of authority.

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