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Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect

May 31, 2014

 Self-esteem has fallen on hard times. From its inception, it has been ruthlessly mocked, criticized and pointed to as a sign of the “crisis of Western Civilization.” And it’s hard not to see self-esteem as a “gold-stars-for-everyone” sickly egalitarianism. Critics of self-esteem (and they are many) characterize it as the smug satisfaction of people who haven’t accomplished anything—a slacker in his parent’s basement congratulating himself on his existence. It is often pointed out that self-esteem is weak sauce when a person is faced with genuine suffering and difficulty—are you going to tell someone in Buchenwald that they need to “feel good about themselves.” And self-esteem’s moral vacuity, its lack of moral orientation, is a frequent target. Hitler, after all, had high self esteem. So do drunk drivers, criminals, and Justin Bieber.

Self-Esteem is also very 90s, which is another good reason for rejecting it.

And there’s much to be said for the criticism of self-esteem. When one reads sentences like “You are a child of the Universe no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here” (qt. Taylor, Sources of the Self, 497), then one longs for the bracing realness of a Camus or a Sartre. Much of the criticism of self-esteem has come from the vaguely conservative, culturally Christian side of the intellectual spectrum, and in this field, at least, the conservatives and the Christians are on the right track. But although the criticisms of “self-esteem” have been devastating, its opponents have yet to propose a viable alternative. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that constantly feeling miserable about yourself is a good way to live your life, although there are some defeatists who get pretty close. The evisceration of self-esteem has left a void that needs to be filled.

One option, put forth by blogger Frederik deBoer, in his article “Self-Confidence is Stupid,” is “self-ownership.” DeBoer points out the vacuous and phony nature of self-confidence and self esteem. He says, “…self-confidence is a big con that we perpetuate on each other out of fear….The problem with those kind of feelings [of self-confidence] are that they change.” For deBoer, self-confidence is inherently insecure, a strategy used by emotionally brittle people to disguise their problems that doesn’t work. And this insecurity makes self-confidence highly problematic: “it may not be the case that literally everyone with what we think of as self-confidence is a jerk, but it’s pretty close… it’s entirely unclear to me that there’s actually such a thing as a projected self-confidence that isn’t ultimately a matter of saying not just “I’m good” but of saying “I’m better than you.” DeBoer is correct on this point. Since self-confidence isn’t grounded on anything solid, it works primarily as a rationalization of self-worth. And it is those who don’t have any actual accomplishments to ground their worth in who need affirmations of self-esteem. This creates a petty egalitarianism which lashes out against people who have actually accomplished something. “I’m just as good as she is,” says the person who is by no means as good as she is.

“LeBron and D-Wade think they’re so good at basketball. But they’ll never be as stylish as me.”

Nevertheless, deBoer’s alternative to self-esteem, “self-ownership,” is equally problematic. DeBoer writes, “Self-ownership means that everything that you are and do are yours, even when they’re embarrassing or sucky. Everything that’s you is yours, and you become your only judge.” This sounds refreshing at first; a person who practices self-ownership won’t have a problem with failure or suffering the way a person who practices self-esteem will. Self-ownership strikes us as true, because it factors in the bad as well as the good.

The problem with self-ownership is that it is amoral. DeBoer’s definition of self-ownership is eerily reminiscent of Mersault’s words at the end of The Stranger: I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life on way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so?” (120-121, Matthew Ward translation). DeBoer’s ownership ends up being even more vacuous than self-esteem. At best, it’s banal; at worst, it gives license to a person’s worst inclinations simply because they belong to him. And it doesn’t do justice to the experience that principled people have of committing actions that go against their “real selves,” as shown in phrases like “That’s not who I am,” “I wasn’t myself,” “I was a different person then,” etc.

One might counter that one could hitch self-ownership to a pre-existing ethic (Christian, Buddhist, Kantian, etc.). But that’s just not possible, because self-ownership is itself an ethic. The goodness (or authenticity, if you will) of the actions in the self-ownership ethic is determined by the fact that they are “owned.” This is a far cry from Buddhist ethics, in which (as I remember) the goal is to get away from the self, or Christian ethics, where an action’s goodness is determined by its accordance with God’s will. And, as deBoer said, in the self-ownership ethic “you become your only judge.” The moral vacuousness of self-esteem is never escaped; it might even be deepened.

How are we to find a way out of this trap? I propose an alternative to both self-esteem and self-ownership: self-respect. Oxford Dictionary defines self-respect as “Pride and confidence in oneself; a feeling that one is behaving with honor and dignity.” We can disregard the first part of the definition, as it is too close to self-esteem. It is the second part that interests me. I want to modify it a bit; I define self-respect as a posture of honor and dignity taken towards oneself.

Now, the emphasis of self-respect is on the posture taken, not on the being of the agent. Of course, the agent’s being can be the grounds of self-respect—I respect myself because I am a rational creature, a child of God, an emanation of divine fire, etc. But the important thing about self-respect is actions. Self-respect is a motivator for actions, specifically morally right actions. A person with self-respect does not feel shame because she is doing the right thing. And self-respect is inherently moral, just as self-ownership is inherently amoral. It makes no sense to say “Have some self-respect and rob a convenience store” or “She has no self-respect; she feeds the poor.”

The action-oriented character of self-respect makes a tangible difference in its application to life. Self-esteem is goal-oriented. If the self-confidence program fails to “win friends and influence people,” if the person suffers a terrible setback, then their self-esteem crumbles. But self-respect is not based on goals. It is based on virtuous actions, whose worth isn’t based on their outcomes. Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy), compares “system people,” with “goals people.” He says “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.” (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). Self-respect means being a systems person in regards to virtuous actions. And in this regard, self-respect works at its best in the face of failure, suffering, and hardship. The person in the prison camp or the front lines won’t be served by thinking of how they are “a child of the universe.” But they can get by if they consistently apply an ethic of self-respect, lived out in continual virtuous actions (in those cases, the virtues of courage and fortitude).

One might reply, “Hey, self-respect is nothing more than just doing the right thing!” And in a sense it is. But it relies on our inner sense of shame and dignity as a motivator for right actions. There is a feedback loop going on here: we do virtuous actions because we want to not feel shameful, but we also feel honorable because the things we have done are honorable. Nevertheless, the focus of self-respect is not on the person’s being, but on the outside moral principles which the person is endeavoring to follow. In this way, self-respect provides a better alternative to both self-esteem and self-ownership.

Plus, you get a giant flaming sword, and you get to kill Jason Schwartzman and date Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

One Comment leave one →
  1. pfarley permalink
    June 1, 2014 2:52 am

    dude I always love your articles, very thought-provoking

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