If you’ve ever looked for help improving your self-esteem, you’ve probably come across advice like the following: “forgive yourself,” “don’t think in black and white,” “have realistic expectations.” These are good recommendations, but they don’t get to the root of the problem. The core of self-esteem is self-respect, but it can be difficult and painful to learn to respect yourself, even if you’ve managed to treat the more superficial symptoms of low self-esteem.
Learning a little bit of moral philosophy can help foster self-respect and self-esteem by showing you the root causes of low self-respect and giving you reasons why you should respect yourself. In order to understand the causes of low self-respect, let’s talk about two of the most popular moral theories in Western philosophy: utilitarianism and Kantianism. Utilitarianism is the theory that right and wrong depend entirely on the effects of our actions on people’s happiness. According to utilitarianism, the right thing to do is whatever will bring about the greatest total amount of happiness.
Kantianism, on the other hand, is the theory that right and wrong ultimately depend on respect for human beings. If you could increase the total amount of happiness in the world, but you had to treat a person disrespectfully in order to do it, that would be wrong according to Kantianism. What exactly does it mean to treat a person with respect? Well, Kantians believe that humans are essentially rational beings, which means that we are capable of choosing which goals to pursue based on our own understanding of what is good and right. To treat a person with respect means to treat her in a way that recognizes and supports her capacity for free, rational choice. By contrast, to coerce, deceive, or force a person to do something she doesn’t want to do is to treat her with disrespect; in Kantian terms, it is to treat her as an object, not as a person.
Much of our thinking as individuals and as a society is based on utilitarianism and similar theories. People are encouraged to value themselves and one another based on their skills, their income, their career achievements. The ultimate value in our thinking is more often money than happiness, but the key point is that we tend to see people fundamentally as consumers and producers rather than as human beings. Utilitarianism is fundamentally in agreement with this view, because it treats people fundamentally as producers of happiness. The right action is the one that produces the greatest total amount of happiness—end of story. This doesn’t mean that utilitarianism is completely wrong, but it does mean that utilitarianism has an impoverished view of human beings and human action, one that tends to undermine self-respect. We are not fundamentally machines for churning out happiness; we are free, rational beings with the unique capacity to choose how to act based on our own conception of what’s good and right.
Utilitarianism makes our value as individuals entirely dependent on the amount of happiness we produce. This view is especially problematic for a person struggling with low self-esteem, who already feels unhappy about herself and may feel that she drags other people down too. The key to developing a strong, secure sense of self-respect is to realize that the utilitarian view of human beings is wrong. We deserve respect from ourselves and from other people just because we are human. Our right to respect doesn’t depend on our ability to produce happiness; it is unconditional. There is nothing we have to do to earn that right, and there is nothing we can do to lose it. No matter what we do, we are always human, and therefore we always deserve respect.
Many self-help guides recommend against thinking of the world in moral terms. For instance, David Burns’ popular book Feeling Good recommends that depressed people stop thinking in terms of what they or others “should” or “must” do, because thinking in these terms leads to frustration and disappointment (37–8). Dr. Burns is right that unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration, but believing in your unconditional right to respect is not an unrealistic expectation. On the contrary, it is the most basic right there is, and it is essential to a healthy sense of self-esteem. Knowing a little bit of moral philosophy gives you a powerful tool to support yourself when you’re feeling down and to have the courage to stand up for yourself. Believing in your unconditional right to respect is one of the most important steps you can take to feel better about yourself.