Often it is said that those who are driven by the desire for esteem of others are superficial in that they focus on what others think of them, rather than what they think of themselves. Alternatively, it is sometimes suggested that being driven by this force is psychologically unhealthy as it reflects a problematic dependence of the agent’s sense of self-esteem on the opinion of others. While I think there is some truth lurking behind these thoughts, I will argue that under many conditions the drive to be esteemed and recognized by others is not a defect, but rather an aspect of and reflection of, the quest to authentically develop one’s self.
It should be noted that for the purpose of this blog when I refer to self-esteem and recognition I am focusing on the dynamic by which we understand ourselves to be more or less admirable, excellent or good. I am not focusing on the dynamic by which we get a basic sense of ourselves as agents worthy of decent treatment and respect. This is why I use the language of esteem, rather than respect. To be respected by others merely means that others treat me decently; I am treated humanely. But to be esteemed means that others see my particular character and life as admirable or good in some fundamental area. One can have negative self-esteem and still have self-respect in the sense of a sense of my value as an agent who because of his humanity demands a particular form of treatment. In this sense esteem is a matter of more or less and focuses on the particular aspects of an agent such as their character, whereas respect focuses on the universal aspects of humanity like rational agency, or ability to suffer. I have made the decision to bracket off the issue of respect because it is clear that if one needs the validation of others to feel that one is worthy of humane treatment than this is a severe problem as it means you thinks you are fundamentally worthless unless you are in actuality respected by others.
The rationale behind the negative perception of the drive for esteem reflects the proper intuition that one should not desire to be admired by the others, if this means doing things that are degrading or contemptible in your own eyes. Engaging in such actions would mean that you care more about the admiring gaze of the other than you do about how you see your concrete actions. In which case you are analogous to the shameless greedy person who will do anything for money. The only difference is that your object is the esteem of others rather than money.
However, this critique assumes that the drive for esteem is necessarily and always in contradiction with the dictates of integrity and conscience. Whereas in fact this critique only shows that the desire for esteem from others should not be pursued if that means engaging in activities that you find reprehensible. But the desire for esteem also plays a large role in the activities we pursue that are connected with our sense of what it means to a live meaningful, just or good life. An author who produces a work of fiction does so, of course, as an act of self-expression, but this act of self-expression is typically an attempt to create something that is valued by the community of authors and readers who the author respects. The exercise of publishing cannot be disentangled from the fact that an object is being presented to an audience for their judgment, and that at least a part of the point of the activity is directed at getting respect and recognition for the value of your work from those you admire. Now, it is true that publishing is heavily tied to the context of judgment of the value of a work by a creator. And therefore, this example might be problematic as a representative example of the harmless, if not salutary, role of the desire for esteem in human activities. However, I think most other activities can be interpreted as necessarily related to the desire for the esteem of a specific audience. The reason for this is that our pursuits are always related to social forms and practises with socially identified conceptions of excellence. We can reject elements of these conceptions of excellence, in order to innovate and come up with something novel, but the novel conception that emerges is an outgrowth of the already constituted social form, and therefore reflects a desire to measure up to aspects of the already existing conception of excellence. If it didn’t it would be an utterly unintelligible act. As a result the desire for esteem seems to be built into the relation of individual agency and participation in social forms. Before moving on to the completion of my piece I would like to say a bit more about the audience of esteem.
On the standard view, the desire for esteem is undifferentiated. The person who wants to be esteemed just wants people in general to admire or appreciate them. The agent does not care if those who esteem them are admirable or respectable esteem they just want their admiration as if it were a commodity. But this is an inaccurate description of human activity and the human desire for esteem. To begin the desire for esteem is typically the desire to be seen positively by a particular group of others who the agent admires or respects. The desire for esteem in this sense is about proving your value within a specific area, art or practise to those whom you admire. This audience may be an actually existing community of agents, or an internalized representation of the admirable audience in the mind of the agent. A committed Catholic is not just driven by the esteem of the currently existing Catholics and others whom he or she respects, but also by an internalized other that represents the collection of values, judgments and characteristics the agent admires. This internalized other is something that the agent is trying to live up to. The other defines the horizon of what is worthwhile or admirable.
It should be noted that at this point in the argument I have added the assertion that the drive for esteem can be bound up with an internalized other as opposed to an actually existing historical community of others. Some might say that I am stretching the concept of esteem here because if it is an internalized other that I am trying to measure up to, then isn’t it better to frame this as trying to live up to my own self-image with integrity as opposed to a drive for esteem by an other.
In response to this I would argue that the description of trying to live up to my own self-image is an accurate one in a sense, but it conceals elements that the description that I am trying to provide of gaining esteem from an internalized other reveals. It is certainly true that the internalized other is part of who I am, but to posit that this internalized other is my self-image conceals the way in which the internalized other is not just my self-image but an image I am forever trying to measure up to. The concept of self-image is far too broad in this regard as it once consists of how I think about myself as I actually am currently, and the being that I desire to develop into and measure up to. Therefore, the concept of self-image fails to capture the dynamic of trying to measure up to something that is at once part of who I am, but not simply identical with myself.
On the conception of the drive for esteem I’ve elaborated the drive for esteem is not necessarily a negative trait that reflects an other-directed need to be admired by anyone and everyone. Instead, it reflects the fact that we admire particular values, characteristics and people and want to measure up to them. This fact about our ethical psychology and inherent spiritual situation is what allows us to develop ourselves fully and authentically, as it is this desire to achieve the heights set by the other that embodies our aspirations that directs us to strive towards the goal of self-development. Thus, while the desire for esteem can be perverted and be directed against conscience and integrity it is also a reflection of an agent’s authentic quest to fully develop him or herself.
In this light, the typical opposition drawn between the drive for esteem via an external locus, and the desire for self-esteem is overly simplistic. These two aspects can be opposed, but they also coincide in a healthy desire for authentic self-development. Put slightly differently, to have self-esteem is not merely to value yourself and your particularity, but rather having positive self-esteem is constituted by progressing towards measuring up to those things you admire. A person who had strong self-esteem but had no sense of measuring up to anything that they valued would be a pathological narcissist. So, we cannot disentangle the desire for self-esteem with the desire to fully develop one’s self. The consequence of this is that the expectation that all people will have high self-esteem is ludicrous as many are not successful in measuring up the values and goals that they aspire to. Making space for authentic self-development means making space for failure in that development.