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Communities of RespectGrounding Responsibility, Authority, and Dignity$

Bennett W. Helm

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198801863

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198801863.001.0001

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Persons in the First-Person Plural

Persons in the First-Person Plural

(p.225) 8 Persons in the First-Person Plural
Communities of Respect

Bennett W. Helm

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Individualist conceptions of persons, grounded in individualist understandings of responsibility, rationality, and identity, must be rejected. Preceding chapters developed an account of communities of respect via an essentially interpersonal type of practical rationality in terms of which we can understand responsibility to be essentially social. In addition, there are two senses in which individuals are identified with the communities of respect of which they are members. First, norms of character are, in effect, communal values, defining a (partial) form of life members jointly find worthwhile. In doing so, they form an element of the identities of community members, albeit an element that can conflict with the personal values of each. Second, members identify with each other through their recognition respect, which amounts to a kind of non-intimate love. Taken together, this means that persons are to be understood in terms of communities of respect—from a first-person plural perspective.

Keywords:   persons, individualism, communal values, identification, non-intimate love, communities of respect

Communities of respect are made up of groups of people who share common practices or a common way of life by virtue of the interpersonal, rational patterns in their reactive attitudes with a common focus on the community itself, patterns that constitute their joint reverence for that community. An essential part of such reverence is members’ recognition respect for each other and for the norms of the community, including both norms of action and norms of character. Respecting the norms means not merely being motivated to act in accordance with them (other things being equal) but also holding each other (including oneself) to them and hence holding each other responsible for their actions and characters. Respecting each other means recognizing each other’s standing both as responsible to the norms and as meriting consideration as well as recognizing each other’s authority to demand of each other compliance with these norms. Together, such standing as responsible, standing as meriting consideration, and authority constitute the dignity each has as a member of this community, a dignity to which, other things being equal, each ought to respond with recognition respect.

This understanding of communities of respect, I have argued, illuminates a wide variety of phenomena. Thus in Part I, I presented a principled account of the reactive attitudes as evaluations (whether emotional or otherwise) focused on a community of respect and subfocused on one or more of its members and norms. The basic account in Chapter 3 was extended in Chapter 4 to make sense of forward-looking reactive attitudes like trust and distrust and further extended in Chapter 7 to make sense of character-oriented reactive attitudes like esteem and contempt and, thereby, norms of character in addition to norms of action. A central part of this account of the reactive attitudes was an understanding of how they are “incipient forms of communication”1 in terms of the idea that they simultaneously both express and constitute our first-person plural commitment to the import of the community and so to the import of its members and norms, thereby making sense of how they can form interpersonal rational patterns constitutive of communities of respect. Moreover, this account of reactive attitudes makes (p.226) sense of the contribution reactive attitudes make towards an account of praise and blame while accommodating their evident variability (Chapter 6) and provides a principled way of distinguishing between guilt and shame, a distinction much disputed in both the philosophical and the psychological literature, as action-oriented and character-oriented reactive attitudes respectively (Chapter 7).

Part of the importance of the reactive attitudes lies in their connection to our holding each other responsible to certain norms and, on a broadly Strawsonian account, to someone’s being responsible. My account of communities of respect provides a defense of such a broadly Strawsonian account of responsibility by focusing on the first-person plural commitments interpersonal patterns of reactive attitudes make possible. Thus as a first pass, as I argued in Chapter 5, to be bound by norms is to be a member of a community of respect whose norms those are, an account I complicated in Chapter 6 through a discussion of the ways norms are binding differentially on those who occupy various (temporary or enduring) roles.

Moreover, behind all of this is an enriched understanding of the nature of practical rationality. As I have argued elsewhere (and sketched in Chapter 2), fundamental to practical rationality is the rationality of import, of our response to the worth things can have for us.2 In many cases, import is relative to the individual, a matter of one’s cares and personal values, which provide one with non-instrumental reasons for acting and responding in various ways. I have also argued elsewhere that this worth can be interpersonal in the case of small, intimate groups such as friendships that are grounded in mutual love, providing the friends with interpersonal, non-instrumental reasons for acting and responding both individually and jointly.3 My account here of communities of respect and our joint reverence for such communities and so our joint respect for its members and norms furthers this understanding of practical rationality in the context of non-intimate groups, thereby making sense of the distinctive sort of practical reasons each of us has to follow its norms in virtue of our joint reverence for the community. Practical rationality is not solely or even fundamentally an individual matter.

At the beginning of Chapter 1, I said that I wanted to argue for an understanding of what it is to be a person that is essentially social, and yet most of my discussion has been focused on the idea of communities of respect and the issues just mentioned. While it is easy to get lost in the details of the account, it is important to recognize that the discussion of those details and of communities of respect just is a discussion of the nature of personhood, and that this is a reflection of our social nature.

(p.227) To be a person, Aristotle tells us, is to be a rational animal—a creature with certain sorts of rational capacities. Part of being a person is having a sense of the kind of life worth one’s living, of one’s own identity as a person, and the capacity to deliberate about that identity. In earlier work I have argued that this involves having the capacities not only for language and self-interpretation but also for person-focused emotions and what I have called “freedom of the heart”: the ability to exercise rational control over what we care about in part by being able to motivate oneself to act in accordance with one’s judgments of value (potentially in opposition to conflicting desires) so as to change one’s habits of response and thereby change one’s emotions and desires.4 I subsequently argued that these very capacities amount to a capacity for self-love, which is a part of a more general capacity for personal love understood as intimate identification; this includes the capacity to share another’s values for his sake and even to form friendships in which the friends together exercise a kind of joint autonomy in which they together can deliberate about the quality of their lives together.5 Already this reveals us persons to be essentially social in the sense that we have the possibility of such close social engagement with others of a sort that, I argued, cannot be reduced to the interests, motives, or other mental states of individual persons.

In this book, I have taken this more social conception of persons two steps further. After laying the groundwork for my account of communities of respect in Part I, I turned in Part II to think about the way in which we are bound to communal norms (and responsible to others for our upholding these norms) within communities of respect. I shall recap the implications this has for what it is to be a person in §8.1. In Part III my focus was on communal values and norms of character, which prescribe or proscribe who its members are to be, their identities as persons. This raises the question of precisely how our membership in particular communities of respect and our particular role(s) in those communities affect who we are as persons both by shaping our identities directly and through the kind of conflicts that can arise for us about our identities. I shall explore these issues in §8.2. Finally, in §8.3, I shall briefly and tentatively discuss the implications this account of communities of respect has for understanding moral communities and so for our understanding of moral personhood. In each case, my claim is that we can understand the relevant dimension of personhood only in the context of communities of respect—only in the first-person plural.

8.1 Responsible Agency and Community

The first step towards a more social conception of persons lies in understanding persons to be responsible agents, which I identified in Chapter 1 as one source (p.228) of motivation for an individualist conception of persons. In arguing against the individualist conception, I have partly followed Strawson in understanding what it is to be responsible in terms of others holding us responsible. Yet, as I noted in §1.1, the mere appeal to others holding us responsible to certain norms would seem illegitimate were we not already bound by those norms, for the reactive attitudes in terms of which we understand such holding responsible can be assessed for warrant only in terms of whether the perpetrator is already responsible, and responsible not just in the abstract (as a responsible agent) but responsible to this particular norm. On such a broadly Strawsonian account, then, we may seem to have a vicious circle: to be responsible to a certain norm, one must be properly held responsible to it, and yet properly to hold one responsible to a norm presupposes that one is bound and hence responsible to it. The way out, I have argued, is to embrace the circularity but reject the priority—of holding responsible over being bound or of being bound over holding responsible—that would render that circularity vicious.

Darwall offers a similar strategy, arguing for an irreducible circle of concepts including concepts of responsibility, authority, dignity, and respect, none of which is intelligible independently of the others but which are nonetheless intelligible as a whole when understood from the second-person standpoint and so, in part, through the reactive attitudes.6 Central to this account as distinctively second-personal is the idea that we ought to understand the reasons we have for acting in accordance with others’ demands of us to be grounded in the authority others have to make these demands rather than the worth of those demands themselves. Yet, as I suggested in §1.1 and argued more fully in Chapters 3 and 5, we cannot make sense of someone’s having that authority except in terms of notions of worth, including the worth of both the one making the demand and the one to whom the demand is addressed, as well as the worth of the relevant norm on which the demand is grounded. Moreover, such worth must, in each case, be interpersonal, a worth held in common between addresser and addressee. This requires, I argued, understanding the relevant irreducible circle of concepts to be not second-personal but first-person plural: grounded in our joint reverence for a community of respect of which we are members and so our joint respect for each other as members and for the community’s norms.

One immediate consequence of this first-person plural account is that the worth to which we must be responsive as responsible agents is ultimately the first-person plural worth the community has to itself. This responsiveness is through the reactive attitudes, and our capacity for the reactive attitudes is itself intelligible only in terms of the interpersonal, rational connections with others’ reactive attitudes—the two-way call of these reactive attitudes—that are simultaneously constitutive of that worth. Consequently, responsibility and responsible agency (p.229) are intelligible only in the context of communities of respect and the essentially interpersonal rationality of import found therein. This means that the theoretical standpoint from which we persons are intelligible as responsible agents and so as persons at all is a first-person plural standpoint: we persons are essentially social as members of communities of respect.

Part of what is important about this argument for the social nature of persons is the way it simultaneously undercuts a second source of motivation for the individualist conception: practical reason. Recall that according to the standard Humean conceptions of practical reason briefly described in Chapter 1, all reasons I have for doing something depend on my desires, my subjective motivational set, and others can present me with practical reasons only by appealing to my subjective motivational set. I have argued that such a conception of practical reasons is mistaken. The rational connections among reactive attitudes are essentially interpersonal such that what matters for responsible agency is what has import to us, namely the community and its members and norms; this is an import that cannot be reduced to what has import to each of us individually. This account of the interpersonal character of such import and the reasons that flow from it thus resolves what otherwise looks to be a troubling tension between individualist conceptions of practical rationality and the authority one person can have over another, for on the first-person plural account the relevant authority is fundamentally the authority we have over ourselves. Because we persons are essentially rational animals, and because this rationality has essentially interpersonal forms, we must once again acknowledge that we persons are essentially social.

The implications of this understanding of rationality as having essentially interpersonal forms are profound. Rationality, I have said, is the constitutive ideal of the mental, which implies both that particular mental capacities are to be understood in terms of the place they have within broader patterns of rationality and that whether something has any given mental capacity depends on whether it exhibits the relevant pattern of rationality. Consequently, as I have already claimed, that communities of respect themselves exhibit interpersonal patterns of rationality means that it is those communities themselves that have the relevant mental capacities (for reverence and respect). In other words, it is we jointly who revere the community and respect its members and norms: these are exercises of the first-person plural mental capacities of the community itself. Of course, the community itself can have such capacities only in virtue of the individual mental capacities (for the reactive attitudes) of its members, but this should not lead us to think that those individual mental capacities are conceptually or ontologically prior to the first-person plural capacities of the group itself. For the capacities individual members of communities of respect have for the reactive attitudes and for reverence and respect are capacities we can acquire and can exercise properly only as one of us. Consequently, an individual’s capacity to have a particular reactive attitude on an occasion and thereby to manifest her individual respect for (p.230) fellow members and norms (and reverence for the community itself) is parasitic on the community itself and its first-person plural commitments to import, and we must reject conceptual and ontological priority here.

I claimed that we persons are essentially social as members of communities of respect. Nonetheless, this bald statement of our social nature as persons is too vague. Clearly one can be a person even if one were to be permanently marooned alone on a desert island, without any hope of rejoining any community of respect. So it looks like for all I have argued, what matters for personhood is the capacity for responsible agency (and, therefore, for the reactive attitudes whereby one can hold oneself responsible), capacities that must be acquired within communities of respect. Nonetheless, these capacities are not simply lost when one no longer belongs to any such community, and so it would seem that a necessary condition of becoming a person is only that one has been inculcated into a community of respect at some point in the past. This is a considerably weaker claim than the bald statement above might suggest, namely that in order to be a responsible agent now one must now be a member of some community of respect. Even so, that we persons must become what we are only within communities of respect and that we must now be capable of being members of a community of respect reveals an important way in which we are essentially social.

8.2 Membership and Identification

The second step towards a more social understanding of persons concerns the final source of motivation for individualism identified in Chapter 1, namely our identities as persons. How does membership in a particular community of respect affect one’s identity? In what sense does a person identify with a community of respect insofar as she is a member and how does this affect our understanding of what it is to be a person? The answer is complex in part because there is no single notion of identification at stake here. In earlier work,7 I understood one’s identity as the particular person one is to be the kind of life one finds worth living, such that one identifies with particular elements of that kind of life by valuing them. I have also argued that we identify with others as a part of loving them, that personal love just is intimate identification. Notions of identification similar to both of these are at play in our membership in communities of respect.

To have a personal value is not merely to find that it has some value in the abstract, to be the kind of thing to which someone might intelligibly be committed; rather, it is to be committed to it as an element of the kind of life worth one’s living—an element of one’s identity—and so, in this sense, to identify with it. One’s concern in personally valuing something lies both with oneself and the quality of life one leads and with the thing valued as an element in that sort of life. (p.231) Consequently, I have argued, to value something in this sense is to have a rational pattern of person-focused emotions (including certain forms of pride, shame, anxiety, and self-affirming relief) subfocused on it and focused on oneself; such an overall pattern constitutes self-love, such that one personally values particular things as a part of loving oneself. Given this, conflicts among personal values are conflicts among elements of an overall life, and so they must be adjudicated in terms of that overall life. When such conflicts are contingent, a matter of one’s circumstances being such that different values rationally motivate acting in conflicting ways, the question is that of which should take priority here and now: how should I act so as to uphold the kind of life I think I ought to live? When such conflicts are non-contingent, inherent in the intentional content of the values themselves, the conflict reveals a kind of fragmentation within one’s identity itself.8

Communal values are in some ways similar to personal values. As I have understood them, communal values are essentially norms of character within a community of respect. They prescribe or proscribe the kind of person fellow members can be insofar as they are each one of us, thereby defining their identities as one of us. As with personal values, to have a communal value is not merely to find something to be valuable in the abstract such that someone might intelligibly value it personally; it is rather our commitment that each of us who is bound to this norm, each as one of us, live in accordance with this value such that we jointly evaluate the quality of life we each have in terms of our doing so. (The qualification “who is bound to this norm” is intended to allow for the relevant norms to apply only to those who occupy a particular role within the community.) Insofar as communal values thus are elements of the kind of life worth our living in terms of which we jointly evaluate the quality of the lives we each live, we thus identify with such values.

I have been careful to specify the subject of communal values as us members of the community inasmuch as rational patterns of character-oriented reactive attitudes constitutive of communal values are essentially interpersonal. Consequently my being a member of a community of respect does not imply that I personally value it or find it to be an element of the kind of life worth my living. It does imply that I have reason to evaluate my life in terms of it: insofar as I am one of us, I rationally ought to feel the relevant character-oriented self reactive attitudes evaluating the quality of my life as one of us to be ennobled or degraded by successes or failures here. Nonetheless, such reasons are not reasons to have this as a personal value, for that would be to confuse person-focused emotions with character-oriented reactive attitudes. Moreover, such reasons need not be decisive and may be overridden by reasons stemming from one’s personal values (p.232) or membership in other communities of respect. (I shall return to such cases of conflict shortly.)

Although being a member of a community of respect does not entail that one have reactive attitudes subfocused on any particular communal value, when one does have such a reactive attitude, perhaps through the call of a fellow member’s corresponding reactive attitude, one thereby undertakes as one of us the commitment to that value and, when this is a self reactive attitude, one thereby evaluates the quality of one’s own life accordingly. Consequently, systematically to have such self reactive attitudes subfocused on a particular communal value is systematically to evaluate the quality of one’s own life in terms of that value, and this just is to identify with (the content of) that value—it is for one to value this as one of us, in a way that is parasitic on our (first-person plural) valuing it. Moreover, systematically to identify with all or most of the values of a particular community is to identify oneself with the way of life that defines that community; it is, we might say, to identify oneself with the community itself.

I argued in §7.3.1 that emotions like pride and shame can be either character-oriented self reactive attitudes or person-focused emotions, depending on whether their focus is a community of respect or a particular person.9 Thus whether a particular emotion of pride or shame is a reactive attitude or person-focused emotion depends on its focus and so the rational pattern of other emotions to which it belongs, so that there is a clear conceptual distinction between the two. In particular, such an emotion would be a reactive attitude focused on the community when it involves an interpersonal call to others to feel corresponding vicarious character-oriented reactive attitudes, or when it is responsive to the interpersonal call of fellow members’ reactive attitudes. By contrast, if such a pattern of emotions were not contingent on one’s continuing membership in the community, so that one would continue to exhibit that pattern even after leaving the community, then it would seem such emotions would be person-focused. Clearly, both of these can be true simultaneously: one might value something both personally and as a member of a community of respect, so that the pride or shame one feels is both a reactive attitude and a person-focused emotion. Whether what one feels in such a case counts as one emotion that is simultaneously both personal and reactive or as two distinct emotions is in this case a distinction without a difference.

As with personal values, there can be conflicts involving one’s communal values, whether between a personal value and a communal value, or between two communal values of different communities of which one is a member or even within the same community. As before, these conflicts may be contingent, in which case the one value may (or may not) provide one with an excuse for failing to uphold the conflicting communal value, depending on the place we (p.233) the community find this communal value can permissibly have in the lives of its members; or they may be non-contingent, as when one personally values (or belongs to another community that values) something that is proscribed by a communal value of this community. In both such cases, one ought to feel a kind of ambivalence: both pride in notably upholding the one value and shame in violating the other. Thus, consider the example broached in §7.3.2 of heteronomous shame: someone who personally values her being a lesbian woman and is proud of herself for courageously standing up for LGBTQ rights may also be a member of the Catholic Church and so simultaneously feel ashamed of being lesbian, of what these actions and attitudes reveal about her. (Alternatively, we could understand her value of being lesbian to be a communal rather than a personal value, grounded in her reverence for a LGBTQ rights community of which she is a member.) In the example discussed above, this shame was understood to be heteronomous: something in effect foisted on her by the community itself (perhaps through the shaming attitudes—the vicarious character-oriented reactive attitudes—of her fellow members) and contrary to her own best understanding of her identity. Assuming this heteronomous shame is not a part of a broader pattern of self reactive attitudes subfocused on the rejection of homosexuality, she does not identify with this Catholic value, and the conflict in values would seem to be between her and the Catholic Church rather than one that is internal to her own identity.

If we assume instead that her shame at being lesbian is a part of a more general pattern of her self reactive attitudes, then she does identify as Catholic with the rejection of homosexuality and so assesses the quality of her life in terms of that rejection. Such identification may nonetheless be heteronomous, as when in spite of her own commitment to being lesbian and her own explicit, reasoned rejection of this Catholic value, she nonetheless finds herself consistently susceptible to the call of her fellow Catholics’ reactive attitudes in part through her recognition respect for them. Or that identification may not be heteronomous insofar as there is no clear sense in which she herself sides with her value of being lesbian over the Catholic value.10 Nonetheless, in both cases it is true both that she values and identifies with the rejection of homosexuality insofar as she is Catholic (perhaps, in the heteronomous case, in spite of herself) and that she personally values and identifies with being lesbian (or, in the alternate version of this example, values and identifies with being lesbian as a member of the LGBTQ rights community). This non-contingent conflict between two values of hers, as with the case of non-contingent conflicts within her personal values, involve a kind of fragmentation (p.234) within her identity itself: she finds herself torn (perhaps in spite of herself) between two incompatible ways of understanding and evaluating the quality of her life.

Conflicts of this sort can place considerable strain on one’s membership in particular communities of respect, especially when the community does not excuse particular violations of its value in the face of conflicts with other values, whether personal values or those of another community. As with the case of conflicts solely within personal values, resolving such conflicts, to the extent to which it is possible, must be a matter of questioning and rethinking the overall form of life that these values partly define. This questioning and rethinking is in part a personal matter, insofar as it is a matter of deliberating about the kind of life that really is worth living for one and so about the place this particular community of respect has within that life.11 While one might decide that the right way to resolve the conflict is to give up on one’s personal value in favor of the conflicting communal value, in general resolving such conflicts is not simply up to the individual. One cannot, for example, simply decide to reject the communal value or to understand it to be of low priority relative to the conflicting value, and have that decide matters, for whether and how one is bound to the communal value is a matter for the community to decide.

As I indicated in §6.4, the willingness of the community to excuse norm violations is a matter of how tightly or loosely its members are bound to those norms. In the case of norms of character this tightness or looseness is, therefore, a question of how central the relevant communal value is to be within one’s identity as a member. Consequently, resolving the conflict may require deliberation within the community concerning the status of the relevant communal value and how tightly its members are to be bound to it. Such deliberation will occur partly through articulations of and revisions to its joint understanding of the form of life to which they are jointly committed, as these articulations come to inform the interpersonal patterns of their reactive attitudes. If the community collectively (perhaps tacitly) decide not to revise the value or to loosen its bonds, the conflict will remain and an individual member may decide that it is best all things considered to live with the conflict within her identity (and remain an ambivalent lesbian Catholic woman, for example). In this way, one can renounce particular communal values while still retaining them as a part of one’s identity. (On the other hand, the community may respond to such a wayward individual not with contempt or disesteem but rather with trust, trust that invites her to reconsider and reconnect more fully with the community without thereby letting her off the hook for violations of its communal values; see §4.3.)

So far I have offered one sense in which communities of respect can affect the identities of their members, namely through the members’ identification as members with communal values and therefore with the community of respect (p.235) itself. There is another sense in which being a member of a community of respect involves identification, one that comes through our respect for others as fellow members.

As I have argued, recognition respect for another is a matter of recognizing not only his standing both as responsible to the community’s norms and as meriting consideration in accordance with those norms but also his authority as able to hold members of the community, including oneself, accountable to those norms. To recognize another’s standing as responsible to the norms, including norms of character, is in part to have a concern for the quality of life he exhibits and so for his identity. For when he upholds or violates a norm of character, one ought to feel esteem or disesteem or even contempt for him, thereby calling on him to feel the appropriate self character-oriented reactive attitudes. Of course, this concern for his identity is a limited concern insofar as in general communal values leave open many possibilities for who to be, possibilities that therefore are not in the scope of fellow members’ concern for his identity.12 Furthermore, recognizing another’s authority as a fellow member is a matter of recognizing that he is a participant in the joint evaluative perspective shared among members of the community, so that his evaluations made as one of us—his reactive attitudes focused on this community—are commitments to joint import that, other things being equal, are rationally binding on oneself in that one ought to be similarly committed to that import. Of course, ultimately what matters here is not the individual member’s reactive attitudes but the overall rational pattern of the reactive attitudes of community members; nonetheless, each individual member’s reactive attitudes will be a part of this overall pattern, and another’s reactive attitudes are just as much a part of the pattern as one’s own. So recognition respect for another involves recognizing in these ways that he is one of us, that he is a fellow member.

To see how these elements of recognition respect amount to a kind of identification, consider an analogy with personal love. Personal love, I have argued, is intimate identification: a kind of concern for another as the particular person she is that in important ways is analogous to one’s concern for oneself and one’s own identity.13 In particular, intimate identification involves both sharing your beloved’s values—valuing the things she values—for her sake and thereby, other things being equal, finding her evaluations, her commitments to import, to be binding on yourself as a part of the same evaluative perspective that defines those values you share with her. In these ways, by sharing her values you are in effect sharing her identity as the particular person she is: you have a concern for her and her identity that is analogous to your concern for your own identity. This is very much like recognition respect for a fellow member, which involves having a concern for his identity by sharing certain (communal) values with him and (p.236) acknowledging that, other things being equal, his evaluations are binding on you. Once again, this concern for a fellow member and his identity is analogous to your concern for yourself and your own identity, and so it looks like we ought to call such concern a form of identification.

There are two important differences between the kinds of identification at issue in recognition respect and in personal love. First, the focus of the emotions and desires constituting recognition respect is the community, whereas those emotions and desires constituting personal love are focused on the beloved herself. Consequently, whereas in personal love you identify with your beloved for his sake, in recognition respect you do so as a part of your reverence for the community of which you are fellow members. Second (and related), whereas in personal love the object of your love is non-fungible—you could not trade him for someone else without loss—the object of recognition respect is fungible. The recognition respect you ought to have for one person in the basic role of fellow member is the same as the recognition respect for anyone else who occupies that role. The same goes for occupants of special roles: the recognition respect you ought to have for the current occupant of the role of Grand Poobah is the same as that which you ought to have for previous or subsequent occupants of that role. As far as recognition respect is concerned, the occupants of these roles are fungible. Nonetheless, these differences do not imply that recognition respect is not a form of identification, for that is reasonable in light of the analogies just described between one’s concern for the identity of fellow members and one’s concern for one’s own identity. Rather, taken together these differences imply that the form of identification at issue in recognition respect is non-intimate, in contrast to the intimate identification at issue in personal love.

All of this suggests that recognition respect is a non-intimate form of love. Indeed, the analogy between recognition respect and personal love is strengthened when we recognize that the person-focused emotions relevant to personal love, such as pride, shame, trust, and distrust, have self reactive forms, constituting one’s recognition respect for oneself.14 I do not want to insist on understanding recognition respect to be a form of non-intimate love; that would seem to be merely a matter of stipulation. Nonetheless, that this suggestion is reasonable given the analogies just made helps explain my stipulated use of “reverence” for our joint evaluative attitude towards the community itself. For “reverence” connotes not just respect (for the members and norms of the community), but respect with (p.237) love and devotion. Thus, each of us as one of us reveres the community most fully both when we identify with our fellow members through our recognition respect, our non-intimate love, for them and when we identify with the form of life defined by the community’s norms, including its norms of action and norms of character. Insofar as the community is defined by its members and norms, by thus identifying with them we identify with the community itself.

I argued in §8.1 that being a person, a responsible agent of a particular sort, requires that one have the capacity to be a member of a community of respect. Yet we persons are more than just responsible agents; we also have and exercise the capacity to identify with various things, projects, or other persons in terms of which we assess the quality of our lives. I have now argued—and this is the second step towards a more social conception of persons—that our identities as persons are partially shaped by our membership in communities of respect, through our identification both with the community itself and with fellow members. This means that what it is for each of us to be the particular person he or she is is shaped by our membership in particular communities of respect. Crucially, these forms of identification are essentially social, and they are grounded in essentially interpersonal forms of rationality.15 Insofar as one is a member of one or more communities of respect, who one is can be understood only in terms of one’s being such a member—only in terms of the first-person plural evaluative perspective of the community itself. Our social nature thus runs deep.

8.3 Towards Metaethics

I turn now to a third, somewhat speculative step towards a more social understanding of persons via the thought that persons are essentially moral agents. Although I have repeatedly insisted that the notions of responsibility, respect, and dignity I have been discussing in giving an account of communities of respect are not moral notions insofar as they have application outside the moral community, I have also suggested that the moral community itself is a community of respect. If so, moral responsibility, moral respect, and moral dignity—one’s dignity as a person—all depend on one’s belonging to this community of respect, thus justifying the claim that being a member of some community of respect, namely the (moral) community of respect of all persons, is necessary to being a (moral) person. This is not an argument I am able to make here, though I do want to show that this line of thought is at least plausible.

To have dignity, I have argued, is to have a special kind of import as a member of a community of respect, such that one is a proper object of fellow members’ recognition respect for one as a member. Yet why should we think such “dignity” (p.238) and “respect” are properly so called? What do such “dignity” and “respect” have to do with what philosophers have typically been concerned with, namely moral dignity and moral respect? It might seem that all I have been concerned with in my discussion of communities of respect and the norms of such communities (and the standing and authority its members have as responsible to those norms and as able to hold each other responsible to them) is merely a thin surrogate for the genuine moral notions: they are merely something like norms of etiquette, norms that are indeed binding on us members of the relevant community such that we are responsible to each other for upholding or violating them. One might object, then, that we have good reasons to think that such norms, such “responsibility”, such “authority”, and consequently the corresponding “dignity” and “respect” are different in kind from the moral notions. As David Brink argues:

Though requirements of law or etiquette are in one sense inescapable, they lack authority, because, unlike moral requirements, their inescapability is not grounded in facts about rational agents as such. It is not a condition of being a rational agent that one live by any particular standards of law or etiquette, and perhaps a rational agent need not live under the rule of law or etiquette at all. But moral requirements, according to Kant, apply to any rational agent in virtue of those very deliberative capacities that make her a responsible agent, capable of having reasons for action. If so, it is the way in which moral requirements are categorical norms that explains why they have special authority, not enjoyed by etiquette or law.16

This is a general point not just about authority, but about the whole cluster of notions—responsibility, dignity, respect, and so on—with which I have been concerned. Why, then, should we think that my discussion of such surrogate notions can tell us anything about the relevant and important notions of morality proper?

Whereas Brink tries to draw a sharp line between etiquette or manners and morality, Sarah Buss tries to blur it.17 According to Buss, manners are essential to being moral because they codify proper responses to the dignity of others—the very same dignity to which morality demands that we be responsive. For, she argues, good manners are not merely conducive to good morals in that without good manners and the constant encouragement “to take it for granted that people deserve to be so treated” it is difficult to respond to that desert, to their dignity, when morality demands it;18 more fundamentally, good manners have an important function as expressive of our recognition respect for one another’s dignity as a person, a function she sees as essential to the kind of concern with others’ dignity (p.239) that morality requires. Buss concludes that Brink is mistaken to think that manners and morality are distinct.

Buss’s criticism, however, does not directly address what I take to be the broader point of Brink’s argument, which applies not simply narrowly to authority (his ostensible target) but more broadly to the kind of worth we take persons to have. The worth of a person to which we respond with good manners, I take Brink to be saying, is distinct from the dignity of persons at issue in morality. By contrast, Buss (correctly) argues that manners requires that we respond to the worth of a person, seeing such a response as a matter of showing proper respect, but (wrongly) assumes that this worth and this respect are moral in character. My account of communities of respect can provide a basis to see that these two are in principle distinct. For even if (as I suspect) the moral community just is a particular community of respect, it is a different community of respect than that relevant to making sense of manners, for the moral community would seem to be a community of all persons (or all “rational agents” as Brink has it), whereas codes of manners are, as Buss acknowledges, relative to smaller, more local communities. This implies that one’s dignity as a member of the community of respect of all persons is distinct from one’s “dignity” as a member of this or that particular culture.19 Consequently, any claim that my discussion of the sort of dignity one has merely as a member of a community of respect is relevant to making sense of properly moral dignity requires further argument.

Nonetheless, I think Buss is right to see there to be important connections between morality and manners, connections that Brink seems not to recognize. Moral norms are particular elaborations of “codes of manners”—the norms of communities of respect—such that properly moral dignity, respect, responsibility, and authority are specific outgrowths of those found in ordinary communities of respect. My aim here is to suggest why this is a reasonable thing to think rather than to provide real arguments; those arguments will have to wait for another occasion.

In §5.4, I discussed the case of a chess community that splits in two given a difference in opinion over how to pursue the aim of promoting chess: whether to maintain tradition and require competitors and spectators to remain silent and inconspicuous during a match or whether to allow for cheering (and jeering) in an effort to broaden the appeal of chess. I said there that this dispute is at least in part a dispute over how to understand chess and therefore the community itself and what it stands for: whether to understand chess as a competition of pure strategic reasoning or as a dramatic battle between intellectual combatants, (p.240) much like a sporting match. Such an understanding of chess (and so of the chess community itself) can be implicit in the patterns of their reactive attitudes, as they hold each other accountable to one set of norms or another, or it can be made explicit as they articulate that understanding to themselves or to others. Indeed, by articulating their understanding of chess (and disputing this articulation) they can provide what purport to be reasons for that understanding as well as for particular communal norms.

In important respects the moral community is similar. Implicit in the patterns of their reactive attitudes is an understanding of what they stand for as a moral community, an understanding they can make explicit in part as a way of resolving disputes. Yet in the case of the moral community, it matters, in a way that it does not matter for the chess community, who its members are. As Brink reminds us in the passage quoted above, moral norms are the norms that apply to us just because we are persons (or “rational agents”, as he says); moral respect just is that which we can demand from others just because we are persons; and so on. Thus, the moral community is not simply a community of respect that happens to include all persons, for our understanding of morality involves an understanding of the moral community as including all and only persons because they are persons, such that the basic role is the role of being a person, the various norms to which one is responsible as a member just are the norms of persons as such, and the standing as meriting consideration one has in this role defines one’s rights as a person. A particular community is a moral community, then, when its joint understanding of what it is to be a person grounds its understanding of who its members are and what its norms are.

Once again, a community’s joint understanding of who its members are might simply be implicit in the patterns of the reactive attitudes of its members: who the subfocuses and targets of those reactive attitudes are. However, it is not clear that a community can be a distinctively moral community unless the concept of a person (or something approximating it in important respects) explicitly informs their joint understanding of their norms and who is bound by these norms. After all, an isolated community of persons may implicitly hold each other—all and only the persons they have in fact encountered—to its norms, so that it may seem as though they implicitly understand their members to be persons as such; nonetheless, it may be indeterminate how this past pattern in their reactive attitudes would extend to new cases and so it may be indeterminate whether their norms are moral norms, binding on persons as such, or something more like norms of etiquette, binding only on us persons around here. Thus, there may be no antecedent fact of the matter about whether they would extend the pattern of their reactive attitudes to include an outsider encountered for the first time, and were they to fail to do so—were they to find the outsider to be unlike them in the respects relevant to membership in their community—we would have some evidence that their community is not a moral community.

(p.241) Of course, such evidence is not conclusive: it all depends on what they take these “respects relevant to membership in their community” to be. If they think what matters is being a close biological relative or having a certain hair color and nose shape or having grown up in a particular geographic region, then we have further evidence that theirs is not a moral community, whereas if they think that what matters is something more like rationality or autonomous agency then we have evidence that it is a moral community. Moreover, there must be room for them to be mistaken, both about what it is to be a person (perhaps they understand it in terms of being a descendant of a particular deity) and about who in fact is a person (perhaps they think this outsider, not being able to speak their language, is not fully a person): either of these mistakes could sustain the thought that theirs is a moral community in spite of their rejection of the outsider as one of them. Consequently, a particular community can be a properly moral community even though its understanding of itself is informed by a flawed understanding of the concept of a person, one that only approximates what it is to be a person. (Here we need not look back too far in our own history, including the history of philosophy, to find significant flaws in our earlier understanding of what it is to be a person that excluded women or various ethnic groups from full moral status. Indeed, it is not implausible to think that we still misunderstand it in important ways, inasmuch as our current understanding might be challenged by encountering creatures such as dolphins, bonobo chimpanzees, Martians, or even robots.) In this context, it seems quite plausible that the sort of evidence that could sustain the thought that theirs is a moral community must include evidence for their having an explicit understanding of their community in one way or another.

At this point one might object that there seems to be no principled way to distinguish between a flawed understanding of the concept of a person and a proper concept of something different, such as that of a land-owning white man; if that is right, then it might seem that the distinction between moral and non-moral communities is equally unprincipled. This conclusion would be too hasty, however. For while there is no fine line between having a flawed understanding of what it is to be a certain kind of thing and a proper understanding of a different kind of thing, and so while there can be cases in which it is indeterminate which of these is true, nonetheless what matters is how one responds in the face of criticism and evidence. To the extent that one person engages or is capable of engaging such criticism and evidence presented by another, it begins to look like their disagreement is substantive and so that they have different understandings of the same concept. This is part of the point of philosophical dialectic, a dialectic that may take place within a particular community or even across what might initially seem to be distinct communities.

The same goes for purported moral communities and the concept of a person. To the extent to which such communities in their joint understanding of their membership engage or are capable of engaging with criticism and evidence (p.242) concerning their understanding of what it is to be a person, whether this criticism arises from within or from outside the community itself, such that this engagement potentially leads to changes in their joint understanding of their membership in a way that informs their practices including both what their norms are and who they hold responsible to these norms—to that extent, it looks like their practices are informed by a (potentially flawed) understanding of what it is to be a person rather than some other concept, and so they look to be a moral community. This implies that within moral communities how we ought to understand what it is to be a person and the norms that are binding on someone just because she is a person must be not merely explicit but also essentially contestable, for without such contestability we would seem to lack good reason to understand the community to be a moral community.

I have been speaking of a particular community as a moral community and so of the possibility of there being more than one moral community. In doing so, I do not mean to take a stand on moral relativism, on whether such communities, while distinct in virtue of, for example, geographical separation or idiosyncratic understandings of what it is to be a person or of particular moral norms, are also distinct in the sense that they present alternative moral realities. For all I have said, it may be that their differences are rationally resolvable—that they ought to be resolved—in a particular way, which we might therefore understand to be a single moral truth. I cannot hope to address these issues here. Moreover, I have given no real account, beyond some vague gestures, of how it is that members of a particular community of respect can rationally deliberate about their members or norms, let alone how the results of such deliberation are properly intelligible as improvements. Finally, I have not had anything to say about the sense in which communities of respect can be appropriately subject to criticism, with respect to their understanding of their members and their norms and practices. Solving these problems would provide a substantive metaethics, which is far beyond the scope of this book.

Nonetheless, all of this suggests the following hypothesis: that morality is to be understood in terms of communities of respect, that the moral community is the community of respect of all persons as persons. Just as we can understand someone to have dignity as a philosopher (or as a member of this family or club) insofar as she is a member of a community of philosophers (or of this family or club), so too we can understand someone to have dignity as a member of the community of all persons. This just is, I suggest, one’s dignity as a person, one’s moral dignity. The notions of norms and their bindingness, responsibility, authority, and the corresponding dignity and respect that I have analyzed in terms of communities of respect, then, are not simply thin surrogates for the genuine moral notions; they are the necessary substratum out of which the genuinely moral articles can emerge.

(p.243) If the account of moral communities just sketched is on the right track, we can take a third (speculative) step in our understanding of the social nature of persons. For to be a person is not merely to be an agent that has the capacity to be responsible to norms shared with others in communities of respect, as well as an agent that has an understanding of, and capacity to deliberate about, the kind of life worth its living by means of (a) its identification with personal values, (b) its intimate identification with others through its capacity to love, and (c) its non-intimate identification with communities of respect and with its fellow members through its capacity for reverence and respect. In addition, to be a person is also to be a moral creature, having not only a kind of dignity as a person and associated rights to which others ought to respond, but also having responsibilities to others to respect their dignity and rights as persons. If, as I suggested, moral norms, moral rights, moral responsibility, and moral dignity can all be understood in terms of a community of respect of all persons, then in order to be a person it is not enough that one has once been a member of a community of respect through which one developed certain capacities for responsible agency and for identification with communities of respect; rather, one must currently be a member of the community of respect of all persons. In other words, to be a person is to be a member of a community of respect that understands its members to be persons. What it is to be a person is not independent of our joint understanding of it from within this community of respect, even while that joint understanding itself is potentially mistaken insofar as it is simultaneously answerable to the phenomenon of personhood. Once again we have a circle, but we also have good (albeit not conclusive) reason to think that circle is not vicious insofar as neither personhood nor the moral community is conceptually or ontologically prior to the other.

Of course, this is speculative, and much more needs to be done to flesh out and justify such an understanding of a moral community in terms of communities of respect. This, however, must be a task for another time. (p.244)


(1) Gary Watson, “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme,” in Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on P. F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment,” ed. Michael McKenna and Paul Russell (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), 112; Watson later clarifies that he means the reactive attitudes involve a commitment to “the appropriateness of an inherently communicative stance”: Gary Watson, “The Trouble with Psychopaths,” in Reasons and Recognition: Essays on the Philosophy of T. M. Scanlon, ed. R. Jay Wallace, Rahul Kumar, and Samuel Richard Freeman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 328.

(2) Bennett W. Helm, Emotional Reason: Deliberation, Motivation, and the Nature of Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

(3) Bennett W. Helm, Love, Friendship, and the Self: Intimacy, Identification, and the Social Nature of Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(4) Helm, Emotional Reason, especially Chapter 6.

(5) Helm, Love, Friendship, and the Self.

(6) Stephen L. Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

(7) Helm, Love, Friendship, and the Self; see also §2.4, above.

(8) I have discussed such cases of fragmentation in Bennett W. Helm, “Integration and Fragmentation of the Self,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 1 (1996): 43–63.

(9) Earlier I distinguished pride as a person-focused emotion from self-esteem as a self reactive attitude. For the purposes of the present discussion, I am here blurring that distinction in talking simply of pride, without implying that this emotion is person-focused.

(10) Philosophers often understand what it is for someone to “take sides” in such a conflict in terms of making an explicit judgment endorsing one side or the other. I have rejected this account and the subordination of emotional evaluations to evaluative judgments, arguing that in some cases the rational patterns of one’s emotions better reveal one’s own evaluative perspective than one’s judgments. These details do not matter here, though for discussion of such cases and so of what it is for the agent to take sides in such a conflict see Helm, Emotional Reason, especially Chapter 5.

(11) For details about how individuals can deliberate about values and conflicts among values, see Helm, Emotional Reason, especially Chapter 7.

(12) This is not, of course, to deny that individuals may have personal concerns for each other that extend beyond the sort of recognition respect at issue here.

(13) Helm, Love, Friendship, and the Self.

(14) Velleman offers what may seem a very similar understanding of the close connection between respect and personal love, saying, “I regard respect and love as the required minimum and optional maximum responses to one and the same value” (J. David Velleman, “Love as a Moral Emotion,” Ethics 109, no. 2 (1999): 366); indeed, the difference between these minimal and maximal responses might well be taken to be a difference with respect to intimacy. However, on my account these values are different: the value to which respect responds is constituted by interpersonal rational patterns of the reactive attitudes of members of the community, whereas the value to which personal love responds is constituted by rational patterns of the subject’s person-focused emotions. Consequently, the evaluative attitudes of respect and personal love are different in kind and not merely, as for Velleman, in degree.

(15) Once again, that rationality takes such interpersonal forms undercuts the motivation for individualist conception of persons provided by a broadly Humean conceptions of practical rationality.

(16) David O. Brink, “Kantian Rationalism: Inescapability, Authority, and Supremacy,” in Ethics and Practical Reason, ed. Garrett Cullity and Berys Gaut (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 281.

(17) Sarah Buss, “Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners,” Ethics 109, no. 4 (1999): 795–826. Buss distinguishes between etiquette and manners, understanding the latter to be a subset of etiquette concerned with how to be polite to others. For present purposes this distinction does not matter.

(18) Ibid., 800.

(19) Of course, the waters are muddier than this makes them seem. Local communities themselves are subsets of the community of all persons, and so it may not be clear, when a member of a local community experiences a particular reactive attitude, whether the focus of that reactive attitude is the local community or the community of all persons. Separating these out in particular cases can be an important advance in our understanding of which norms are moral norms and which are local to a particular culture or community.