Tag Archives: Axel Honneth

Social bases of self-esteem: Rawls, Honneth and beyond


This paper starts from John Rawls’s (1972) well-known thesis that the social basis of self-respect is one of the primary social goods that are to be distributed fairly in a just society.1 Self-respect, self-esteem or sense of one’s worth is, alongside rights and liberties, money and other material goods, one of the necessary preconditions of a citizen’s pursuit of a good life. Such positive relations to self are dependent on one’s social environment in many readily understandable ways, researched in more detail by social psychology. A just state, importantly, does not or cannot provide self-esteem directly, but only the adequate social conditions for forming it (see also Walzer 1983, 273).

The paper will first of all point out that while the central element of such social conditions consists in the attitudes of others (respect or esteem) which are readily linked to self-respect or self-esteem, the social basis may include also possession of various goods, such as a clean linen shirt which enabled the creditable day-labourers of Adam Smith’s time to appear in public without shame (Smith, 1776, Vol. 2, p. 466).

Secondly, Rawls’s point can be made more specific by distinguishing, following Axel Honneth (1995), universalistic basic respect from differential esteem based on individual differences in achievements, capacities and other valuable features, and further from loving care which is neither universalistic nor conditional on achievements or performance. This paper will focus on social bases of esteem.

Thirdly, the paper will further identify three challenges to any politics of esteem, and distinguish three important varieties of esteem (anti-stigmatization; contributions to societal goods, projects of self-realization) and notes that issues of recognition of cultures and cultural identity would be an equally interesting fourth variety.

In the final three sections the paper will then examine these three varieties of esteem, and study the normative implications of the social bases of different kinds of esteem. Do others or the state have duties to provide such social bases of self-esteem, and indeed under what conditions do they have a permission to “stick their nose” in the individual’s life in this way? Instead of asking which of these varieties of esteem are normatively relevant for justice, the idea is to argue that all of them are of social if not societal relevance in one way or another.2

  1. Social esteem and other social bases of self-esteem

Let us start with Rawls’s characterization of the kind of positive relations-to-self in question:

We may define self–respect (or self–esteem) as having two aspects. First of all … it includes a person’s sense of his own value, his secure conviction that his conception of the good, his plan of life, is worth carrying out. And second, self–respect implies a confidence in one’s ability, so far as it is in one’s power, to fulfil one’s intentions. When we feel that our plans are of little value, we cannot pursue them with pleasure or take delight in their execution. Nor plagued by failure and self–doubt can we continue in our endeavors. It is clear then why self–respect is a primary good. Without it nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism. Therefore the parties in the original position would wish to avoid at almost any cost the social conditions that undermine self–respect. The fact that justice as fairness gives more support to self–esteem than other principles is a strong reason for them to adopt it.”(Rawls 1972, 440).

Rawls points out that self-respect depends on respect from others:

Now our self–respect normally depends upon the respect of others. Unless we feel that our endeavors are honored by them, it is difficult if not impossible for us to maintain the conviction that our ends are worth advancing …. Moreover, one may assume that those who respect themselves are more likely to respect each other and conversely. Self–contempt leads to contempt of others and threatens their good as much as envy does. Self–respect is reciprocally self–supporting.”(Rawls 1972, 178–9).

The paper connects the notion of social basis of self-esteem or self-respect (inspired by Rawls) to the discussion of social esteem or respect proper (Honneth). The former notion is broader. To analyze this, the notion of the social basis of social esteem/respect is needed. A commodity, like a clean shirt (which has use-value and exchange value), can be part of the social basis of (social or self-) esteem (and have what can be called symbolic status-value), if it gives directly or indirectly reasons for esteem (or similarly for disesteem). (Interpersonal) status consists of attitudes of others, whereas the social base gives reasons for it.

The qualification ”directly or indirectly” points towards the following: Esteem always relies on some criterial grounds (A holds B in esteem on the grounds that B has the feature C), and so the actual attitude of esteem presupposes a couple of other implicit judgements (an empirical one: A thinks that B has the feature C; and a normative one: A thinks that C gives grounds for esteem), which again have some epistemic bases (e.g. A thinks that B is C, because of B’s further feature D, for example his clothes and other appearances conventionally or non-conventionally manifest C-ness; and perhaps C just seems to be a valuable feature). Often, the opinion that being D manifests C-ness can be contested (colour of skin does not manifest trustworthiness) as well as the opinion that C-ness is a proper ground for esteem (say, being tall or not should not matter).

Social esteem is a matter of others having the relevant attitudes, whereas the social basis of esteem consists in having (publicly, openly for A) the features (C, D) which serve as the grounds of esteem directly (C), or provide evidence for it (D). Others may of course lack the attitudes even when the social bases are present (or have the attitudes when social bases are not present). In many cases it is the actual attitudes of esteem or disesteem that affect one’s self-esteem; but in some cases anticipation is enough: having publicly the social bases of esteem/disesteem affects one’s self-esteem already because one’s appearance gives manifest reasons for esteem/disesteem by others (whether or not others actually respond in that way); and of course one’s self-esteem may directly depend on one’s private judgements concerning C and D, even when these are not publicly manifested to others. These three cases on how the social bases stand to self-esteem can be called dialogical, anticipational, and private. In the dialogical case, the actual attitudes of others make a difference, in the second, the reasonably anticipated attitudes of others are at stake, whereas in the third, one’s own mind is made up directly based on the evidence, unmediated by the views of others. Note that only in the first case is recognition from others at stake. Calling the second case “merely” imagined recognition may mislead in suggesting that something merely imagined is the case – by contrast, it is a very real condition in which one’s appearances give others reasons to respond in one way or another. Noticing or acknowledging that this is so is not merely a matter of imagination.

Struggles for recognition can concern general stereotypes (e.g. an unfounded assumption that D-ness manifests C-ness) or normative opinions concerning esteemworthiness (whether C-ness matters), or contingent lack of relevant responses from relevant others (e.g. if B is manifestly C, why does not A hold B in esteem?), but also distribution of the relevant goods with symbolic status value (D-ness conventionally or non-conventionally manifests C, so D-ness ought to be distributed fairly).

A good society, then, will both provide social bases of (self-)esteem (goods with status value), and – within appropriate limits – social esteem (attitudes of others towards the individual, constituting social status). By contrast, the society cannot and should not try to provide actual self-esteem, as it depends on the individual’s reaction to the social environment.3

  1. Kinds of recognition and three challenges to any politics of esteem

Axel Honneth (1995) distinguishes between three main forms of mutual recognition. One is universal respect which is unconditional on merits, desert or other particularities, and another is that of love or care which is also unconditional on merits, desert or other particularities, but is not universal either, but concerns individuals as irreplaceable. The third one then is esteem which is conditional on merits, desert or other particularities. These three forms of social relations (respect, love, esteem) correspond to three kinds of relations to self (self-respect, self-confidence, self-esteem). These self-relations again concern oneself as an autonomous agent who is equal amongst others, or as a singular being with a need to be loved, and as a bearer of abilities or traits that others can value.4

Things can however be further complicated by distinguishing different kinds of esteem. In this section I start by mentioning three (or four) different kinds of cases related to esteem and in the next sections I ask how a good society would respond to these kinds of cases, and how duties and permissions of others fall in these different cases. Implicitly this is an argument also for the broader definition of esteem of two candidates discussed elsewhere (cf. Ikäheimo & Laitinen 2010), but these issues matter whether or not they are called “esteem”. (The narrower definition will face the further challenge of what it says in these different contexts and why.)

The next section concerns the ethical and political consequences of the claim that full human agency is dependent on positive relations to self, including self-esteem, and that these relations are deeply dependent on the recognition from other individuals and institutions such as the state. Say, stigmatizing practices may lead to an internalized sense of inferiority and low self-esteem. The basic idea is that a good society is sensitive to the dynamics of self-relations and recognition (Honneth, Hegel, Margalit). For example, the invisible housework by women should get due recognition, and welfare services should not be delivered in a stigmatising or demeaning fashion (Honneth & Fraser 2003, Margalit 1996).

There is something in the spirit of esteem that is egalitarian: no-one should be treated as an inferior, treated in a demeaning fashion, as a second class citizen, as a priori incompetent in this or that manner. Everyone’s contributions to the societal good should be registered. But there’s a twist. Unlike basic respect or unlike concern for one’s basic needs, the grammar or logic of esteem seems to be conditional on one’s merits, achievements, or doing one’s share or other positive particular features. Esteem has to be deserved, or grounded in one’s valuable particular features, one must be worthy of esteem. Granting esteem, according to Charles Taylor (1992) at least, is genuine and differs from mere lip-service only if it is based on genuine judgements or evaluation or grading if you like. Especially when cultural differences are involved, such judgements may be difficult to form and take a lot of time and effort – coming to understand other cultures may take years. (That is, if the problem of rival standards of evaluation does not pre-empt the very idea of intercultural comparison even in principle. I believe that in principle there is a solution to this, but the epistemic and practical difficulties are often rather great.)

This gives rise to three challenges to any politics of esteem: First, perhaps politics of esteem tends to lead to a wrong kind of meritocracy, to a Nietzschean vision of the power of the noble, or what Fukuyama (1992) calls megalothymia, and serves to undermine modern egalitarianism? The defenders of basic equality and basic respect who also defend the importance of social esteem will have to tell us what kinds of social and political arrangements would both respond to the need for differential esteem and be compatible with an egalitarian ethos of mutual respect and basic care. It must not lead to the formation of second-class and first class citizens. (For example Honneth and Taylor are trying to do this, Nancy Fraser stresses egalitarian participatory parity in a sense as the only metaprinciple.) So the first issue is compatibility of esteem with the egalitarian ethos of mutual respect5. All of the kinds of esteem discussed below are to be compatible with equal moral standing of everyone, as well as the right for self-determination and personal autonomy. But the need for esteem is not merely about the right to engage in certain kinds of activities and projects, or about the right to define oneself in certain ways as opposed to others, it is also about differential feedback concerning the concrete choices one has made. Further, one can ask about the compatibility of esteem and respect with universal forms of loving care such as impartial concern for human well-being.6

Second, compatibility with egalitarianism might point towards a universalistic norm of absence of certain kind of disesteem. But mere lack of disesteem does not meet the need for differential esteem. Presumably there is a need for genuine esteem. If genuine esteem is difficult, and takes time and energy, there is a question of whose, if anyone’s, positive duty is it to engage in the ”esteem-services” (as Pettit and Brennan, in The Economy of Esteem call it) of forming and expressing a well-founded judgement at all? I may be pretty confident that a book by a colleague is brilliant, but I will need to read it properly before I can publish a review, and this will take time and energy etc. So perhaps there’s no duty to do it?

Perhaps there is only a negative duty not to disesteem, not to stigmatise a priori (”this author is of such and such ethnicity, gender, age so I need not read the book – it must be rubbish”) plus an a posteriori duty that if one takes part in esteem-services one does it in an unbiased manner (basically, writes a review based on the qualities of the book) plus perhaps a general positive professional duty to do one’s share, in this case write a sufficient number of reviews and serve as referee for journals sufficiently often. There are a number of intricate issues involved, from down to earth question such as whose talk to go to in conferences to pressing issues of deeply sedimented invisibility of the contributions of some groups (Honneth’s prime example is the invisible work of women). On a more positive note, engaging in mutual and honest esteem-services can enhance solidarity between the parties. That’s the second issue – the burdens of positive efforts. Whose tasks are these?7

As a flipside of the same question, we can ask about permissions – who is entitled to stick their nose in my business and form an opinion on my esteemworthiness? Is it a proper business of the state, for example? And while it’s ok for people to judge that my conference talk is half-baked, and quite ok to say it aloud as well, what about, say, my general orientation in life or my sexuality or my personal pet projects?

Third, a different kind of problem is to identify the phenomena where the logic of esteem is appropriately at work. Conceptually, one can also always ask: is such and such really a case of esteem at all; or is something first and foremost a case of esteem (for example cultural differences may not be first and foremost a matter of esteem, but nonetheless secondarily so)?

  1. Contexts of esteem: stigmas, contributions, self-realization (and culture)

In pursuing these questions concerning esteem I will now differentiate and discuss three kinds of phenomena, all of which are arguably related to esteem, but which may call for different socio-political solutions and different distribution of duties and permissions – there may be different answers to the three questions posed in the three contexts (and in passing I point out a fourth context which is yet different, but will not be discussed here).

The first context is really a negative case against stereotypical stigmatising, or for freedom from unfounded and unjustifiable disesteem. This is arguably a Maslowian “deficiency need”. There is a strictly egalitarian or universalist normative norm against allowing second order citizenship to emerge (see section 4).

The second case is positive esteem based on contributions to the societal good (or to the aims of a system of cooperation), perhaps related to division of labour, and what Durkheim called organic solidarity. In an ideal society no-one is excluded from making useful contributions to the common good. (Full employment is one version of this ideal; but a decent or an ideal society may well have structures such as basic income which make full employment an irrelevant arrangement for the goal of letting everyone contribute). In an arrangement of horizontal (non-hierarchical) complementarity everyone has a positive status or rank with role-expectations to contribute to the common good.8 I would go so far as to reverse the Kantian dictum to read also: ”never treat anyone as a mere ends, but give them a chance to be useful means to the good of others”. For example disabled people should get a chance to participate. This is still quite egalitarian in requiring at least equal opportunity (and anticipating limited inequality in the actual contributions) and being sternly against fixed hierarchies of overall ranks or statuses, and against what Taylor has called hierarchical complementarity of the premodern kind (see below, section 5).9

The third context concerns personalized, differential feedback concerning merits and achievements, in the context of individual self–realization via projects that may or may not be related to the societal good. (This may and often will concern the same socially useful activity as above, but now considered as a project of self-realization). Arguably self-realization is a deeply dialogical business, and esteem plays a role in it. This may or may not be beneficial to the common good, but the normative basis seems to be different – what matters may be either that the individual realizes his or her potentials, or does something intrinsically worthwhile, where these criteria do not reduce to contributions to the societal good. Here one can draw from the Hegelian idea that self–realization requires deeds, and that one cannot be a privileged authority in the unbiased evaluation of such deeds: evaluation is public, and there is always at least an implicit relevant audience involved. (Here, Hegel’s argument resembles Wittgenstein’s argument against private language). Without any friction provided by the feedback from others, we all could be victims of an illusory sense of self–grandeur: we could be great poets in our own self–image whether or not we bother to realize our great ideas, and bother to actually write the poems and subject them to evaluation by others. In Maslow’s terminology, this is a “growth need” at the highest end of need hierarchy. The political implication is to support competitive pockets of esteem, such practices or associational activities as arts, sciences and hobbies, but prevent general rank-formation in wider society outside such pockets. Here’s Rawls’s idea of the role of state as a social union of social unions is of relevance. (see section 6).10

  1. The case against stereotypical stigma

The first case is a negative case of esteem, against stereotypical stigmatising, which would lead to lowered self-esteem. Everyone has a “deficiency need” not to be classified as a second–class citizen, and to be able to appear in public without shame.11 At this lower level, the main struggle is to remove unfounded stereotypical, stigmatising images of inherent inferiority of some groups or individuals, and it aims at equality, or “participatory parity” (Fraser). No trait is an excuse for second–order citizenship.

This is related to such cases of “recognition of difference” (cultural differences, ‘race’, ethnicity, group memberships, sexual orientation, disabilities) which are not directly cases of achievements or merits. Perhaps it is not a case of positive “esteem” strictly speaking – but arguably a claim against undeserved disesteem. It would be a case of disesteem to stigmatise some group of people as such that “they will not contribute anything in any case” or “they will not excel in any case”. Here the relevant principle is universalistic, perhaps Fraser’s (2003) principle of participatory parity does the work – note however that it is not egalitarian in the comparative sense (that each should get their fair share, and the fair share depends on what others get), but demands that everyone is equally entitled to full freedom from oppression of this kind; and indeed it is everyone’s business in the moral community to prevent anyone from being stigmatized. So note that here too, positive measures are needed over and above refraining from stigmatising oneself – the state should not only avoid discrimination, it should prevent intersubjective discrimination by people; and individuals should not only avoid discrimination, but should favour and support a political society or state which also refrains from discrimination. Arguably everyone has a positive moral duty to do one’s share in taking a public stand against racism, sexism, etc. What one’s share is depends on the circumstances.

The ideal is to have guaranteed freedom from unfounded disesteem. In these cases, the tension with universal respect or with care for the needy and the vulnerable does not arise, as elements of both are included in the idea. One term commonly used for the “inferiority” in question is “second-order citizenship”. This term may be misleading for what we have in mind here. Some aspects of “second–order citizenship” betray a lack of respect because the members of this group are denied certain rights or claims to respect that they are entitled to. Indeed this may be the core of what we typically have in mind when we talk about second–order citizenship. But especially the ability to appear in public without shame seems to connect to esteem rather than to respect.

This claim has two kinds of repercussions: i) a rightful claim not to be looked down upon on the basis of such irrelevant things as colour of skin (corresponding to the demand on others to refrain from looking down in this way), and ii) a rightful claim to the possession of goods (such as clean clothes, or access to personal hygiene) which are in the historical situation perceived necessary, and whose lack can make one’s appearance an “affront to senses” and will connote an inferior status (cf. Feinberg 1984). In the latter case, (case ii), the fault need not lie so much with the person whose senses are affronted, and who responds, or with the person who is the bearer of the “offending” features, but on whatever factor (say, the unjust basic structure of society) that is responsible for the lack of goods in question.12 This will, of course, affect what sort of responses are appropriate on behalf of those who “suffer” from the presence of someone.

Some features are irrelevant and it would be arbitrary to denigrate people on their basis; some other features are meaningfully related to how to appear in public, but one’s lack of means of decent appearances may be unjust.

The reason to think that we have here a separate subclass of esteem, is that we can think of cases where one is discriminated on the basis of irrelevant features (in Nancy Fraser’s example, an African American Wall Street banker can’t get a taxi in NYC) while at the same time correctly esteemed for his contributions or achievements, in the contexts where they matter. They do not make one more deserving of a cab of course; people worthy of esteem are not entitled to jumping the queue. The very cabdriver who bypasses the person may celebrate the same person under some other description (“wow, finally a Wall Street banker who defends the idea that financial transactions should be globally taxed”).

Or we can think of cases where someone is correctly esteemed for their individual contributions or achievements (and rewarded in the relevant contexts), but nonetheless suffers from lack of goods necessary for decent appearance in public. The main reason to classify this as a matter of “esteem” and not something else is that such disesteem may harmfully affect one’s self–esteem.

Thus, the claim is that arbitrary irrelevant traits should not be a basis of disesteem. And as some features (say ones which are understandable affronts to senses even when people politely try to conceal their reactions, such as lack of clean clothing or personal hygiene in some contexts) have in a historical context a meaningful relation to a perceived “inferiority of condition” or “lack of decent human minimum”, everyone has a rightful claim to goods, which would remove the undignifying appearances.13

As a sidenote, it seems that distinguishing this universalistic norm from more positive appraisal would dissolve the tension in Charles Taylor’s (1992) initial discussion of recognition of cultures: no cultural membership is a reason for denigration, for being less than a full member. Pace Taylor, this is not however a mere presumption of equality which would have to be cashed out in more detailed assessments of the contributions of a culture. It is a standing requirement to realize that no-one is normatively speaking a second-class citizen, whether a member of a cultural minority or not.

  1. On contributions to the common good

The second case is positive esteem, prestige or standing based on contributions to the societal good, perhaps related to the division of labour, and what Durkheim called organic solidarity. In Honneth’s (1995, 126) words:

”‘prestige’ or ‘standing’ signifies the degree of social recognition the individual earns for his or her form of self-realisation by contributing, to a certain extent, to the practical realisation of society’s abstractly defined goals”

In a good society no-one is unwillingly unemployed or excluded from making useful contributions to the common good.14 Here one can reverse the Kantian dictum and say never treat anyone as a mere ends, but give them a chance to be useful means to the good of others. For example disabled people should get a chance to participate. (Ikäheimo and Laitinen 2010).

One intuition pump is the experience of the unemployed of no longer being needed, being necessary for anyone. The ideal is that in addition to having a basic equal standing as a citizen, everyone has a particular positively valued standing and each role is necessary. And unlike in a premodern complementary hierarchy, where priests, warriors and workers each complement each other but nonetheless priests are superior, and have higher status, this would be horizontal complementarity – each role is equally necessary and valuable.

And insofar as there are social positions with advantages, there should be a equal opportunity to them (Rawls). Equal opportunity is crucial for solidarity. An appealing perspective concerning solidarity is solidarity from the worse off to the better off (Wildt 2007). Genuine solidarity requires that the worse off do not have a reason to be embittered, but accept that the differences are justified. That would be a tall order if they would not even have had a reasonable opportunity to the same positions.15

Whereas the duty against disesteem is universalist in concerning everyone (at the zero level of lack of disesteem), the second layer of contributions covers only all members of one society – and all members of a good society enjoy greater esteem than zero – they all are participants in producing the common good. The relevant norms are to be public, to help avoid biases in esteem. (We have discussed the nature of esteem for contributions to shared goods in more detail in Ikäheimo & Laitinen 2010).

  1. Projects of self-realization

One should not underestimate the degree to which self-realization takes place via such socially useful roles. The Hegelian picture (Hardimon 1994, Honneth 1995, Hegel 1991) stresses that one’s subjectivity be fully immersed in societal goals. Similarly, Marxian criticism of alienation has the aspect that assumes that genuine self-realization is in genuine communal relations to one another.16 Nonetheless, one should not overestimate these points either: not everything about self-realization is about promoting shared ends. And even in cases where it is, we can examine it qua a contribution to a shared good, or qua an achievement in a self-realization project.17

Thus, the third point is at the other end of hierarchy of needs, concerns individual self-realization, and the intersubjective dynamics involved there. Honest positive feedback concerning excellence or merits or achievements is a meaningful basis of self–esteem.

The people engaging in projects of self–realization have a need for esteem from others if they aim at self–realization through worthwhile goals. The feedback from others concerning the worthwhileness of the goals, and concerning one’s success is pursuing them well is in principle possible, and in practice necessary for the agents, if they are to have a non–illusory sense of the worth of the goals and their success in pursuing them. This feedback is a form of esteem.

It is possible that no–one is around, or has time or energy to evaluate one’s activities. But when someone does give positive feedback, and esteems the activities, it is a sign that the agent has done something which is of value in accordance to the evaluator. That is, in some broad sense it contributes to something which is valued by the evaluator, and this may create some sense of belonging, solidarity or even gratitude towards the agent, even though the act need not have directly benefited or contributed much to the good of the other, or to the common good, but realized something that the other highly values.

We can build on the Hegelian idea that self–realization requires deeds, and one cannot be a privileged authority in the unbiased evaluation of such deeds: there is always at least an implicit relevant audience involved. Persons have a “growth need” to get unbiased personalized feedback concerning one’s projects of self–realization. And feedback concerning success in such projects, or excellence in such practices (whether artistic, scientific, political, career–related, hobby–related etc) is a meaningful basis of self–esteem.

Consider the following quote from Hegel (Encyclopaedia Logic, §140)

We are thus justified in saying that a man is what he does; and the lying vanity which consoles itself with the feeling of inward excellence may be confronted with the words of the Gospel: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” That grand saying applies primarily in a moral and religious aspect, but it also holds good in reference to performances in art and science. The keen eye of a teacher who perceives in his pupil decided evidences of talent, may lead him to state his opinion that a Raphael or a Mozart lies hidden in the boy: and the result will show how far such an opinion was well-founded. But if a daub of a painter, or a poetaster, soothe themselves by the conceit that their head is full of high ideas, their consolation is a poor one; and if they insist on being judged not by their actual works but by their projects, we may safely reject their pretensions as unfounded and unmeaning.”

So we at least have a need to actualise our high ideas in deeds, and a need for feedback from others, for the purposes of non–illusory self–evaluation of our projects of self–realization. Honest positive feedback concerning excellence is a meaningful basis of self–esteem, whether or not it meets the criteria of contributory esteem. The fact that such pursuit is good for the agent herself is not the basis of esteem, (although we naturally hope the people we care for to succeed in their lives); the basis of esteem is simply “doing something worthwhile well”. And the context for the need for feedback is the legitimate aim of non–illusory self–realization through worthwhile goals.

The feedback in question can evaluate either the worthwhileness of the aims, or one’s success in pursuing them. The sense in which we can evaluate success is pretty straightforward, but there are rival theories concerning worthwhileness. I will here mention two.

  1. Rawls’s Aristotelian Principle: one’s aims in life are such that when successful, they maximally actualize one’s talents and potentials, one does not waste one’s talents.

  2. Perfectionism: the aims are good, full stop. The person’s aims are appreciable, when they are worthwhile, or choiceworthy, or are a case of “life in accordance with virtue” (Raz, Aristotle). It is the valuable nature of goals is what matters, whatever the degree to which they realize one’s talents. It is not a wasted life to leave some of one’s special talents as unrealized, as long as one’s goals are worthwhile.

The feedback that one’s goals are taken to be worthwhile (either absolutely or relative to one’s talents), is relevant to a person’s self-esteem, and thus seems to constitute a case of recognition-esteem. This is central for Rawls’s idea of self-esteem, or more precisely, to his undifferentiated idea of self-respect or self-esteem or sense of self-worth (he uses the notions interchangeably) 

When we feel that our plans are of little value, we cannot pursue them with pleasure or take delight in their execution. Nor plagued by failure and self–doubt can we continue in our endeavors. It is clear then why self–respect is a primary good. Without it nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism.”(Rawls 1972, 440)

The Rawlsian claims on how the takes of others concerning the worth of our aims is necessary for our motivation (related to a threat of cynicism or apathy) complements the anti-private Hegelian view that lack of feedback threatens to lead to a frictionless spinning in the void, and illusions of grandeur. A person needs actual feedback and intersubjective “reality checks”. The positive feedback from others has thus a multifaceted importance.

Finally, the political implications are worth examining: it is arguably not the state’s business to govern how individuals esteem one another – rather there is a variety of “pockets of esteem” (such as the art-communities for artistic achievements, scientific community for scientific achievements, sports-audiences for achievements in sports etc.) which good societies contain. These are mainly voluntary associations and subcultures that individuals may freely enter or inhabit.

Again we may quote Rawls:

It normally suffices that for each person there is some association (one or more) to which he belongs and within which the activities that are rational for him are publicly affirmed by others. In this way we acquire a sense that what we do in everyday life is worthwhile.”(Rawls 1972, 441)

Moreover, associative ties strengthen the second aspect of self–esteem, since they tend to reduce the likelihood of failure and to provide support against the sense of self–doubt when mishaps occur.”(Rawls 1972, 441).

 “[W]hat is necessary is that there should be for each person at least one community of shared interests to which he belongs and where he finds his endeavors confirmed by his associates.”(Rawls 1972, 442)

This is central to Rawls’s idea of “social union of social unions”. One may say that the horizontal recognition is to be provided by the associates, and the state or basic structure merely publicly acknowledges the principles.18 The way to avoid wrong kind of meritocracy is to see to it that merits ought not to translate to general “status” or “rank”, but be limited to what I would call pockets of esteem.

If someone does not want to achieve, or compete, or prove ourselves, or show to the world, or “leave a trace” or “make a difference”, one need not. We can best think of various practices, and standards internal to them, or the various “cities” (Boltanski & Thevenot 2006), as such voluntarily entered spheres. We can quite safely assume that any feasible society will have some such outlets for the desires to excel and get public affirmation for one’s achievements. (In a sense, such outlets tame the Fukuyama–type megalothymic pressures; see Laitinen 2006, Fukuyama 1992, O’Neill 1997).

Consider a somewhat Stoic attitude that we should rid ourselves of esteem, evaluation etc. altogether. A good society is difference–blind, say. This may be based on a false understanding concerning “inner authenticity” totally divorced from expressions (forcefully criticized by Hegel), but certainly has modern resonance. Any such attempt to rid us of the dependence on the positive opinions of others would be insensitive to the dialogical nature of projects of self–realization.

A liberal view holds that self-realization is a private or communal or associational matter, and the main task of the state or public institutions is to provide the necessary means for the autonomous life of individuals. So, broadly speaking, issues of respect concern only the negative rights not to be interfered with or possibly the positive rights to have the resources and capabilities of individuals to pursue projects of self-realization. And at first look, it may seem that private pursuits of self-realization are not a matter of esteem either: if people do something that is good for themselves, but not for others, at least there is no obvious ground for gratitude. But a closer look at the nature of self-realization reveals something important that we want to classify as esteem, even though it is of a different kind than the contributory esteem so far.

The modern idea of pluralistic liberalism is in a one sense friendly and in another sense hostile towards the idea of self-realizational esteem, especially in its perfectionistic variant. It is friendly in encouraging people to have experiments in life (Mill), to find the aims and goals that they feel at home with. There is a vast plurality of aims and goals through which such processes of self–realization can take place. But in another sense, pluralistic liberalism sees the “perfectionism” of assessing and evaluating people’s achievements as downright dangerous. Why not rather affirm everyone’s worth as unique individuals independently of their achievements? And should not the state remain neutral as to what is admirable self–realization and what is not?

Both intuitions have a valid core: indeed, everyone’s worth ought to be affirmed independently, so that esteem is not meant to replace universal respect or unconditional love. And indeed, perhaps it is not the state’s business to govern how individuals esteem one another – rather there is a variety of “pockets of esteem” (such as the art-communities for artistic achievements, scientific community for scientific achievements, sports-audiences for achievements in sports etc.)

There are “pockets of esteem” many of which we enter into voluntarily. If we do not want to achieve, or compete, or prove ourselves, or show to the world, or “leave a trace” or “make a difference”, we need not. We can best think of various practices, and standards internal to them, or the various “cities” (Boltanski & Thevenot), as such voluntarily entered spheres. We can quite safely assume that any feasible society will have some such outlets for the desires to excel and get public affirmation for one’s achievements.

But what about outside such “pockets of esteem”? Perhaps the idea is that in the context of early education, as pupils or students, we are given tasks, and our progress is measured, and often given grades, and the tasks are over when we’ve become responsible adults. From then onwards, it is up to us. Educators are in the special position to instruct, criticize, grade and evaluate. But there is something paternalistic in evaluations on how individuals live their daily lives (even in adequate evaluations), at least by strangers. It seems that for adults, the idea of sharing one’s life with someone brings with it a position to criticize it, personally: it is the friend’s business to evaluate, but it would be impermissible for a stranger to do so. Of course, artists and social critics are at the liberty to criticize a way of life, but that is not to be taken personally.

However, some pockets are inescapable: moral and legal obligations, responsibilities and violations are one thing, with specific patterns for retribution and restoration. Those are not optional, whether we like it or not. Implicit in the Hegelian idea of Sittlichkeit is the idea of moral and legal culture which shapes emotional responses to wrongdoing. Contributions to the common good, via paying our taxes, and contributing to our daily jobs, perhaps doing a civil service, leave room for choices, but there may be obligation to contribute (according to one’s skills) in some ways, and when the overall situation is bad, in some specific ways (say, joining the army during war). Democratic citizenship may well entail obligations to participate collective self–rule and try to do our shares.19

  1. Conclusion

Much more would of course have to be said about the nature of self-esteem, self-respect and self-love, as well as about different varieties of esteem and self-esteem, but I hope the reflections above have made a couple of theses plausible: first, that the concept of social bases of self-respect (and self-esteem and self-concern) is wider than social respect (and social esteem and concern), in ways which may affect issues of just distribution. Second, that the three concepts of esteem and self-esteem are normatively very different, related for example to the norms of universality (the norm against stigmatization), publicity (contributions to the social good) and standards of excellence intrinsic to individual practices, associations and the unity of one’s life (the goal of self-realization). But further, I hope the paper has gone at least some distance towards showing how in these contexts of esteem the three challenges mentioned above can be met.


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1 For critical discussions, see e.g. Doppelt 2009; Middleton 2006, van Leeuwn 2007, Laegaard 2006, Ferkany 2009.

2 See Ferkany 2009 for a defence of the liberal idea that societal recognition is not needed for sense of self-worth, as long as social recognition is available; and Doppelt 2009 for an argument on how to best understand the relevant kind of self-respect and its bases.

3 Note that the relevant commodities typically have direct use and exchange value as well as ”status-value”, so a good society will in fact distribute three things (useful goods; social bases of self-esteem, and actual esteem constituting status) – and the principles of distribution of one and the same thing may point to different directions when considered as use-value or status-value.

4 I have discussed these elsewhere, see e.g. Laitinen 2002.

5 In a sense the relation is more complex – also politics of difference is egalitarian in some sense, as Honneth and Taylor point out. The principles of due esteem are universalistic unlike patterns of love (which do contain references to singled out individuals), but these universalistic principles leave room for the relevance of particular features from which the universalistic mutual respect abstracts from. I thank Marek Hrubec for posing the question about this point.

6 Rawls starts from the idea of society as a scheme of cooperation between free and equal citizens; and not a value-community. One could in light of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s and MacIntyre’s criticisms start from the idea of dependent capable rational animals, whose society has inbuilt elements of universal care and not only universal respect built in. Disabled, young and old are full members of society from the get go, and justice concerns not only fruits of cooperation but concern for basic needs. See e.g. Nussbaum: Frontiers of Justice.

7 Here the distinction between issues covered by the cooperative scheme where the distribution of tasks, rights, burdens, benefits, ought to be fair, and the issues not so covered, is central.

8 See Honneth, Mead, Durkheim, Ikäheimo, Rawls.

9 see Johnston’s new book (2011) on the history of justice, the chapter on ”social justice” on Spencer, for further discussion on contributions. See also Feinberg’s classic Social Philosophy.

10 A fourth case would concern positive esteem for cultural groups, understood as ways of life (Taylor 1992). I agree with those who have pointed out that recognition of cultural differences is first and foremost a matter of respecting individuals’ right to have the cultural conditions for satisfactory life met (Kymlicka; Jones 2006; Laitinen 2006). Possibly no esteem, no positive judgement concerning the merits of cultures is needed for that – all that is needed is that the cultures are morally tolerable and perhaps tolerant towards others. The kind of positive esteem may be optional, and it may be a source of social discord. Nonetheless, I think that it is conceptually possible to compare cultures, but it is not clear what the point is – related to Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity perhaps. Conceptually, the feedback is “esteem” when it is of the right kind to contribute to self–esteem.

11 The terms growth need and deficiency need come from Maslow.

12 A further question is what exactly is wrong with, say, being dirty and smelly in public. It is easy to say what’s wrong with a society which forces people to live without adequate housing or hygiene opportunities, but it is harder to analyse what exactly is bad about being perceived to be dirty. For various lines of analysis, see Smith, Feinberg 1984 and Nagel 1998.

13 See Feinberg 1984 on offences as affronts to senses and sensibility.

14 In late modern conditions, basic income may well best be the best arrangement in this respect.

15 See e.g. Mason 2006 on choices versus circumstances, and mitigation versus neutralization.

16 To draw an analogue in the shift in post-industrial work, from factory to studio, one’s work demands that one put one’s personality at stake. (With the difference of course that putting one’s personality at stake for the state or a private company has a very different feel of alienation). But one should not overestimate that either: Charles Taylor’s (1975) depiction of nine-to-five Enlightenment and freetime romanticism has something to it. We do have projects of self-realization that are not related to how we make a living, or to benefits to others.

17 See also the connection between self-realization and self-determination, e.g. Deranty 2009.

18 Another fruitful source for the idea of such social unions comes from Boltanski and Thevenot (2006), whose work Ricoeur (2005) insightfully connected to the topic of recognition esteem.

19 I wish to thank the participants at the NSU winter meeting in Turku February 2012, and participants in the Philosophy and Social Science meeting in Prague May 2009.

Axel Honneth: The law of freedom – Institutionalization of freedom in modern societies – A reconstruction and some remarks



Introduction: A theory of institutionalization of freedom

I understand Honneth’s book Das Recht der Freiheit (Suhrkamp 2011) as an argument for human freedom and autonomy in modern society that is based on a normative interpretation of legal, moral and social institutionalization of freedom in modern societies. In this sense Honneth’s book represents a re-interpretation and application of G.W.F Hegel’s concept of Freiheit als Sittlichkeit der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. I would argue that the central theme of the book is the description of processes of institutionalization that lead to the emergence of freedom as the most important legal, moral and social value of the modern society.


The book begins with a presentation of Honneth’s method that can be characterized as a kind of normative sociology or sociological philosophy in the sense that he characterizes theory of justice as analysis of society. The method is based on “normative reconstruction” of the basis of the social institutions of liberal democracy. Here we can say that the starting point is closer to the later Habermas’ idea of facticity and validity and to the later Rawls’ idea of overlapping consensus than it is to the more idealist and metaphysical positions proposed by these authors in their early works (p. 21). Honneth describes the prevailing norms of justice and morality of freedom in liberal democracies of the Western world with Hegel’s philosophy of rights as points of inspiration. Normative reconstruction also means reconstruction of the legal and moral legitimacy of the institutions of liberal democracy. Normative reconstruction leads to an analysis of the social reality of liberal democracies. The idea is to describe the institutionalized conditions of normativity. The premises for this are: 1) Social reproduction of a society is determined by the shared universal values of such a society; 2) Justice cannot be understood independently of these generally shared values and ideals; 3) The plurality of these values and ideas can be found in the social practices of this society that must be distilled out of the society; 4) This leads to the understanding of the Sittlichen institutions and practices of this society (p. 30). This concept of justice is to be considered as a post-traditional concept of Sittlichkeit in society.


Honneth begins by considering the historical conditions of the emergence of the values and ideals of justice of modern society (p. 35). Important for the emergence of modern society is the idea of individual autonomy and authenticity as the meaning of life. Individual freedom has replaced collective conceptions of the good. Honneth sees the focus on autonomy and self-determination as essential to modernity. In particular we can speak about a negative, a reflective and a social conception of freedom that express a differentiation of the concept due to the complexity of modern society. Negative freedom is linked to the philosophy of the social contract coming from Hobbes. But we also find this concept of negative freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and finally in Nozick’s his philosophy of the social contract. Honneth argues that this concept is not enough to constitute the goals for the subject, because something must be presupposed. Therefore the reflective and the social conception of freedom become important. The reflective concept implies that the free individual can determine rationally his or her actions. This is based on a distinction between heteronymous and autonomic action. Rousseau and Kant are representatives of this conception. Autonomy and self-realization according to the idea of rationality are important dimensions of this concept, which forgets however the institutional dimension of freedom that we find in the social concept of freedom. This concept of freedom goes beyond the individual concepts of freedom in Habermas and Apel and goes back to the concept of freedom in Hegel’s philosophy of right. Mutual recognition in social institutions is an important part of this idea of freedom (p. 85). This is what Hegel calls the mutual institutions of mutual recognition. In this context, the central aspect of Honneth’s argument is Hegel’s concept of recognition of freedom as essential to the institutions of liberty in the modern society that are realized not only in the state, but also in the market and in civil society. Honneth gives a detailed account of the concepts of recognition and institutions at the basis of Hegel’s concept of law and justice as emerging as a part of the social institutions of the “Sittlichkeit of society” (p. 85-118).


On the basis of this discussion of Hegel, Honneth is able to present his own conception of “democratic Sittlichkeit” as essential to the institutions of freedom in modern liberal societies (p. 199) . Here Honneth understands his theory of democratic freedom as a theory of the legitimacy of the social order. He researches into the institutionalizations of values and conceptions of justice in liberal democracies where the value of freedom and equality through recognition become integrated in the institutional spheres of action in society. In this sense the idea of freedom is essential to justice and we can use this concept of universal freedom and recognition as a defense for correction of social pathologies and deviances in relation to the generally accepted normative ideas of freedom and justice. In this, through the research on the conditions for freedom and justice, the normative ideas of the democratic Sittlichkeit are explained.


On this basis Honneth discusses the possibility of freedom (p. 129) in relation to law and ethics. He begins with the presentation of the concept of legal freedom. This freedom is the condition of collective autonomy in civil society’s cooperation and also for democratic decision-making based on collective autonomy. The ethical idea of legal freedom is the effort to ensure private autonomy. In this sense legal freedom is understood as individual freedom. Honneth defines legal freedom on the basis of Hegel’s concept of personal rights (p. 134). Hegel proposed a system of positive rights in modernity. With Hannah Arendt we can refer to legal personhood as “protective mask” of the individual. The law of freedom implies this development of the legal rights of the subject. Subjective and negative rights are essential for the freedom of individual action, as suggested by Mill in his defense of the rights of belief, opinion and freedom of expression. This category of subjective rights includes rights of freedom and of participatory rights as the foundation of democratic communication and decision-making. However, it is also a limit to this idea of freedom that it is built on private autonomy and rights defined by its negative character. It is true that the law shall protect personal autonomy and freedom, but this is not enough – behind this lies the development of a society built on communal practices and cooperation in civil society (p. 156). 


Indeed, Honneth is well aware of the social pathologies of legal freedom in modern society. Social pathology is defined as something that emerges when people don’t understand the meaning of social norms of freedom and law and here we can speak about social pathologies. These pathologies can be people who misuse the system and ignore the rationality of subjective rights. They use the law to promote their own interest. This happens for example in the increasing tendency of legalization of the human life world and of life communities. This dynamics of the social pathology can for example be found in the movie with Dustin Hoffman Kramer vs. Kramer, where a divorce ends in a bitter fight about the custody of the child in court. The pathology is that the life world is ignored and the legalization of human affairs becomes an end in itself and we experience alienation and misunderstanding of the significance of moral freedom (p. 172).


Honneth describes the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern society as closely related to the institutionalization of legal freedom. Originally morality was the regulation of desire and a sort of rationalization of life in nature. Morality can be said to constitute the intersubjective limitations on actions. Moral autonomy comes from the idea of self-determination, as discussed in Rousseau and Kant. The Kantian idea of moral freedom is built on the concept of moral autonomy. This implies that human beings should strive to be moral persons and valued by others as moral persons. Respect and recognition of human dignity in the social life world is an essential dimension of this concept of morality (p. 181). To have dignity is not only due to intrinsic dignity as being created in the image of God, but indeed also a social dignity to which the individual him- or herself is important. Dignity can be defined as linked to the moral self-definition and self- creation of individuals with good moral identity. Kirstine Korsgaard has in this context defined the Kantian approach as an approach to the building and construction of one’s own practical identity. What are important are not only the categorical imperatives but indeed also the practical identity of the subject. To have a moral identity is to have a moral aim with your own life where you take responsibility for your own humanity. Self-legislation and moral autonomy in the Kantian sense means to take responsibility for your own life as the moral self-legislator of your life.


Habermas contributes to this discussion by emphasizing the importance of the moral socialization process. Legal freedom is interpreted through social freedom. Here we have the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern societies. We can refer to a cultural idea of moral in post-traditional societies where the cultural institutionalization of freedom is a part of this institutionalization of recognition. This process is a communicative and dialogical process where there is an on-going public discussion about conceptions of dignity and appropriate intersubjective moral norms in civil society.


Like his description of the legal social pathologies Honneth also describes the social pathologies of morality. Here we can observe a focus on personal absolute morality in contrast to intersubjective norms. The pathologies of morality could for example be the moralism of personal autonomy, where the duty to follow a certain kind of universalism means that the individual fails to take into account the social context (p. 209). This kind of focus on personal autonomy leads to rigid morals where the moral conception can lead to personal moral self-destruction. This is for example described in the novels of Henry James where the will to do good is in danger of leading to self-destruction (p. 212). Here personal autonomy leads to bad moralism and ignorance of social conditions of recognition and dignity. A similar pathology can be found in the moralist political extremism of terrorism, for example in the position of Ulrike Meinhof, who adopted a personal leftist moralism as the justification of her terrorist actions.


On the basis of this reconstruction of the foundations of freedom Honneth goes on to describe the reality of freedom in democratic liberal democracies. The reconstruction of the social life practice as based on recognition and personal autonomy in moral decision-making has to be demonstrated as being institutionalized as patterns of social action in different aspects of society. Honneth distinguishes between three important spheres of institutionalization of the norms of freedom and moral autonomy: 1) friends, love and family relations; 2) market relations; 3) relations in the political community. The intersubjective dimensions in these different groups illustrate different determinations of decisions based on freedom in the different institutions of society.


Honneth emphasizes that personal relations between friends and love relations in personal relations and in the family are based on freedom rather than on paternalism or pre-established social norms and hierarchies. Although it is considered informal, friendship may be conceived as social institution today. There is a difference between the ancient and modern concept of friendship, because friendship today is build on mutual affection without interest. Friendship is based on the romantic concept of the free encounter between friends. As an institution friendship can be said to illustrate the institutionalization of common ideas of community in a common normative structure. Even though it is based on freedom and mutual affection we can now say that friendship based on freedom has become an important institution in modern society.


With regard to love and intimacy, freedom is also considered an essential concept. Honneth argues that we can perceive the institutionalization of the principle of romantic love as the basis for intimate encounters. We are free to make our intimate connections and these are built on our own moral responsibility. Autonomous morality and freedom are proposed as the basis for sexual relations. The relations are based on love and freedom and the emergence of all kinds of couples or singles show this principle of freedom as essential in modernity.


The principle of free sexual relations has had an impact on the concept of the family where the encounter of man and women is also based on social freedom and the family as such is today becoming a place of social freedom. The family is now a place for individual self-realization. We see the emergence of different forms of constructed families that to a large extent are built on principles of free self-realization. Equality rather than authority is an important principle for organizing the family. Equality in families is indicated by the fact that the relation between man and woman is built on partnership between father and mother. Also recognition plays a much bigger role in the relations between children and parents in a situation where people live longer and mutual recognition between generations is emerging. In this sense moral autonomy plays a great importance in the social roles of family members. We see the institutionalization of a much more democratic family built on freedom and moral responsibility. This is a family based on mutual cooperation, love and recognition in contrast to a family based on authoritarianism and paternalism.


We can, according to Honneth, also see the emergence of the new law and morality of freedom if we look at the economic market. Honneth argues that the economic market also contributes to the institutionalization of social freedom in the capitalist economy. Honneth wants to provide a normative reconstruction of the contribution to social freedom of the market economy. He goes back to Adam Smith and takes up his problem about the morality of the market. The problem is how the market can be said to mediate social action. Here we can consider the market freedom as an extension of social freedom in the spheres of consumption and production. However, the question is whether this is an error in capitalism – a subversive doctrine that leads to the dissolution of capitalism.


Honneth defines capitalism and its markets as free economic exchange of goods and services. Historically speaking it was the legal subject (most of the time a man with property) who had the right to exchange in the market. The basis for behavior in the market was strategic utility maximization and calculation of cost/benefits. According to Honneth, both Hegel and Durkheim tried to investigate the normative dimensions of the capitalist system in order to go beyond that system and propose a new economic order with another value-orientation of the economic institutions. Honneth finds a paradox in this line of question that ask the questions about why the market should refer to pre-market norms when the market is about individual utility and utility maximization. The answer of Honneth is that intersubjective norms govern the market when we consider the market from the point of view of normative institutionalism, where morality is considered to be a part of the economic exchange. Honneth refers to Polanyi and Parsons to explain this dimension of the market economy. The question is “What is the Sittlichkeit of the Market System?” (p. 343) Such question have occupied the communitarian philosopher Etizioni and the German economist Hirsch and they search for the capacity of coordinating social action within the economy itself and contribute to legitimacy of the market system in society. With the focus on the principles of social cooperation it the market, Honneth wants to overcome Marx’s negative concept of capitalism and give a normative reconstruction of the concept of freedom within the market economy in liberal society.


Honneth focuses on the sphere of consumption and in particular the development of consumer culture where the market receives legitimation from the norms of the consumers. In fact, the culture of consumption can be seen as a medium for recognition, whilst the moral reaction of the consumers to corporations has an impact on the corporations. Honneth emphasizes that today the capitalist system requires its legitimacy from the consumer and these new conditions of consumption and production contribute to the legitimacy of the market through the consumer. We see how globalization of the market is realized through mass consumption and we see the emergence of morally and legally responsible critical consumers, what we can call “the consumer citizen” (p. 377). This critical consumer is aware of the necessity of having respect for human dignity (p. 377). At the same time reference to consumer citizens may be able to incorporate the critique of consumer society, since there is a struggle for recognition and a possible mutual recognition implied in the moral economy between seller and consumer where they struggle for the realization of the mutual legitimate recognition (p. 381). So Honneth emphasizes that the principles of legitimation are implicit in the consumer market. There is a search for ideal perfectibility regarding consumption built into the individual and corporations have to respond to this in order to get legitimacy. Moreover the consumer citizen takes up the criticism of mass consumption (Adorno, Arendt) and act critically in relation to this. In contributing to establishment of international institutions the consumer citizen also pushes for the establishment of national and international institutions that contribute to the moralization the economy.


After this normative reconstruction of market mediated consumption Honneth looks at the labor market. He reminds us that work was important for Hegel in his Philosophy of Right. Honneth also considers work and the labor market as central for the emergence of a moral economy. The capitalist organization of work has historically implied manipulation and oppression of the workers. Then they organized themselves in workers movement and organized struggle for recognition and social freedom on the labor market. This fight for social freedom implies a struggle for cooperation and recognition in the labor market (p. 431). The organization of workers in trade unions is an important dimension for establishing freedom in the capitalist system. It is important to humanize the work in this world. In particular, democratic organization of the economy and of business can contribute to this. Honneth argues that social freedom in the organizational sphere of corporations and business is dependent on the struggle for recognition by the workers. It is important to contribute to this humanization of work. Since the 1970s there has however been a neoliberal rationalization and technification of the capitalist system and workers have more to fight for in order to achieve freedom in the organized capitalism of the Western world. Here, all kinds of organizations, for example trade unions or welfare organizations, can contribute to the mutual recognition. In particular transnational unions in times of globalization are important for creating freedom in a civilization of capitalism.


The final section of the book presents the reality of democratic will formation in liberal democracies in a historical perspective. Honneth focuses on democratic public spheres, the democratic legal state and political culture. He begins by emphasizing that the potentiality of public deliberation in a free public sphere is essential to understand the reality of freedom in a modern society. Since the French revolution and the enlightenment this has been essential for creating social freedom in the public sphere. Deliberative decision making in a public sphere is an essential legitimation principle of a liberal democracy. We can say that we have experienced the social institutionalization of principles of democracy through the emergence of the free public sphere in Western democracies. Here equality of citizens and liberal rights of freedom based on the constitution are essential for creating a democratic public sphere. The morality of citizens is created through the institutionalization of social and democratic public spheres and debates. The normative idea of social freedom is a result of a democratic public sphere (p. 500). Public exchange of opinion is essential for this democratic public sphere in modern society. As Arendt and Habermas have shown, the media are important for democratic politics. Communicative freedom and the deliberative public sphere contribute to exchange of opinion and different points of view. With Habermas we can emphasize the importance of having both a national and international public sphere. With the new media and digital divide and the development of the internet we face, however, both possibilities and possible limitations of democratic freedom in open and free public spheres.


The democratic legal state built on the rule of law implies the realization of social liberty. The rule of law is a reflexive dimension of the state. The state is a reflexive notion and the democratic state was conceived as the opposite of National Socialism. This state is based on the legitimation by the people’s sovereignty in democratic legislation processes. Constitutional states follow specific norms of Sittlichkeit with a reflexive distance to the democratic legal state. The normative self-understanding of the European states implies a reaction against totalitarianism and in particular the rule of law against Hitler. In particular, we can talk about totalitarianism as the opposite to democracy. The universal declaration of human rights that was very modern even for modern democracy was established as a counter-reaction to the totalitarian regimes of the Second World War. We can also talk about the tension between nationalism and the rule of law in the Rechtsstaat or the tension between nationalism and people’s democracy. The concept by Habermas about Verfassungspatriotismus has been proposed to deal with this topic.


Finally Honneth discusses the concept of political culture as essential to the reality of the Rechtsstaat. Political culture is the reality of the realization of freedom in a democratic society. This institutionalization of the rule of law of the Rechtsstaat today also has an international dimension in the sense that the political public sphere, for example in the EU goes beyond the national borders towards the international community.


Some critical remarks to Honneth’s theory of the liberal state follow.

How should we evaluate his approach to the institutionalization of freedom in modern society? I will now propose three critical remarks for discussion.


The first remark concerns Honneth’s method of analysis. This method is very promising and I think that this constitutes the real novelty of the book. The focus on institutions and institutionalization is very important to make the bridge between philosophy and the social sciences. Moreover, I agree that this approach is very important for the definition of the relation between ethics and law in modern democratic states. However, it may be argued that this approach has already been worked out before. This is for example the case in Ricoeur’s work One-Self-as-Another from 2002, where the concept of institution as inspired by Hegel is a central concept. Ricoeur has an advantage with regard to Honneth because Ricoeur is able to introduce the concept of the good life that is not really there in Honneth’s approach. Ricoeur talks about “the good life for and with the other in just institutions”. Moreover there is no reference to the whole tradition of institutional theory within the social sciences in Honneth’s book. This is sad because then we don’t really have the dialogue between philosophical institutionalism and other kinds of institutionalisms. Moreover, it may be argued that the kind of combination of normative and descriptive analysis that Honneth proposes makes it difficult to advance any real argument of normative ethical, legal or political theory. In fact, this book is not so much a normative argument as a presentation of some lines of development in modern society. As such the book is confronted with competing arguments, as for example the Danish professor of political science Ove Kaj Petersen with his book about the recent developments of the state from welfare state to competition state in the book Konkurencestaten (the competition state). Why is the story that Honneth presents more compelling than the more negative story that is presented by Ove Kaj Pedersen? Here we need better and more advanced argument.


The proposal of the theory of law and morals may be conceived as the strongest part of the book. However, we can also propose some critical questions to this theory. In particular, we can address the substance of the theory that focuses so much on individual rights. I may be argued that it is not individual rights that are so important in the Rechtsstaat but rather democracy as community. It is not clear how this focus on individual rights makes the move from negative freedom to positive freedom. Indeed, it may be argued that the concept of rights may destroy the possibility of really founding a political community based on shared interests in the good. What Honneth seems to propose seems to be a very liberal theory that does not really correspond with his Hegelian starting point. Moreover, we may criticize his use of Kant to define the basis of his approach to the morality of freedom. It seems very idealistic to presuppose that people today act according to the moral law when they create their identity. Rather, we may refer to existentialist or postmodern concepts of identity, which seem much closer to the reality of life in the modern state and correspond to the elimination of politics in favor of individual rights. I cannot see that Honneth really achieves his point by reintroducing the Kantian concept of morality as a case of identity. In fact, Honneth’s position also becomes nearly neo-liberal, because so much emphasis is laid on individual rights rather to present the common good in the Res Publica as important. Here I also think that Ricoeur’s concept of the good life with and for the other in just institutions gives the communitarian elements of analysis that we really need to make Honneth’s argument convincing.


When we deal with the reality of freedom in modern society there are many problems in the book. The analysis of the spheres of recognition in the family seem to forget all the power relations that still persist in society and a Foucauldian approach to the family would be able to show many contradictions of the freedom of individuals in the family. Moreover, there are many critical questions to ask in relation to Honneth’s analysis of romantic love as the basis of intimacy. There may also be the manipulation of individual through forcing them to be free. As Rousseau says “L’homme est libre mais partout il est en fer”.


Moreover, the analysis of economic life and freedom in the market is far from convincing, although the general intention of moralizing the economy is very important. Honneth has understood the necessity of rethinking the capitalist economy in the perspective of virtues and ethics, but his Marxist basis of analysis and the prejudices of critical theory make it impossible for him to take the final step and understand the real emancipator elements of the idea of the moral economy. Here we should look at the whole basis for ethical interaction in the economy and, taking the Weberian perspective of looking at the ideal values of economic exchange, make it possible to understand much more of the functions of the moral economy. Honneth mentions the work of Etizioni on this point but he does not get into deeper analysis of much more recent literature on business ethics and corporate social responsibility and this makes his analysis rather general and not very innovative in relation to the recent debates in business ethics and management ethics.


Honneth has a good argument for the political consumer and legitimacy of consumption but he does not include recent literature in business ethics and institutions and therefore he does not really contribute something new or relevant. To propose unions as the basis for political freedom in the workplace also seems to be not very new in today’s discussions. Much more detailed analysis is needed here. For example of the interactions between unions and top management and how they contribute to develop stakeholder management in large corporations.


Indeed, in his final discussions of the deliberative politics and the importance of critical public space as essential for a democratic political culture, I can hardly see that Honneth presents anything new in comparison with Habermas. In fact we may argue that Honneth is much too positive to the reality of this political culture and that he does not take into account the many recent distortions of that culture. However, the critical remarks on the internet and the digital divide and democracy show a certain awareness of the important contradiction of democracy in the present context of society.



Axel Honneth: Das Recht der Freiheit. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011.