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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002) 113-131

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Equality, Democracy, And Self-respect:
Reflections On Nietzsche's Agonal Perfectionism

David Owen

'One who makes himself a worm cannot complain if people step on him.'

—Immanuel Kant

Kant's remark may sound harsh to our modern sensibility but it raises an issue that is central to an understanding of Nietzsche's critique of "the democratic movement of our times" (BGE 203) and, thus, to an understanding of Nietzsche's salience for contemporary democratic theory. This issue is self-respect—and, more generally, the topic of duties to oneself. The relationship between this issue and democratic theory may not appear a wholly obvious one but, on Nietzsche's account, it is crucial to the kind of equality that is expressed by democratic practices. Nietzsche's concern, I'll argue, is that "the democratic movement of our times" expresses a levelling mode of equality that undermines the conditions of self-respect in the relevant sense. Consequently, the aim of this article will be to elucidate Nietzsche's understanding of self-respect, to clarify the grounds on which he attacks "the democratic movement of our times" and to consider the relationship between these arguments and his advocacy of the agon as a model of cultural and political relations. It concludes by drawing out the implications of this interpretation of Nietzsche for democratic theory.


Typically we distinguish between two senses of respect: a sense of respect that has been termed "recognition respect" and a sense of respect which has been termed "appraisive respect." The contrast between the two types of respect can be drawn as follows: [End Page 113]

Persons can be the object of recognition respect. Indeed, it is just this sort of respect which is said to be owed to all persons. To say that persons as such are entitled to such respect is to say that they are entitled to have other people take seriously and weigh appropriately the fact that they are persons in deliberating about what to do. [. . .] The crucial point is that to conceive of all persons as entitled to respect is to have some conception of what sort of consideration the fact of being a person requires. [. . .] There is another attitude which differs importantly from recognition respect but which we likewise refer to by the term 'respect.' Unlike recognition respect, its exclusive features are persons or features which are held to manifest their excellence as persons [. . .]. Such respect, then, consists in an attitude of positive appraisal of that person [. . .] as a person [. . .]. Accordingly the appropriate ground for such respect is that the person has manifested characteristics which make him deserving of such positive appraisal. [. . .] the appropriate characteristics are those which are, or are based on, features of a person that we attribute to his character. (Darwall 1991, 183-4)

Now let us consider these two types of respect in terms of self-respect. Recognition self-respect means according due weight to one's own standing as a person in one's deliberations about what to do. The contrasting attitude to recognition self-respect is that of servility (cf. Hill, 1991a). Appraisive self-respect means valuing one's excellences of character, that is, an attitude of positive appraisal of oneself as a person in virtue of certain characteristics worthy of such positive appraisal that one manifests. The contrasting attitude in this case is that of self-disdain. We should note in considering these kinds of respect and self-respect that we have not yet entered into the territory of morality but rather remain in the broader terrain of the ethical conceived of as "any scheme for regulating the relations between people that works through informal sanctions and internalised dispositions" (Williams 1995, 241). The distinction between the moral and the ethical is significant here. Most contemporary analytic moral philosophy leaps from considering recognition respect to a focus on moral recognition respect from a broadly Kantian standpoint (Hill 1991a), while still allowing for appraisive respect with regard to personal (nonmoral) standards (Hill 1991b). In contrast, Nietzsche's...


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