Friday, September 15, 2006

What is Low Self-Esteem? (by guest blogger Brad Cokelet)

We commonly explain habitual patterns of action by appeal to people’s degree self-esteem. For example if your friend, call her Jane, keeps dating people who treat her poorly and someone asks you why, you might say she has low self-esteem. But what does it mean to say that someone has a low level of esteem for his or her self?

Taken literally, self-esteem seems to suggest believing that one's character and/or achievements are praiseworthy – that one has done well and, perhaps, can take credit for having done so. But Jane might be very successful in a number of departments of her life – she is doing well at her career, has many friends, material security, etc. If asked, she might say that all of these things are accomplishments that she can take credit for. But she can believe that and still suffer from “low self-esteem” and date people who are bad for her.

So what is self-esteem if it is not belief that one has done things that deserve praise?

One possibility is that esteem is like love – you can believe you have reason to love someone, but not actually feel it, and you can believe you have reason to esteem yourself, but not feel it. But even if self-esteem does involve feeling in addition to belief, I doubt that this solves our problem, because counterexamples cases seem to exist. For example: Jane believes she has reason to think well of herself, and feels positive when she thinks of herself and her accomplishments, but she still engages in the imprudent behavior – entering into relationships that are bad for her.

A second possibility is that the term ‘self-esteem’ is misleading; it is respect, not esteem, she is missing. To make this suggestion work we need an explanation of what self-respect – respect for one’s self – amounts to. Although it is initially appealing, I have doubts about this too. It is plausible to assume that a failure to respect X to be a failure to have the attitude towards X that one is obligated to have and that talk of obligation implies that the person in question is able to adopt do what they are obligated to do at will (by choice); and these assumptions imply that Jane could choose to respect herself (at will). But this casts doubt on the claim that her imprudence is explained by a failure of self-respect: part of the tragic thing about people like Jane, to whom we attribute low self-esteem, is that they often cannot solve their problem simply by choosing to (i.e. at will).

A final, third possibility, is that what we have in mind is Jane’s lack of self-concern. On this view, Jane would likely refrain from acting so imprudently if she cared more about her own well-being. If so we should stop talking about low self-esteem and talk about a lack of self-concern instead.

I am myself tempted to take that final approach and to stop talking of low self-esteem. Is this right? And do I need to fatten my diet of examples before drawing this general conclusion; are there other cases that allow us to make better sense of talk of low self-esteem?


Anonymous said...

I think you may need to consider other examples, if only to rule them out as instances of the phenomenon you are referring to: low-self-esteem.

Think of the perpetual status seeker- or the one who makes sure to ask what university you work at/graduated from before listening to what you have to say or including you in their discussion-
or what about the horribly aggressive one at the conference. I can't help but see those behaviors (at least in most cases) as motivated by a need to regard one's self more highly.

Anonymous said...

"On this view, Jane would likely refrain from acting so imprudently if she cared more about her own well-being."

I think this view may be correct from a behavioristic standpoint but does not take into account the agent's POV. Often someone with low self-esteem will acquiesce to demands, punishments, happenstances, or requests that are not in their interest (or in the interest of fairness) despite resenting them or wishing for some other outcome. So they must care about their well-being to some extent. I'm even tempted to say that people who 'snap' and either kill others or themselves both have low self-esteem and act in what they take to be their best interest. They're probably wrong, of course, in which case you have to take care about the perspectivity of self-concern (the thought being: they wouldn't have acted thusly if they had *no concern* for what they had experienced).

Hmm. That makes me think that a full account of self-esteem would split along lines of self-knowledge (-belief): low self-esteem plus knowledge (belief) that one has low self-esteem versus low-self esteem without the knowledge (belief) that one has low self-esteem. Someone in the former type of case might experience increased stress or frustration when accepting negative outcomes, while someone in the latter type of case might become (further?) depressed or hopeless.

Just some speculations!

Brad C said...

Thanks for the comments Stewart and Charles.

Stewart, the kinds of cases you bring up call for more thought. I agree those are more plausibly seen as motivated by fears or thoughts that one is not esteemed by others and perhaps by a desire for such esteem. Perhaps to say that people like that have low self-esteem is to say that they have an inordinate desire for others esteem – they feel some sort of lack that drives them to desire the esteem of others. But is that lack one of esteem for one's self? I don’t see why we should think that. This also raises a question about whether the best cure for such problems is heightened self-esteem to whether it is rather to no longer want to be esteemed, or at least to not want it to the same extent or for the same reasons. I favor the latter, but your cases make me suspect that this change is not to be simply characterized in terms of increased self-concern.

Charles, thanks for drawing attention to the difference between what we might say about Jane and what she might be experiencing. I have not thought about cases of suicide or "snap" violence and find what you say plausible - the feelings of anger, resentment, etc. may embody some sort of beliefs (likely false) about what is good or bad for one's well-being. They might embody thoughts about having been demeaned too (or instead).

I still doubt that the language of low self-esteem is right for these cases, but I like your distinction between the two sorts of cases.

Thanks again.

kboughan said...

It seems to me that the arrogant, condescending ass one often meets at conferences -- who's got his eye fixed on name tag, trying to see if you're Someone or not -- has shiploads of self-esteem.

What he lacks is common decency, which extends to a disregard of himself as simply a human being, and worthy on that basis alone, together with the rest of us.

Implicit in the popular notion of "self-esteem" is that you can't have too much. I think you certainly can, if you lack that self-respect which goes beyond self.

But to talk in terms of "respect" rather than "esteem" is to moralize more than to psychologize, and that's now out of fashion among educated elites, unfortunately.

Brad C said...

Thanks kboughan,

I agree with what you say about the type you pick out, and have to say it is a bit depressing for me to think about right now; I am gearing up the job market.

I also agree that moralizing has been underrated and under practiced in the analytic tradition; but it has also been, happily, on the rise at least since Rawls tried to convince people to engage in substantive normative argument.

There are still those who are nervous about moralizing: Anscombe's suggestion that anyone who would defend sacrificing an innocent in order to placate a mob has a corrupt mind has recently elicited the counter-charge, from John Doris, that Anscombe is at least in danger of lapsing into moral vanity:

I am not sure what Doris thinks ethical theory can and can't do, but he might think it impossible to, in good conscience, revive the sort of moralizing you hope for.

If so, I am less pessimistic than he is about what ethical theory can do.

Anonymous said...

Well, on the off chance that someone else will read this so late after it's original posting. I would like to put my two cents in. Just because Jane doesn't make consistantly good choices in one area of her life doesn't mean that she doesn't like herself. Jane might just be attracted to the wrong people and probably needs more self-evaluation than self-esteem. This could be a matter of low self-respect, but only if she honestly thinks that she deserves bad relationships and is unwilling to try and change. With self-respect it's not a matter of passing or failing, or your ability to change. It's your level of determination to be your best at all times. There are a lot of examples of people in bad circumstances, with very little real power,that have a lot of self-respect. Ghandi, is a great example. As for Jane's self concern, I think that you would have to be a very strange person to have a consistant problem in your life that you were not concerned about. So I think that Jane has either a lack of self-respect, or has not acknowledged that she is responsible for her bad choices in partners and needs to make more honest evaluations of herself.

Anonymous said...

IMHO low self-esteem is yet another for of having a way too big ego, an inflated sense of self-importance: it's a belief that the "me" is such a important thing and it's supposed to be so perfect and cool, that it's really a big tragedy if it turns out that that "me" is imperfect.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree.