Abstract: This article offers a critical examination of theories that emphasize the importance of governmental provision of self-esteem to citizens. Self-esteem is the feeling that one’s abilities and achievements are positively appraised by the surrounding society, and in some cases the legal system. Such theories are becoming fashionable, following the influence of scholars such as Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, and others.
The author argues that such theories face major challenges, on two accounts. First, trying to provide universal self esteem would imply that people would be under a duty to positively appraise the achievements of any given person, and that might violate the free exercise of judgment. Second, the dominant theories of recognition also emphasize the importance of self-respect. Such theories usually understand self-respect as ‘the relation of a person to herself/himself, that concerns their intrinsic worth’. The ability to positively or negatively appraise the conducts/achievements of other people is an integral part of this ‘intrinsic worth’. The attempt to provide universal positive appraisals (and therefore self-esteem) means therefore that a simultaneous achievement of self respect and self esteem is not possible as a social goal. Recognition theories face therefore not only an external critique by libertarian and (many) liberal approaches, but also internal problems of consistency between different parts of their own theories.