Respect in Neo-Republicanism: A Good Too Rich or Too Thin?


The article critically examines the neo-Republican conception of respect put forward by Philip Pettit in Robust Demands of the Good (RDG). The paper argues that Pettit’s treatment of respect as a rich good in RDG is too thin in some ways, but too rich in others. There are four critical claims to support this argument. First, that (a) both invading the domain of basic liberties, and failing to protect and resource the capacity to exercise choice, constitute individually sufficient conditions for disrespectful treatment, and (b) that the protection and resourcing of basic liberties are both relevant domains over which an appropriate disposition is also necessary for the provision of the rich good of respect. Second, that it is unnecessary and undesirable to rely on local conventions to provide a specification of the treatment that the status of respect requires. Third, that providing respect as a rich good in conditions of reasonable pluralism implies treating minorities in a disrespectful way. Fourth, that the role given to law in supporting the provision of the rich good of respect leads to a difficult dilemma for Pettit: either the full enjoyment of respect is not possible in nearby worlds, or it is only possible in ideal conditions that are far from nearby worlds.

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  1. 1.

    For these criticisms see e.g. Larmore (2003).

  2. 2.

    For good discussions of respect in the literature see Carter (2011), Darwall (1977) and Eyal (2005) and for a good discussion of Pettit's work see Lovett (2010, 2016).

  3. 3.

    By resourcing the ability to exercise choice e.g. by means of a system of social insurance, national health and legal assistance (Pettit 2012, pp. 112–114).

  4. 4.

    On the meaning of arbitrary interference compare Pettit (1999, p. 52) with Pettit (2014, p. 58).

  5. 5.

    For how such a disposition enhances civic virtue and hence good government see Efthymiou (2017).

  6. 6.

    For a Kantian critique of Pettit’s Republicanism see Forst (2013).

  7. 7.

    It is not clear to me whether acting from an appropriate disposition to provide the rich good of respect is sufficient for a person to be civically virtuous. See also ‘Respect as an Aspirational Ideal’ for a discussion of the relationship between motivation and respect.

  8. 8.

    The aim of the example is not to judge that particular policy as a policy of resourcing but to illustrate how denying resourcing constitutes a case of disrespect.

  9. 9.

    Or in cases where such policies are not implemented or where they could not easily, reliably and robustly reach their target population.

  10. 10.

    Here I deal with the rather simple and straightforward case of willed lack of resourcing. But willingness on the part of an agent may not constitute a necessary condition for invasion. Pettit is ambivalent on this point (see Pettit 2012, pp. 39, 44).

  11. 11.

    See Cohen (2008, pp. 361–362, pp. 381–386) and for a good discussion of Cohen’s dual criticism of Rawls, chapters 5 and 6 of Vrousalis (2015).

  12. 12.

    This revision of the theory, however, undermines the structural integrity of respect as a rich good; that is the idea that the provision of one thin good along with the presence of one particular disposition are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the provision of one rich good. Hence, rendering respect consistent with the aforementioned two dimensions violates its structural integrity. It requires doubling the thin good and conceding that the same disposition (i.e. that of respect) could motivate the provision of two distinct thin goods. These problems, therefore, cannot be easily solved without abandoning the very notion of a rich good. See also ‘Respect as a Rich Good Versus Respect as a Disposition’ below.

  13. 13.

    An example shows what is at stake here normatively speaking. Do citizens of Norway, Sweden, or the Netherlands enjoy more robust protections of their basic liberties, and hence a greater likelihood of enjoying the rich good of respect, than those of Switzerland, Germany or the UK? Did citizens of Sweden enjoy more robust protection in 2012 than 2017 etc.? An approach that can neither make nor inform inter-societal nor intra-societal comparisons of that sort is clearly too indeterminate. To counter such objections, Pettit draws a parallel in his work between his emphasis on justified variances in the level of entrenchment of basic liberties and the capability approach and its sensitivity to local standards (Pettit 2012, p. 104). But it is worth noting that the Human Development Index (HDI) (as an index heavily influenced by the capability approach) ranked the U.S. 10th in the world for 2016 whereas Sweden and Finland were 14th and 23rd respectively. The inequality adjusted HDI ranks the U.S. 19th, Sweden 8th and Finland 10th. Pettit’s Republican theory must surely be able to provide us with some guidance as to which of the two HDI indexes is a better proxy for the enjoyment of Republican freedom and its associated rich good of respect. An approach that can neither make nor inform inter-societal nor intra-societal comparisons of that sort is clearly too indeterminate. Pettit’s theory contains resources that are not deployed here (see e.g. his diminishing marginal productivity argument for equality as a means to reducing social domination in Pettit 2012, p. 91).

  14. 14.

    See also Ismene’s plea to Antigone quoted above.

  15. 15.

    See e.g. Hamlin and Stemplowska (2012) for how the use of indifference curves of feasible sets could serve that purpose as well as Efthymiou (2015, forthcoming).

  16. 16.

    By partial compliance I mean incompliance due to unfavorable economic conditions that make it difficult for a society to meet the highest possible standards whereas by non-compliance I mean incompliance under favorable economic conditions that make meeting the highest possible standards for a particular type of society not excessively burdensome (see e.g. Rawls 1999a, p. 5).

  17. 17.

    By reasonable disagreement here I mean disagreements among well-informed and well-intentioned persons (see Rawls and Erin 2001; Rawls 2005) who value basic liberties and their entrenchment rather than disagreements over the weight of basic liberties and their level of entrenchment due to conflicts of interest. The latter I treat as cases of non-compliance to the requirements of respect that do not call for respectful treatment (see previous section). For the relationship between disagreement, non-domination and respect in Pettit’s theory see e.g. Larmore (2003, pp. 115–117).

  18. 18.

    See also ‘Disagreement and (Dis)respect’ section.

  19. 19.

    It also possibly reflects a deeper problem with Pettit’s consequentialist approach to respect. If neo-Republicans like Pettit think that the reasons for acting respectfully matter constitutively for respect then for reasons of consistency Pettit may need to abandon a thoroughly consequentialist account and embrace a version of Republicanism that allows more room for deontological considerations (see e.g. Forst 2013).

  20. 20.

    See e.g. Dalloy’s quotation above.

  21. 21.

    This is broadly in line with Rawls’s view that respect for persons is the foundational value of his theory of justice (Rawls 1999a, b, 2005). ‘Respect of persons’ for Rawls is not a rich good but implies an even deeper commitment to recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is an attempt to provide a more determinate interpretation of ‘respect for persons’ that constitutes the moral foundation on which Rawls’s theory of justice is built (Rawls 1999a, p. 513). See also Gosepath (2015).

  22. 22.

    This first revision of the theory follows from the criticisms raised in ‘Disagreement and (Dis)respect’ and ‘Respect as an Aspirational Ideal’ section of the paper.

  23. 23.

    This second revision is in line with the criticisms discussed earlier in the paper (in ‘Respect as a Richer Good’ and ‘Determining the Domain of Respect’ sections) that call for a more complex and determinate theory of respect.


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I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their comments. I am grateful to Dorothea Gädeke, Kristina Lindemann, Philippe Pettit, Nicholas Vrousalis for comments and discussions. I am also particularly grateful to Rainer Forst and Stefan Gosepath for their support as directors of ‘Justitia Amplificata’.


The funding was provided by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Grand No. 1206).

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Correspondence to Dimitrios E. Efthymiou.

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Efthymiou, D.E. Respect in Neo-Republicanism: A Good Too Rich or Too Thin?. Res Publica 26, 103–122 (2020).

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  • Respect
  • Republicanism
  • Civic virtue
  • Rich goods
  • Social justice
  • Non-domination