“Recognition as a Moral Category”

Traditional Paper


In this paper I argue that recognition is best understood as a moral category, rather than a political one.  I offer an interpretation of pragmatist moral philosophy that helps support this conclusion.  Additionally, in a discussion of Nancy Fraser’s important writings on “redistribution” and “recognition”, I show how understanding recognition in distinctly moral terms helps sharpen our thinking about the relationship between misrecognition and justice. Finally, I conclude that there is no automatic inference from immorality to injustice, and that theorists of recognition, accordingly, ought to be more careful than they characteristically have been about depicting instances of misrecognition or nonrecognition as injustices.


“The politics of recognition” has become common currency among contemporary political theorists.  In the decades since Charles Taylor christened the phrase, there has been an explosion of important philosophical work about how modern democratic societies marked by pluralism and diversity ought best to accommodate differences of race, gender, ethnicity, religious outlook, and culture within a broadly liberal framework committed to impartiality and individual rights.[i]  

In this essay I want to explore the possibility that “recognition” might be more fruitfully thought of as a moral category, as opposed to a political one.  This is not to suggest that the “politics of recognition” is confused or incoherent, or rests on a conceptual mistake.  We already possess a rich vocabulary with which to describe the different ways that laws, governments, states, or schemes of justice can “recognize” various minority groups or cultural traditions.  My claim rather is that the demands of recognition are best understood as moral demands — demands made on other people — to which, quite justifiably, theorists of recognition have done their best to give political (or juridical) expression.  While my thesis does little to undermine the politics of recognition, it is not, I contend, entirely innocuous for it either.  For if I am right about recognition singling out a fundamentally moral imperative (and only on that basis, occasionally, a political one), it follows that theorists of recognition need to be more cautious than they characteristically have been about depicting instances of misrecognition or nonrecognition as injustices.  As I shall try to make precise in the pages that follow, there is no automatic inference from immorality to injustice.  

I also want to show how my thesis about recognition as a moral category comports with and can be derived from certain important strains within the rich legacy of pragmatist moral philosophy.  This may strike some as odd.  One looks in vain, after all, for any mention of “recognition” in any of classical pragmatism’s seminal texts (at least in the sense of the term at stake here).[ii] Nevertheless, I want to advance the claim that something like recognition — recognition by another name, as it were — occupies a central place in the moral vision of pragmatists like James, Dewey, and Rorty.  This undertaking is worthwhile, I think, not only for an enriched appreciation of pragmatism’s unique contribution to moral philosophy.  It can also help foster a more nuanced grasp of what recognition is, the kind of moral duties it generates, and the complex ways in which such duties might be given political expression.

1. What is Recognition?

When political theorists use terms like “misrecognition” or “nonrecognition” what exactly are they alluding to?  I doubt that necessary and sufficient conditions can be provided here, but the following passage from Charles Taylor gives us a provisional sense of what they have in mind.

[O]ur identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.  Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being…Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people.  It is a vital human need. (Taylor 1994, 25, 26)


 The vital human need to which Taylor refers gets its purchase from the ideal of self-realization (or “authenticity” in Taylor’s terminology).  The argument seems to run as follows:

(1)     Each of us has a life to make, and our success in its making is ineluctably interwoven with how we see ourselves.

(2)     How we see ourselves cannot but depend on the ways that others see us. As John Dewey says, “Others do take account of what we do…Their responses actually do affect the meaning of what we do.” (Dewey 1994, 183) Our ability to see ourselves in certain ways is only made intelligible by others’ recognition of those ways.  To put the point in Hegel’s famous idiom: my identity as master is constituted by the appropriate recognition of my status by the slave.[iii]

(3)     Due recognition, therefore, is integral to a person’s ability to achieve self-realization — for “becoming the author of one’s life” (as Rousseau put it).  Plainly, if we are serious about ensuring that people have the requisite capacities for self-realization, then we have a corresponding moral duty to ensure that they are recognized appropriately.[iv]


So understood, it is obvious that nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict acute harm upon people.  What seems wrongheaded, however, is that the liberal state should so often be singled out as the perpetrator of such harms.  For it is natural to think of recognition as something given or withheld by other people.  After all, when a patriarchal society induces women to “adopt a depreciatory image of themselves,” giving them an “internalized picture of their own inferiority” (Taylor 1994, 25), or when black males of any age are addressed as “boy”, thus mirroring back to them a contemptible picture of themselves according to which they are misrecognized as intellectually child-like, we want to say that the real guilty parties are fellow citizens.  To be sure, social institutions may have some culpability in cases such as these, but it seems that the quality and character of moral relationships —how everyday people interact with and stand to one another — picks out the more salient locus of the problem.  In a passage I think Dewey would have liked, Michael Walzer makes this idea explicit:

Identity politics is only sometimes aimed directly at the state…The demand for public acknowledgement of the existence, achievements, and needs of minority groups is probably made more often in companies, unions, churches, parties, philanthropic organizations, professional associations … than in more official settings.  It is more often as workers or believers or neighbors than as citizens that men and women search for ways to take pride in who they are.  The pathologies of the search are experienced as distortions of everyday life more than of citizenship; the benefits, if and when they come, are associational more than political. (Walzer 2002, 40-41)


Unfortunately, this is not how most theorists of recognition see things.  For the “politics of recognition” is indeed, for most of its proponents, almost exclusively a politics. Recognition is in most cases given an overtly political mandate: the claim is that nonrecognition or misrecognition occurs principally between a society’s institutions and its citizens.  I think this is for the most part confused, and I will return to Nancy Fraser’s important writings on “redistribution” and “recognition” shortly to explain why. It will be enough to note here, however, that even if some cases of misrecognition are political, not all of them are.  As I have already said, I think recognition is best understood as a moral category, on the basis of which, sometimes, political claims for recognition can be legitimately made.  But what does it mean to understand recognition as a moral category?  How might demands for recognition arise in our everyday moral experience?  As I shall now try to explain, pragmatist moral philosophy provides illuminating answers to these questions.  

2. The Role of Recognition in Pragmatist Moral Theory

It is important to notice that merely “tolerating” people and forms of life different from one’s own is insufficient for recognition.  A simple “live and let live” attitude is by no means what recognition implies.  Rather, insofar as we prize a person’s ability to achieve self-realization, we have a corresponding (positive) duty to affirm or publicly acknowledge their self-conceptions as worthwhile, legitimate, or valuable.  The duty in question is moral, not legal or political.  It is virtually incoherent to suppose that people might be coerced into affirmation, after all. The moral duties of recognition then, involve trying to see where others are coming from; doing our best to put ourselves in others’ shoes; to become aware, as far as that is possible, of what William James calls “the peculiar ideality of their conditions”. (James 2000, 269)  To “recognize difference” is to effectively absorb the idea that there is something it is like to be them; that they, like us, are trying to forge a life for themselves, trying to figure out who to be, what to care about, where to stand on a range of defining issues.  More, it is to understand that our response to the specific content of such efforts — whether we ridicule, debase, undermine, or even just passively ignore them — can determine the extent to which they shall be successful in achieving self-authorship.  It is above all on the basis of positive freedom then —“actual as distinct from merely legal liberty” (Dewey 1991, 35) — from which recognition fundamentally derives its moral oomph.

            This can be made more concrete by reflecting on a magnificent essay by William James called “ On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”.  There, James takes as his topic “the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” (James 2000, 267)  He elaborates by way of a personal story:

Some years ago, while journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed a large number of “coves”… or heads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted.  The impression on my mind was one of unmitigated squalor.  The settler had… cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing…The forest had been destroyed; and what had “improved” it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty…Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me, “What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?” “All of us,” he replied.  “Why, we ain’t happy here unless we are getting one of these coves under cultivation.”  I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation.  Because to me the clearing spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story.  But when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory…In short, the clearing, which to me was merely an ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success.  I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge. (James 2000, 268-9, emphasis added)


I think what James here calls “blindness” is roughly co-extensive with what I have been referring to as “misrecognition” or “nonrecognition”.  In fact, when James himself overcomes his initial “blindness” to the mountaineers, once he is able to grasp what he calls “the inward significance” of the “coves” (seeing them not as “an ugly picture on the retina”, but, as the mountaineers themselves might have seen them: “a symbol redolent with moral memories”), the result is something like recognition.  To be sure, at this early stage the recognition is private — it hasn’t yet manifested itself in any concrete way; overcoming his initial blindness is only the first step.  But James comes to recognize that there is value in the mountaineer’s way of being, comes to see, however translucently, what things look like from within their mode of life. (I might point out parenthetically that the ocular metaphor common to “blindness” and “recognition” helps reinforce the parallel I am pressing).[v] 

The moral upshot of James’ story can be understood in terms of the idea that overcoming blindness, doing one’s utmost to recognize people and forms of life different from one’s own, points the way toward moral progress just insofar as it encourages an expanded moral community.[vi] Moral progress is hastened on this view, not by conformity to abstract maxims and precepts, but by increasing the class of people for whom the pronoun “we” will be germane.  As Richard Rorty has said,

It is neither irrational nor unintelligent to draw the limits of one’s moral community at a national, or racial, or gender border.  But it is undesirable — morally undesirable… [I]t is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.” (Rorty 1999, 81)


John Dewey would happily join in on the chorus.  As is well known, Dewey mocked the idea — the least common denominator between Kant and Bentham — that there are supreme, fixed, moral axioms from which the right course of action in every predicament might be deduced.  Instead, he insisted on what he called “The irreducible plurality of moral criteria”.  No two moral situations are exactly alike.  For any given situation, we need to pay close attention to both its specific features and the plurality of normative considerations that might bear on its moral resolution.  Doing so results in what Dewey calls “reflective morality” which is to be distinguished from its “customary” counterpart.  Reflective morality eschews “definite precepts, rules, definitive injunctions and prohibitions.” (Dewey 1994, 22)[vii] It relies instead on intelligent choice, careful deliberation, an open-minded sensibility, a fallibilist spirit, and an effective sensitivity to each moral situation’s uniqueness.  I think these are precisely the moral traits involved in overcoming Jamesean “blindness”, and I think Dewey himself would have agreed entirely. As he writes, in a passage relevant to our theme, “moral progress and the sharpening of character depend on the ability to make delicate distinctions, and perceive [note the recurring ocular metaphor] aspects of good and of evil not previously noticed.” (Dewey 1994, 157)  

Much more can be said about the connections between recognition and pragmatist moral philosophy.  For reasons of space, however, I cannot pursue these connections in any greater depth.  But I hope I have at least gestured at how recognition (or one of its terminological surrogates) occupies a central place in pragmatist moral thought, and more, how recognition’s moral character is conceptually prior to its political character.  This is an important insight.  For, as we shall see, it can help to clarify the way we think about the relationship between recognition and justice.

3. Recognition and Justice

We can now turn to Nancy Fraser, who argues that recognition ought to be regarded as an issue of justice. “[O]ne should not answer the question ‘what’s wrong with misrecognition?’ by saying that it impedes self-realization….One should say, rather, that it is unjust that some individuals and groups are denied the status of full partners in social interaction.” (Fraser 2003, 29)[viii]  For Fraser “misrecognition is relayed not through deprecatory attitudes or free-standing discourses, but rather through social institutions.” (Fraser 2003, 29) Fraser is correct that “deprecatory attitudes and free-standing discourses,” as hurtful and objectionable as they can be, nonetheless fall outside the jurisdiction of justice.   After all, Jones’ Neanderthal opinions about black people may be insulting and grotesque, but they are nevertheless neither just nor unjust. 

This idea goes all the way back to liberalism’s beginnings, to Locke’s insistence[ix] that while salvation in Christ is singularly the highest good for human beings, the state should nevertheless stay out of the salvation business.  The point does not depend on the supposed ethical gravity of religion for its validity.  To take a more mundane example: it may be unfortunate if Jones has a lousy sex life, but it is not unjust.[x]  Analogously, it may be ethically important for people to have their identities recognized by their peers, but a state cannot guarantee that this happens any more than it can legitimately tell people what to think or say. Liberals characteristically take pains to ensure that the ethical question, “Is X good or bad for people?” be carefully separated from the political question “Is it within a state’s legitimate power to promote or demote X?”  Fraser habitually runs these two together, for if X is an injustice, it is by definition something that a state can and must act to remedy.  If all instances of misrecognition are indeed injustices, then Fraser’s political conclusions follow analytically.  For most liberals at least, this concedes the crucial terrain in the dispute.  

Fraser puts before us “the case of the African-American Wall Street banker who cannot get a taxi to pick him up.  To handle such cases, a theory of justice must reach beyond the distribution of rights and goods to examine institutionalized patterns of cultural value…” (Fraser 2003, 34)[xi]  What would Fraser have us do in a case like this?  Surely a standard liberal theory of justice already acknowledges the wrong committed here.  What would “examining institutionalized patterns of cultural value” come to?  Does Fraser mean that we should, in our capacity as philosophers, diagnose and seek to redress the deeply rooted causes of racism?  No doubt that would be a valuable enterprise — one for which history, economics, and sociology would have significant roles to play.  But what has this to do with justice, with the way that social and political institutions are organized?  Where Fraser sees “institutionalized patterns of cultural value,” I see a racist cabbie.  I don’t mean to belittle the example. The crucial point, however, is that the offensive opinions of citizens cannot be made the subject of justice.  A just liberal state can — and indeed must — treat black citizens as equals. It must distribute to them their just share of resources and the full schedule of rights and opportunities to which they, like all citizens, are entitled.  It must also ensure that there is fairness in hiring decisions, university admissions, competition for awards and scholarships, and so forth.  (Additionally, there is plenty of room within a liberal conception of justice for black citizens to receive additional resources and benefits on the grounds of historical injustices).  Perhaps a liberal state might also encourage and subsidize black cultural events like musical concerts, art exhibitions, literature, film, and food festivals, in the hope that increased knowledge about black culture will help dissolve deep-seated racial hatred.[xii] Perhaps knowledgeable politicians, celebrities, public figures, and intellectuals could speak more candidly and frequently about the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which hatred for blacks manifests itself; perhaps such matters could be addressed in public school curricula as well. The pragmatist experimentalism to which I subscribe compels me to keep an open mind about the potential efficacy of initiatives such as these.  But what would “efficacy” mean here?  What would it mean for initiatives of this kind to succeed?  Succeed at what? 

The answer seems obvious.  Such initiatives would be successful if increasing numbers of non-black citizens themselves came to recognize black people as their moral equals — and if taxi-drivers (along with everyone else) began to act in ways that reflected this.   All of this confirms to me that recognition is principally something that other people give or withhold; it is a moral issue long before it can possibly become a political one.  While a state may act in ways that foster recognition for marginalized groups, we must remember that such action is, for the most part, instrumental for enhancing the moral relations among the people of a society. After all, it is people who both proliferate, and suffer from, stigmas of various kinds.  While there is no doubting, as Fraser ably shows, that such stigmas can be reflected in social institutions, we must remember that a reflection is never identical to the thing being reflected.[xiii]  This confirms that misrecognition and nonrecognition are fundamentally moral problems, and only then, on that basis, political ones.

By way of conclusion, let me be clear that my argument is not the conservative one according to which “recognition” is dismissively regarded as what Cornel West has dubbed “PC chit-chat”.  My criticisms are in no way akin to the exasperated pleas for “common sense” one hears when the comparative merits of “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” are debated by department-store executives.  As I have said, I think that nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict serious harm upon people, and that such harm must be dealt with.  My only point is to insist that in the vast majority of cases demands for recognition are more fruitfully understood as demands made on other people, not on political institutions.  To be sure, there are occasions when political institutions can embody the prejudices and biases of the people who design and run them — and on such occasions they must be carefully rectified.  But more often, I think, misrecognition and nonrecognition are moral problems.  This does not mean that a state cannot cultivate the capacities for recognition in its citizenry (that argument can be made forcefully on both “perfectionist” and “anti-perfectionist” grounds).  It only means that if we want to come to terms with what recognition really is and why it is important, we need to understand it (at least initially) in fundamentally moral terms.



[i] For a small sampling, see, among others, Benhabib 2002; Carens 2000; Fraser 2003; Kukathas 1992; 2003; Kymlicka 1989; 1995; Parekh 2000; Tully 1995; Young 1990.

[ii] Perhaps here would be an appropriate place to register my observation that there is a seemingly uncomfortable relationship between the “politics of recognition” and contemporary pragmatist political philosophy.  Most pragmatists simply ignore it — though not all, to be sure.  Richard Rorty is probably the most hostile about “identity”, “difference” and “recognition” as politically salient categories.  He never missed an opportunity to convey his sense that such categories are a waste of time (at best) and a distraction from real-world “Old Left” policies of economic redistribution (at worst).  See Rorty 1999 and 2002 for more on this.

[iii] Appiah’s gloss on Hegel’s idea is helpful: “If we are authors of ourselves, it is state and society that provide us with the tools and the contexts of our authorship; we may shape our selves, but others shape our shaping.” (Appiah 2005, 156)    

[iv] This does not mean that such recognition guarantees that someone will achieve self-realization.  That project may easily be thwarted by other impediments.

[v] It is important to point out that Jamesean “blindness”, like misrecognition, does not presuppose that a moral agent is malevolent.  A moral agent with the purest of good wills can be “blind” in the relevant sense — though, I am happy to grant that there is a prima facie association between the quality of someone’s character, the purity of their intentions, and their ability to overcome such blindness.

[vi] This idea resonates with James’ celebration of “the more inclusive side” — the “only path of peace,” as he called it.  It is the moral path along which one “invent[s] some manner of realizing [one’s] own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands.” (James 2000, 256)

[vii] As he says explicitly: “[T]he attempt to set up ready-made conclusions contradicts the very nature of reflective morality.” (Dewey 1994, 22)

[viii] I can’t see why Fraser would deny that misrecognition impedes self-realization.  Why must there be an either/or here? Why not rather say that misrecognition both impedes self-realization and is unjust?

[ix] Cf. Locke 2003, “A Letter Concerning Toleration”.

[x] For more on the distinction between misfortune and injustice see Shklar 1990.

[xi] See also Fraser 1997.

[xii] I am given pause by Appiah’s remark about the centrality of “black culture” in struggles for racial equality. “ It is not black culture that the racist disdains, but blacks.  There is no conflict of visions between black and white cultures that is the source of racial discord.  No amount of knowledge of the architectural achievements of Nubia or Kush guarantees respect for African Americans.  No African-American is entitled to greater concern because he is descended from a people who created jazz or produced Toni Morrison.  Culture is not the problem, and it is not the solution.” (Appiah 1997, 36; quoted in Barry 2001, 306)

[xiii] See Barry 2001 for more on this.




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