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Published in:  Brian Thorne & Elke Lambers  Person-Centred Therapy.  A European Perspective.  London:  Sage Publications (1998)



Unconditional Positive Regard and its Spiritual Implications


Campbell Purton



Aimer un etre, c’est lui dire: ‘Toi, tu ne mourras pas.’

                                                                                                Gabriel Marcel



In this chapter I want to explore some important but little-discussed

aspects of what is involved in the therapeutic condition which Rogers

called ‘unconditional positive regard’ (UPR). Of the three core conditions

UPR is the one which seems most open to criticism or even to ridicule. For

while empathy and congruence are often not easy qualities to embody,

there is nothing in principle which makes the effort absurd. In the case of

UPR the situation is arguably different. For a start, ‘unconditional positive

regard’ is a technical term, rather than a naturally existing phrase whose

normal use in the language could be explored as we might explore, say, the

use of the term ‘genuineness’. With an invented phrase like UPR there is

less certainty that the phrase corresponds to anything real at all. Nor does

the fact that its component terms have established meanings prove that if

has a clear meaning. (Consider the analogous example that although’ loose’

and ‘adjective’ have established meanings, it does not follow that ‘loose

adjective’ has a clear meaning.)



The puzzle of UPR


In the case of UPR, Rogers and person-centred writers generally do make

use of other terms as near-equivalents in meaning (for example ‘acceptance’,

‘prizing’, ‘respect’ and ‘warmth’), but then a different difficulty arises: these

terms differ in meaning among themselves. Consider for instance ‘respect’

and ‘warmth’. The dictionary suggests for ‘respect’: 1. Admiration felt

towards a person or thing that has good qualities or achievements; politeness

arising from this. 2. Attention, consideration.’ But for the relevant kind of

use of ‘warm’ we read: 1. Enthusiastic, hearty. 2. Kindly and affectionate’.

It seems that ‘respect’ is a term with definite ethical or value-oriented

implications: the respected person must be seen as having good qualities,

and given that they have these qualities they deserve our respect. ‘Warmth’,

on the other hand, seems to have much less of an ethical tone; whether it is

right or valuable to be warm with someone is more a matter of the context

and of what that person (at that time) wants. Some people thrive on hearty

enthusiasm and affectionate hugs; others find a certain coolness to be

refreshing. Rogers in giving alternative terms was undoubtedly trying to find

the best words to convey an attitude which he had identified as therapeutic; I

am suggesting, however, that just what that attitude’s requires further



A more substantial concern about UPR is that on reflection it may seem

not only that, as an invented phrase, UPR might not have a determinate

meaning, but that its component terms almost guarantee that it is a

meaningless notion. One surely has positive regard for things which are

seen as in some way good or appealing, negative regard for things bad or

unlikeable. ‘Unconditional positive regard’ seems to mean positive regard

for things whether they are good or not, which seems either incompre-

hensible or to involve a sort of mad sentimentality. (Consider the corre-

sponding phrase ‘unconditional negative regard’ - if comprehensible at all

such an attitude would seem to involve a mad degree of cynicism.) So we

are led to the uncomfortable thought that UPR may not be so much a

vague or indeterminate phrase like ‘loose adjective’, but more of a contra-

diction in terms, like ‘square circle’.


There is enough here at least to raise doubts about the notion of UPR,

and such doubts often half-surface in discussions of the topic amongst

counsellors. It is sometimes said, for example, that UPR is very difficult to

maintain for long, that it is all very well within the limits of counselling

sessions, but cannot possibly be adopted in life generally, that it is difficult

to adopt the attitude while being honest about one’s own values, and so on.

These ‘difficulties’ and feelings of unease arise from very deep-rooted issues

which I aim to explore in this chapter. My conclusion will be that the notion

of UPR cannot be salvaged unless we adopt a particular view of the person

which it is natural to call a ‘spiritual’ view. In this way my discussion links

with one trend within the person-centred school of thought. It is well known

that Rogers in the course of his life moved away from a religious worldview,

and person-centred theory, while not necessarily hostile to such a view, is

not generally seen as having any implications of a religious kind. On the

other hand, late in his life Rogers (1980, 1986) seems to have turned

somewhat towards a ‘spiritual’ view of the world, and some writers in the

person-centred tradition have seen this not just as something idiosyncratic

to Rogers, but as a natural development in the evolution of person-centred

theory.1 The arguments I present here can be seen as supporting the latter view2 .   I seek to show that the concept of unconditional positive regard

cannot properly be employed without taking a view of the person that is

essentially ‘spiritual’. This is, of course, a provocative claim, but if it is false

then I hope that an examination of the arguments that lead me to it may at

least bring to light important aspects of what we are up to when we, as

counsellors, try to foster an attitude of unconditional positive regard

towards our clients.



Unconditional valuing


The crucial thing about UPR seems to be the notion of the unconditional

valuing of a person. In Rogers’s view it is conditional valuing of people

(especially by parents) which tends to give rise to a self-concept which is

out of step with the person’s own experiencing. In the simplest possible

terms, the child feels that they are accepted/respected on condition that

they are such-and-such (honest, kind, polite, etc.); also, although this is less

often remarked on, the child may feel more accepted when they are more

polite, for example. Since the need for acceptance and respect is strong and

universal in human beings, the child is faced with a dilemma whenever

their own feelings do not coincide with the ‘conditions of worth’ that are

implicit in  the parents’  attitude.  The  effectiveness  of counselling, in

Rogers’s view, derives from the fact that it provides a setting in which

conditions of worth are not laid down. That is, the counsellor tries to

adopt an attitude in which he or she respects the client whether or not the

client has certain qualities, and whether or not the client has any quality to

any particular degree. The ideal counselling attitude is one of absolute

respect, not respect; that is relative to the way the client happens to be. The

theory, at least, is that if the counsellor honestly respects the client abso-

lutely, whatever feelings or attitudes the client has, then the client will no

longer need to pretend to be other than they are, and will be released into

being fully themselves, into being fully authentic.


The concept of unconditional respect is central to Rogers’s theory of

therapy, but it is also, as I have indicated, a deeply puzzling notion.

Normally we respect someone for some particular characteristics which they

have, and which we see as good. We speak of deserving respect and earning

respect, all of which seems to show that respect is normally an attitude

which is conditional on a person being a particular way. Respecting

someone seems to be in that way similar to liking them: if they change we

may well not like them so much (or may like them better). Prizing and

valuing seem to be similar sorts of notions - we prize or value people (or

things) for their characteristics, and their capacities to meet our needs, and if

these characteristics change then there is no necessary expectation that the

prizing or valuing will continue. The only near-synonym of  ‘unconditional

positive regard’ which does seem to allow fairly naturally for the uncon-

ditional aspect is ‘love’, but this is unhelpful unless we are clearer about

what love’ means than we are about what ‘unconditional .positive regard’

means!  However, since some of what I say in this chapter may raise doubts

about whether UPR is possible at all, it may be worth remembering that we

do sometimes at least see love as unconditional, or not grounded in any

reasons. It doesn’t sound odd to hear someone say ‘I don’t know why I

love you’, whereas the remark ‘I don’t know why I respect you’ at least

requires some kind of special context or explanation in order to be intel-

ligible. Some people experience the unconditional form of love in connec-

tion with their children: there are parents who can honestly say ‘Whatever

you do, whatever you become, I will still love you.’ Of course, someone may

say this, and then when the testing time comes find that their love falters.

That is possible, but the continuation of this sort of love regardless of all

circumstances also seems possible. The concept of love (one sort of love)

allows at least for this as a possibility, whereas it seems clear that the

concept of liking does not. The reader may be relieved (or disappointed) to

know that I will not mention love again until the very end of my discussion;

but I think it is important, in reflecting on the rather artificial-sounding

notion of UPR, that we do have a familiar, well-established notion that is

logically very similar to it. If it should come to seem that UPR really is an

unacceptable or unintelligible notion, then we will have to look very hard at

the notion of love, in the relevant sense, as well.

The difficulty about the unconditionality of UPR, or ‘unconditional

respect’ as I shall usually call it, is one of which most client-centred coun-

sellors are acutely aware; that is, how, with certain clients, can one possibly

embody the core conditions of congruence and unconditional respect at

the same time? An answer which is quite often given in this context is that

one can accept (respect)3 the client while not accepting (respecting) the

client’s actions. I think there is something in this, but in a way it just raises

our problem in a different form, namely, how is it possible to think of

the person as separate from what they do? Of course, we can separate ‘the

person’ from particular things they do, as when we make allowances for

bad behaviour (‘She is really a fair-minded person, but she has been under

a lot of pressure lately’). We may even separate ‘the person’ from certain of

their character traits (‘He is really a considerate person in spite of his short

temper’). Yet these sorts of cases get us no further in the direction of

unconditional respect. For in these cases we are saying, in effect, that we

respect or value the person for what they are ‘on the whole’ or ‘for the

most part’, and that this overall respect for their good qualities (their

‘redeeming features’) allows us to tolerate certain lapses’ or ‘difficult bits

of their personality’. Unconditional respect, by contrast, would make no

reference to what the person is like ‘on the whole’; unconditional respect

must allow for the case where a person has no redeeming features, no

characteristics which deserve our respect.


The dilemma could be put like this: either the person does deserve our

respect, in which case they must be in some way respectworthy and our

respect must be conditional upon them being that way; or, the person does

not deserve our respect, in which case our respect (if we do feel it), is

inappropriate. The sort of inappropriateness we have here can, I think, be

identified as sentimentality, an emotional attitude in which positive feeling

clouds rational perception of a genuinely negative situation. (Not the case

of the parent who loves’ their child in spite of everything but, for example,

the case of seeing the child as honest while knowing, really, that he is not.)

So another way of putting my central question would be: is unconditional

respect necessarily a sentimental attitude? In brief, my answer will be: not

necessarily, but the conditions for it not being sentimental involve a view of

human beings that is essentially spiritual. In other words I shall argue that

unless we see people as essentially spiritual beings UPR is sentimental.


Aspects of the self


I will begin my main discussion by distinguishing some different aspects of

‘the person’ or ‘self.  UPR involves the possibility of respecting a person in

spite of all the empirical evidence showing that they are unworthy of

respect. There is some sort of distinction being made here between the

‘essential self (which is worthy of respect) and the ‘empirical self (which is

not), and this distinction needs to be explored. Consider first two different

situations, those of Anneka and of Theodore:


 Anneka is someone who naturally has a rather directive, bossy side to her

personality. She enjoys telling people what to do. Her parents are very tolerant,

accepting people, except when it comes to bossiness, which they do not approve

of at all. Anneka learns to disguise her bossiness but the self-deception becomes

hard to maintain. Unable to understand her own feelings and behaviour, she seeks

counselling help. With the help of the counsellor she comes to acknowledge her

bossy side, and indeed comes to think that it is not altogether a bad characteristic

to have. Amongst other things she joins the Territorial Army and there finds

plenty of scope for ordering people around without any need to feel guilty about

it.  She is able to respect herself in spite of her bossy  tendencies,  through growing

to have some positive regard for what she naturally is. It could be said that

Anneka solves her problem by integrating the previously rejected tendencies into

her personality as a whole.


This is a happy ending, but is such an ending always possible?


Theodore has suppressed his awareness that he has a cruel streak to his nature,

that he can actually enjoy inflicting pain. (Conditions of worth in his kind, gentle

family don’t allow acknowledgement of cruel tendencies.) In counselling he

comes to acknowledge his cruel streak. Knowing how Anneka successfully

handled her problem, Theodore considers the possibility of taking up some

occupation where he can harmlessly indulge his cruelty - perhaps he should train

as a dentist? But on reflection this feels quite wrong: it would be unethical to

enjoy causing pain to his patients, even if the pain were an unavoidable conse-

quence of dental treatment. He doesn’t want to be that sort of person. Theodore

does not wisn to integrate his cruel tendency: he wants it not to be there. The

tension of ‘this situation could of course lead to him suppressing awareness of his

cruel impulses again, but he does not want to return to such a condition of

incongruence either. So it seems he has to live with the knowledge that to some

extent he is not th6 sort of person he would like to be.

But what if someone is not prepared to accept that they are ‘not the sort of

person they want to be’? What way forward is possible for someone who

(a)  is no longer able to deceive themselves about their inclination to X,

(b)  is unable to see Xng as integratable behaviour; that is, as acceptable

at least in certain circumstances,

(c)  is unable to accept themselves as they are?


The most obvious way would be to accept that although one’s character is

flawed it doesn’t have to remain flawed. I accept that I have a reprehensible

inclination to X, but I see this as something I can work on, something I can

change in myself. I identify with the part of myself that desires the change;

I side against the cruel bit of me. I don’t want to integrate it; I want to

eliminate it. But am I not then mutilating myself, killing what is a genuine,

though unlikeable part of myself? This seems to go against self-acceptance,

against unconditional respect for myself; for this is the way I am.


However, an interesting response is possible here: what if I say ‘This

cruel bit is not really part of me; it is alien to me. Hence in getting rid of it

I am not mutilating myself, but removing something which I see as

analogous to an alien growth, or a distortion of my “essential nature”.’ If I

say this I am making a distinction between what belongs to my ‘essential

nature’, and what does not so belong. My cruelty, my desire to cause pain,

I see as a desire that is external to, or a distortion of, my essential self.

Note that the distinction being made here is different from that between

‘self-concept’ and ‘real self which is the only distinction that is relevant in

the case of Anneka. Anneka initially felt she was an amiable sort of person.

She then realized that she had an intolerant, bossy side to her nature, and

came to see that the wholly amiable Anneka was a distorted picture of her

real self. She subsequently found a niche ill the Territorial Army where her

‘bossy’ behaviour seemed harmless and even valuable, and thus was able to

live fully in an authentic and undistorted way at last. The initial part of the

story is the same in the case of Theodore, who realizes that his wholly kind

persona or self-concept is a distorted version of his real self, which contains

a cruel streak. However, Theodore cannot and does not wish to integrate

his cruelty, to accept it as an essential part of his nature. The question now

is whether it makes any sense for Theodore to see the ‘real self’ that he has

discovered as a distortion of some still deeper self, which he calls his

‘essential self’. That is, does it make sense for Theodore to say that while

he really has a cruel streak, this cruel streak is not an essential part of his

nature? If this option is not open to him, then Theodore will either have to

resign himself to being a cruel person, or return to a state of incongruence,

or remain alienated from part of himself. But to make the move of saying

that he is not ‘essentially’ cruel is fraught with possibilities of renewed self-

deception, and also runs the risk of conceptualizing the ‘essential self’ as an

unchanging entity, thus going against Rogers’s conception of the self as a

flux, as an embodiment of an ‘actualizing tendency’. What can it mean for

a person to claim that they are not ‘essentially’ that which they undeniably

are? And how can a person ‘have an essential self while not being identi-

fied with a fixed, unchanging entity? These are the questions which will

occupy me in the rest of the chapter.



‘Essential self and ‘original Innocence’


First let me mention a possibility which may initially seem attractive, but

which does not really get us anywhere. It is the possibility of identifying the

‘essential self with a person’s ‘original self’. For instance, I may suppose

that I was kind as a child, but then experienced life situations that led me

to develop a hard, cruel streak as a survival strategy. Or, I may suppose

that I was naturally kind, but my father had a cruel streak and I introjected

this aspect of his character. Or I may have been influenced by reading

Rousseau, or other Romantic thinkers who see early childhood as a state

of innocence which is gradually corrupted by the societies in which we live

(‘the noble savage’). Can I then not identify my ‘essential self’ with my

‘original self’, and see certain aspects of my empirical self as distortions of

my original self?


There are two difficulties with this sort of view. One is that it simply may

not be true in the particular case in question. For it surely could turn out

that my cruel streak was not developed as a defence strategy or introjected

from anyone; perhaps I was just born like that. Without some theological

or anthropological theory of ‘primal innocence’ there is no guarantee that

one’s original state was innocent; to assume this could well just be wishful



The second, and perhaps decisive, objection is that even if people do begin

life in a state of innocence, this innocence may be manifestly destroyed

through subsequent events. To say that a person was once innocent is not to

say that they are in any sense innocent now. Life may not have distorted my

nature, but changed it. To say that I am not essentially cruel on the grounds

that I was once not cruel is no more intelligible than saying my car is

essentially rust-free, on the grounds that it was once rust-free.

Yet while the ‘original innocence’ view doesn’t stand up to close exami-

nation, as a picture or a myth it does seem to catch something of the feel of

the ‘essential self’, the self in its primal state where it is unclouded, undis-

torted by extraneous defects. The question is whether this picture must

remain just a picture (which will draw from the tough-minded the charge of

sentimentality), or whether we can exhibit certain features of the human

situation which show how the picture has a genuine use, and is not a

matter of sentimental imagining.


First- and second-order desires


Let us return to the point that ‘Theodore is cruel, but he would like not to

be’. He identifies with that part of himself which wants to change, siding

against the cruel bit. He would like to eliminate the cruel streak. It is

undeniable that human beings are capable of wanting not to have the

desires they have, and of wanting to have desires they don’t have. Such

desires about one’s own desires have been termed by Harry Frankfurt

(1971)  ‘second-order desires’. (For simplicity I shall refer mostly to

‘desires’, but second-order aversions or fears should be understood to be

included as well.) The capacity to have second-order desires is, Frankfurt

argues, a characteristic which we do not share with the animals, and if this

is so it would not be surprising if this capacity were fairly central to the

notion of a personal as distinct from an animal self. Part of what is

involved in being a person is that one can, as it were, stand back and

evaluate one’s own desires and fears. A person, for this reason, cannot be

seen as simply the sum of the first-order desires and other propensities

which they happen to have.


This, I think, is what really lies behind our feeling that in wishing to

eliminate his cruel streak, Theodore is not mutilating himself. The wish to

remove the cruel streak is a second-order desire characteristic of Theodore

as a person, while the cruel streak itself is a first-order desire. The conflict

which Theodore experiences is not a conflict between two first-order

desires, such as the conflict between wanting to go to a party and wanting

to have an early night; it is a conflict between a person and one of his first-

order desires.


The distinction here is not merely an academic one. Especially striking

examples arise in the case of addictions, where the addict is not balancing

his craving for a drug against his other desires, but simply wishes to be free

of the craving. The craving is, in Frankfurt’s (1976) terminology, an

‘external desire’. Similarly the person who has an irrational fear of spiders

seldom wishes to integrate this fear into the rest of her life; she wants to be

free of it. But it is not only in cases like these that the issue of ‘external

desires’ arises. It is a familiar and pervasive aspect of all our lives. I think

for instance of a client I once had who was involved in a relationship from

which he could not free himself. At first it seemed to me that his situation

could be characterized as one in which he had two desires in conflict with

each other: a desire to stay with the girl, and a desire to get her out of his

life. But when I reflected his account back to him in these terms he quickly

put me right, saying that he wouldn’t want to waste our time just dithering

between the options: he knew what he wanted, which was to get away from

her. His problem was not that of deciding what he wanted most, but that

of overcoming a desire he did not want to have at all. He did not

experience this desire as intrinsic to his nature; the desire was an ‘external

desire’. The problem, however, is that external desires may still be deeply



Let us suppose that Theodore’s cruel streak really is deeply embedded in

him. It is not a superficial bit of conditioning, reaction formation or

introjection. It connects in deep and complex ways with all sorts of other

attitudes and desires which he has. It is in an important sense part of his

nature, and precisely that is what constitutes his painful moral situation.

Now can we say all this and still maintain that his cruelty is external to

him, a distortion of what he essentially is? It seems that we can, on

condition that there is in Theodore some desire to be different from the

way he is (something that may show up not only in what he honestly says,

but in his feelings of regret, guilt, remorse, etc.). Our attitude to Theodore

is likely to be radically different if we see him as having some desire to

change. If he clearly has this second-order desire to change then our

attitude towards him may be not very unlike the attitude we might have

towards someone who is excessively timid, but bravely tries to overcome

their fears. We regret the timidity, but respect them for trying to overcome

it. The more we appreciate how hard Theodore struggles against his cruel

impulses, the more we respect him.


It seems then that our respect for a person is bound up with our view of

them as having the capacity to evaluate and struggle with their first-order

desires and aversions. However, Frankfurt’s terminology of ‘second-order’

desires, although useful in introducing the topic, can now be misleading. It

suggests that first-order and second-order desires are more similar than

they really are. A second-order desire is not just another desire which a

person ‘has’ - it is that person’s evaluation of their own desires. Consider

the person who wants a cigarette but doesn’t want to want it. ‘Wanting a

cigarette’ is simply a desire, a state of mind that has arisen. But ‘wanting

not to want it’ means something like ‘reflecting that on balance this isn’t

good for me’; it expresses an evaluative choice, not a desire in the ordinary

sense. We could say that the difference between first- and second-order

desires is really that between desires and values, and this helps to make it

clearer how respect becomes appropriate for beings who have second-order

desires. Such beings are those who reflect in terms of values, who reflect

in terms of which, desires are worthwhile and which are not. In short,

any being of this sort is a moral agent, and while we may disagree with the

content of their morality, we respect them for their engagement in the

moral world.


The question arises of whether a person could grow up without devel-

oping any second-order propensities to evaluate their first-order self. It is

tempting to say that this is an empirical question which can only be

answered by psychological or sociological surveys, but I doubt whether this

is  correct.  Given  the  social  context  of personal  life,  with  the  crucial

importance that other people play in the development of a child,4 it is hard

to see how a human being could develop as a person without acquiring

some sense of their desires and behaviour being open to assessment, as

being possibly, and in various ways, ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Such evaluative

awareness of oneself may not be very explicit, but I agree with Frankfurt

that something of this kind of self-awareness, this having of second-order

attitudes, is part of; what is involved in a distinctively personal conscious-

ness. We see (some) animals as having desires and fears, but we don’t see

them as being able to reflect on those desires and fears with a view to

whether they should act on them or not. (I mean this as a remark about our

concept of an animal as distinct from our concept of a person; if evidence

should accumulate that dolphins, for example, reflect on their desires, then

I would count dolphins as non-human persons.)


Let me now summarise what I hope to have shown, before drawing the

rather surprising implications for spirituality which I believe to follow.


We began with the question of how UPR is possible, given that what a

person does may not be worthy of respect. It began to seem possible that

UPR is a downright sentimental attitude: i.e. one that involves feelings that

are inappropriate to their object, an attitude involving emotional dishonesty.

If Jones acts in a way that we cannot respect, how can we honestly say that

we respect him? The only way through this seemed to be by distinguishing

Jones’s essential self from his empirical self, and although this distinction

was not easy to elucidate, I argued that the distinction can be made once we

appreciate that our respect for a person is linked with their second-order

rather than with their first-order propensities. Simply by being a person

Jones has the capacity to stand back from himself (from his first-order self),

and reflect on and evaluate his desires and aversions. In so far as Jones

enjoys a personal form of consciousness at all he engages in this sort of

activity to some extent, however faint and flickering it may be. But this sort

of activity, this orientation towards the question of what is good or valuable,

is worthy of respect. Hence any being of a personal nature is worthy of

respect, regardless of the nature of their first-order self. This, in my view, is

why unconditional respect is an appropriate attitude to persons. Strictly

speaking, the respect is not unconditional (all unsentimental respect is

conditional upon its object being in some way good), but given that the

being that is respected is a person, no further conditions are required. People

unconditionally deserve our respect.


The Implications for spirituality


In getting this far we have introduced a conception of the person which

sees people as beings different in kind from animals. Animals have desires

but people can take up attitudes towards the desires they have, and it is this

which introduces the attitude of unconditional respect which is peculiarly

appropriate to persons. Now this much seems to me quite consistent with a

humanist, rather than a spiritual, approach to persons. People are not just

animals, because they have second-order desires, the existence of which is

bound up with the peculiarly social nature of the human form of life. But

there seems to be nothing here beyond what can be elucidated in humanist

terms. I think that this first part of the argument can stand on its own, and

it may be as far as we can go. However, there is a possible development of

the argument which, if valid, leads to the conclusion not only that person!

are deserving of unconditional respect, but that the nature of beings which

are deserving of unconditional respect is inevitably a spiritual nature.5 By a

spiritual nature I mean what I think has traditionally been meant by this

namely, that the nature of persons cannot be wholly elucidated in terms of

their lives ‘in this world’, that there is a dimension to personal existence

that goes ‘beyond this life’.


For this final development of the argument I need to return to the point

that the reason that unconditional respect is appropriate to persons, is that

persons are the sort of being who can assess and struggle with their

first-order propensities, their desires, their fears. Respect is due for the first-

order propensities and the actions that spring from them, only in so far as

those propensities have been developed through effort that is worthy of



The unconditional respect which it is appropriate to feel towards people

is thus linked not so much with what they empirically do and are, but with

their second-order desires to change (or maintain) what they do and are.

Now ‘desire’ is a rather vague term, and it needs to be made clear that the

kind of desire in question must involve a genuine hope rather than merely

an idle wish. If Theodore’s ‘desire’ to eliminate his cruel streak amounts

only to him saying to himself, ‘Ah, it would be nice not to have these cruel

impulses, but there it is, the leopard can’t change its spots’, then I think

our (appropriate) response to this would not be one of respect at all. We

can’t appropriately respect someone’s resignation to continue with their

cruel behaviour. In short, it is not enough for respect that the person

should dislike an aspect of themselves, or have some ideal of being differ-

ent; what is needed is some attempt at, or at least some hope for, change -

however fleeting.


Now if someone is to make the attempt to change, or at the very least

hope for change, they must believe that it is possible for them to change.

(Logically one cannot attempt to do, or hope for, something one believes

to be impossible.) Sometimes this belief or hope will be quite a reasonable

one. If Theodore’s cruel streak is not very deeply embedded, then he may

well have reason to hope that in due course, and with effort, he will

succeed. But what if the cruelty is deeply embedded? It is this case which is

the interesting one, since it is here that we encounter the most acute moral

difficulty: the person who knows that they have a deeply embedded trait

which they nevertheless regard as external to, or a distortion of, their

essential nature. If they are to see the trait as such a distortion they must

have some hope of eliminating it, but they may also (correctly) believe that

the years left to them in this life cannot possibly be enough for them to do

so. It would seem to follow that if they are to see the trait both as deeply

embedded and as a distortion of their essential self then they must see their

existence as somehow extending beyond their present life.


An analogy may help here. What we are trying to do is make sense of

the claim that a person who manifestly is, for example, cruel, is not ‘really’

or ‘essentially’ cruel. But the situation is not like the one we had with

Anneka: Anneka is not really the compliant person she appeared to be.

‘Not really’ means here that when we look more closely we see that her

compliant nature is a kind of deception. She is not what she seems. An

analogy would be that we first see Anneka at the Territorial Army cabaret

and notice that she: has red hair. But then someone points out that it is just

an effect of the lighting; it is an illusion. Really, her hair is blonde. The

case we are concerned with is not like that at all. It is in no ordinary sense

an illusion that Theodore is cruel. The analogy would rather be: we see

Theodore in the dentist’s waiting room under normal lighting, and we

notice that he has red hair. But then someone points out that his hair ‘is

not really red, it is dyed’. The redness of Theodore’s hair is in no ordinary

sense an illusion, yet it makes perfectly good sense to say that his hair is not

really red. It makes sense, that is, because of a whole context that is being

taken for granted: if we accept the point about Theodore’s hair not really

being red it is because we believe that he did not originally have red hair,

and that the red will soon grow out. The fact is that in the present

Theodore’s hair is, by all ordinary criteria red, so that if in spite of this we

say it is not ‘really’ red, we must be assuming something about the past or

the future which makes sense of our assertion. Similarly, if by all ordinary

criteria Theodore in the present is cruel, but we assert that he is not ‘really’

cruel, we must be assuming something about the past or the future of

Theodore which makes sense of this assertion. But we have seen that

innocence in the past is not enough; the only possibility remaining seems to

be a future in which Theodore has overcome his cruelty, and if the cruelty

is deeply embedded in his character, that future cannot arrive within the

span of his present life.


As one further way of looking at it, consider the case of someone for

whom we find it difficult to take up an attitude of unconditional respect.

Consider Hitler, for example. Since Hitler was a person, and persons are

worthy of unconditional respect, it follows that Hitler was worthy of

unconditional respect. But if the whole truth about Hitler is constituted by

the details of his empirical biography, unconditional respect seems out of

place. There must therefore be more to Hitler than his empirical biography.

It seems that unconditional respect for Hitler can only mean respect for

what Hitler potentially is: it means not writing him off, in spite of there

being no empirical reasons for supposing that Hitler can ever realize his

authentic spiritual nature. The empirical biographical truth about Hitler

cannot be the whole truth if unconditional respect is appropriate to people



Since this conclusion may seem surprising (and no doubt, to some,

totally bizarre), it will be helpful to review what is involved. The starting

point is our need to distinguish between ‘essential self and ‘empirical self

if we are to be able to take up (unsentimentally) an attitude of uncon-

ditional respect towards a person. We cannot unconditionally and unsenti-

mentally respect the empirical selves of most people, including of course

ourselves. (Let us leave aside here the possibility of saints or fully enlight-

ened beings!) So we picture it like this: we respect not the empirical self we

see before us but the essential self of which the empirical self is a distorted

form. But if this picture is to make any sense we must see it as possible for

the distortions to be removed; yet that, in the case of even moderately

embedded traits, involves there being more possibilities available for

change than this life can provide. Hence if we are to respect a person

unconditionally and  unsentimentally, we must see their development as

containing possibilities which go beyond the possibilities of their present

empirical existence.


Needless to say, the argument does nothing to establish how or even in

what sense persons extend beyond their empirical lives. The conclusion of

the argument is only that somehow it must be so, but nothing follows

about how we should picture its being so; whether, for example, in terms

of purgatory, or repeated lives on earth, or life in some other dimension of

reality.  A character in  one  of Iris  Murdoch’s  novels remarks in this

connection, These are images, the truth lies beyond’ (Murdoch, 1978: 384).

I think that we reach the limits of discursive language here and have no

option but to employ images and pictures. The truth of the matter is

expressed in the pictures, and perhaps can only be so expressed.6


This matter of the expression of the truth in pictures is also relevant to

the doubt I raised earlier concerning whether talk of an ‘essential self’ goes

against a ‘process view’ of the self. While not having space to go into this

in the detail it deserves, I would say that we need to see people as being

wholly respectworthy irrespective of what they empirically are (this is

precisely the attitude of unconditional respect), and that it helps us to do

this if we picture them as having, now, an ‘essential self to which our

respect may be directed. But this ‘essential self is not an empirical reality,

a real unchanging entity. Empirically, the self is a flux, but that is not the

whole truth for anyone who adopts an attitude of unconditional respect

towards a person.7 The remainder of the truth is not empirical at all; it is a

matter of faith, of hope, of the spiritual imagination.



Conclusion         I


I would emphasize that, even if it is valid, my argument does not prove

that human beings are spiritual entities who in some way extend beyond

the limits of their empirical lives. The most it can show is that if we adopt

an attitude of (unsentimental) unconditional respect towards a human

being then we arc ipso facto seeing them as having an essential self of which

their empirical self is a distorted form; and if the last bit of the argument is

valid what also follows is that we are ipso facto seeing their essential self as

unlimited by the temporal confines of their present life. Those who

welcome a spiritual attitude towards human beings may be pleased with

this conclusion. Those who regard a spiritual view of life as false will, if the

argument is valid, need to work it backwards. From their basic belief that

human beings are not spiritual entities extending beyond their empirical

lifespan, they will deduce that adopting an attitude of unconditional

positive regard towards them is sentimental.


The argument, if valid, makes life difficult only for those who would like

to hold on to the idea of unconditional positive regard (or, let us finally

risk saying, to the idea of love in the relevant sense), without seeing human

beings as spiritual entities. I hope that it could make life a bit easier for

those who, like myself, want to be able to see human beings as spiritual

entities, yet do not like sentimentality or disregard for rational argument

For if the argument is valid it means we can, rationally and without

sentimentality, assert with Gabriel Marcel’s Antoine: ‘To love someone is

to say to them, “You will not die”.’                  ‘





1 See Thome (1992: 105-7).


2 In developing these arguments I am much indebted to a series of interrelated

papers by Harry Frankfurt (1971, 1976, 1987) and Terence Penelhum (1971, 1979,

1984). But in connection with the last part of the argument I also have had in mind

Plato’s view of the soul as the moral part of the person which cannot be banned by

death (e.g. Crito, 47e; Gorgias 521-2); Gabriel Marcel’s ‘Value and immortality’ (in

Marcel, 1962) and his The Mystery of Being (1960) Part 2, Ch. 9; also a remark of

Wittgenstein’s reported by Norman Malcolm (1958: 71): ‘a way in which the notion

of immortality can acquire a meaning is through one’s feeling that one has duties

from which one cannot be released, even by death.’


3 I do not really think that ‘respect’ and ‘acceptance’ are equivalent terms, but

the distinction is not very relevant here. I have discussed the distinction briefly in an

earlier paper (Purton, 1996).


4 I have discussed the essentially social nature of personal existence in relation to

counselling theory elsewhere (Purton, 1993).


5 The argument is essentially that of Penelhum (1979, 1984).


6 See Wittgenstein (1966: 70-1).


7 The issues here have been discussed for many centuries in Buddhist Mahayana

philosophy (see for example Hookham, 1991). On the level of ‘ordinary truth’ the

self is a flux, is ‘empty’ of any real independent existence. But such talk of ‘empti-

ness’ by some Buddhist philosophers (the ‘Emptiness-of-self  school) can be

misleading, and subversive of the idea of spiritual progress towards enlightenment.

So it is said by other philosophers (the ‘Emptiness-of-other’ school) that (on the

level of ‘absolute truth’) the essential Buddha-nature is eternally there in all beings,

and that the Buddha-nature is not itself empty of real existence; rather, it is empty

of everything else. Now this would seem to bring back the notion of a real,

unchanging self (atman) that Buddhism has always denied, but it does not have to

have this implication if it is understood as a picture, an imaginative construction, a

way of seeing things adopted for a spiritual purpose.


8 This koan-like remark by Antoine in Marcel’s play ‘Le Mart de demain’ (in

Marcel, 1931, Act 2, Scene 6, p. 161) is one to which he often refers in his

philosophical writings. For example Marcel (1960, Vol. 2: 68-9, 171; 1962: 147;

1965: 103). I am grateful to Anne Marcel for tracking down this reference for me.




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