Rousseau, one of the fathers of modern democracy, distinguished between two types of primal egotism: amour de soi and amour propre. Both mean “self-love,” but they are radically different. Amour de soi is the biological drive for self-preservation. Amour propre originates in the competition for a sexual mate, and it seeks the esteem of others.
One Rousseau scholar describes amour propre as “the insatiable desire for superiority over one’s fellow beings based on the degree of moral respect one claims for oneself relative to others.” Another goes further. He writes that amour propre represents “a demand on others that they think better of us than they think of themselves.” That seems, in the current moment, just about right.
Rousseau did imagine a bright side to amour propre, in which the quality would regulate itself democratically, with people taming their basest hypocrisies in order not to devalue themselves by appearing sanctimonious. But the ability to tame the deepest impulses to vaunt one’s moral superiority over other people, to the point that they think better of you than they think of themselves, depends on a precious quality: self-esteem. If you respect yourself, you do not need to inflate your virtue to win others’ respect.
We inhabit, however, the most culturally and socially fluid environment in the history of mankind. The Internet makes any fantasy seem real, while social media isolate us and make us continuously uncertain of our moral standing among our peers and colleagues. This leads to moral accusation and denunciation—the quickest shortcuts to superior standing and moral invulnerability.
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