Moral narcissism explains a lot

Roger Simon devotes a Commentary magazine article to a particular brand of narcissism that has infected our culture.

That form is moral narcissism—a pathology that underlies the whole liberal left ethic today and some of the right as well. What exactly is this form of narcissism that is destroying—if it hasn’t already destroyed—our families, friendships, workplace atmosphere, and democratic republic?

The short form is this: What you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe—not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be—defines you as a person and makes you “good.” It is how your life will be judged by others and by yourself. In 19th-century France, the gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin told us that “you are what you eat.” In 21st-century America, almost all of us seem to have concluded that “you are what you say you are. You are what you proclaim your values to be, irrespective of their consequences.” That is moral narcissism.

It is a narcissism that emanates from a supposed personal virtue augmented by a supposed intellectual clarity. It is what allows Hillary Clinton to go from undergraduate scold to Chappaqua plutocrat with a net worth in the tens of millions without missing a beat, or John Kerry to go from Vietnam War protester likening his fellow soldiers to Genghis Khan to a billionaire with a yacht constructed in New Zealand that he houses in Rhode Island to avoid the taxes of his native Massachusetts.

This is a narcissism of political and social thought, a narcissism that evolved as religion declined, a narcissism of ideas and attitudes, a narcissism of “I know best,” of “I believe therefore I am.” It is our identity tied up inextricably to our belief system in a way that brooks no examination. It is a narcissism of groupthink that makes you assume you are better than you are because you have the same received and conventional ideas as your peers, a mutual reward system not unlike the French concept of BTBG—bon type, bon genre—but taken to a national extreme. There is only one way to be, one kind of idea and attitude to have. There are no others. Why even bother to look, consider, or try to understand them?

And those ideas and attitudes are “reflected” in the following narcissistic manner: If your intentions are good, if they conform to the general received values of your friends, family, and co-workers, what a person of your class and social milieu is supposed to think, everything is fine. You are that “good” person. You are ratified. You can do anything you wish. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what the results of those ideas and beliefs are, or how society, the country, and in some cases, the world suffers from them. It doesn’t matter that they misfire completely, cause terror attacks, illness, death, riots in the inner city, or national bankruptcy. You will be applauded and approved of. Like the 1960s song by The Animals, it’s all okay “if your intentions are good.” No one will even notice what happened. You’ll be fine. In fact, better than that, your status will continue to rise as you continue to parrot the received wisdom.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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