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Freedom, Morality and Self-Love? Reinterpreting Rousseau's Amour-propre as Fundamental for the Virtuous Citizen

Theodore Bass[1], Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick



This article provides an interpretation of a range of Rousseau's texts which ascribe crucial importance to the role of amour-propre (roughly, a form of self-love that is fuelled by the good opinions of others) in allowing humans to live virtuously, or more specifically, to live in accordance with the general will. First of all, I aim to show – contrary to what are termed 'primitivist' interpretations of Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality – that a positive role was intended for amour-propre. While this view is already held by some authors, I wish to go further beyond the parameters of simply suggesting that a more 'egalitarian' understanding of amour-propre, based on equal moral respect for individuals, can tame its 'inegalitarian' tendencies. While a new conception opens up contradictions as well as many new pitfalls for the ways in which amour-propre can go awry, I reconstruct Rousseau's Emile to provide a coherent account of how it must be cultivated from a young age. It then becomes clear that while this interpretation may be more complex, it has the potential to provide us with a fuller account of how healthy amour-propre must play a role in creating virtuous citizens.

Keywords: Rousseau, Amour-propre, Amour-de-soi, Self-love, Virtue, Justice, General will



Rousseau traces our development from the hypothetical starting point of a 'state of nature' to understand the process through which humans developed from solitary wild beasts into a society. 'Through frequent contact with one another' we became 'accustomed to consider different objects and to make comparisons' (Rousseau, 1987: 63). The sentiment rooted in this first instance of human self-consciousness is what Rousseau refers to as amour-propre. The fact, however, that the second discourse often associates this 'progress' from the state of nature to societal man with 'the decay of the species' (1987: 65) encourages a narrow view of amour-propre as a largely negative phenomenon. Amour-de-soi is idealised as the original benign form of self-love; a purely 'natural sentiment' concerned with animals' vigilance in their 'own preservation' (1987: 106). In this article, however, I aim to provide an understanding which incorporates Rousseau's claim that amour-propre, 'owe[s] what is best and worst among men, our virtues and our vices' (1987: 78). I therefore aim to distinguish between the potential for amour-propre's many dangers on the one hand, and its importance in the possibility of rationality, morality and freedom on the other.

I begin by showing, contrary to some existing views, that the second discourse's[2] apparent strict dichotomy – corrupt civilisation (amour-propre) or primitive innocence (amour-de-soi) – is 'too stark' (Dent, 2005: 79). Instead one can interpret from a wider range of texts that Rousseau intended a positive role for amour-propre. The following section shows how prevailing explanations which do account for this do not do justice to the complexities and possibilities of Rousseau's explanation. Cohen's construction of 'egalitarian' amour-propre – merely comparing oneself as equal, and therefore allowing us the opportunity to apply equal moral respect to one's fellow beings – of course plays a role in constructing the virtuous citizen. However, Rousseau ascribes importance to seemingly 'inegalitarian' desires to be esteemed, striving to be 'better' at one's particular attributes. The third section aims to suggest whether Rousseau's account makes possible the cultivation of respect and esteem given the contradictions thrown up by our new interpretation. This lays the groundwork for the final section which assesses how this new conception of healthy amour-propre is essential in motivating virtue, that is, in allowing us to adopt the standpoint of the general will. The conclusion will summarise and reiterate the intentions of Rousseau's project.

Amour-propre's artificiality

Rousseau presents the character of amour-propre in the second discourse as inherently combative and aggressive in nature: 'amour-propre [...] leads each individual to make more of himself than any other [and] causes all the mutual damage men inflict on one another' (1987: 106). When contrasted with 'the gentle and affectionate passions [...] born of amour-de-soi' (Rousseau, 1979: 213-14) it becomes easy, as Bloom suggests in a footnote to his translation, to see Rousseau as portraying 'two kinds of self-love, a good and a bad form' (1979: 484). Dunning subsequently jumps to a 'primitivist' interpretation of the second discourse: 'one idea alone appeared unmistakable [...] the natural state of man was vastly preferable to the social or civil state' (Dunning, cited in Lovejoy, 1933: 165). Yet this view fails to consider the subtle textual evidence presented in Emile, Rousseau's semi-novelised treatise on how a child (Emile) would be raised if placed in his charge. Here, amour-propre appears to assume a well-educated form capable of enriching and elevating human existence, instead of the inflamed form commonly believed to be natural to it. Rousseau suggests, for example, that 'amour-propre is a useful but dangerous instrument', elsewhere highlighting the possibility of 'transform[ing] it into a virtue' (1979: 244, 252).[3]

Rousseau's claim, therefore, that amour-propre is 'artificial and born in society' (1987: 106) is not a nostalgic idealisation of the original state of nature.[4] Instead, the claim that amour-propre is 'artificial' (that is, something made by human beings in society) is instead to point to its malleability in accordance with highly variable social and historical circumstances. For example, 'what position [Emile] will feel he has among men' and consequently whether his amour-propre 'will be humane and gentle or cruel and malignant' will be determined by his process of socialisation which will shape the desires that motivate him, while existing social institutions will inevitably encourage certain paths for acquiring social recognition while blocking others (1979: 235). Dent and O'Hagan concur, providing further evidence by citing a passage in Julie in which de Wolmar (Julie's husband) expresses that 'amour-propre [...] is indifferent, good or bad through the accidents that modify it and that depend upon customs, laws [...] and our whole human system' (1999: 101).

Most importantly – as the words 'customs' and 'laws' suggest – Rousseau claims that these historical and social relations are not entirely beyond the control of the humans whose self-conceptions they shape. Instead, he is careful to point out that they are contingent on human free will: 'nature alone does everything in the operations of an animal, whereas man contributes, as a free agent, to his own operations [...] often to his own detriment' (Rousseau, 1987: 44). Thus, the depiction of amour-de-soi as part of 'original human nature' is simply to show that at some point we were good, and that the inequality we see today is largely 'moral' (as opposed to 'physical'), and therefore less instituted by God than by human 'convention [...] authorized, by [perpetual] consent' of a flawed contract (1987: 38). [5] This is crucial in undermining the view which attributes a fixed and malevolent character to amour-propre. If our self-conceptions depend largely on our own wills, conventions and customs then it seems likely that forms of human intervention are capable of transforming a malleable amour-propre into a benign and even beneficial passion, such that individuals might satisfy their need for recognition from others in ways consistent with everyone's freedom and happiness.

Therefore, instead of concluding (as primitivist interpretations might suggest) that the objectives of the second discourse appear deeply confused and contradictory with Rousseau's later political writings, it is now possible to see clearer strands of coherence running through his work. Both Emile and The Social Contract, in particular, provide the particular forms of human intervention (namely, education and institutional reform) which provide the solution to the human predicament presented in the second discourse. Thus, contrary to Hobbes's project of accommodating the deficiencies of a fixed human nature, Rousseau's task is to investigate the social relations which shape amour-propre and give human motivation its form. Before showing how Rousseau intends to bypass the pitfalls of amour-propre and instead how it might be used to motivate virtuous citizens in the final two sections, we must first assess the complexity of the task in hand by analysing and refining what we take to be Rousseau's definition of amour-propre.

A broadened conception of amour-propre

Among those commentators who recognise the malleable and potentially positive character of amour-propre, the prevailing view is one which I aim to show as not entirely sufficient. This view, neatly exemplified by Cohen, makes a comparison between 'amour-propre [...] in two forms': an inflamed 'inegalitarian' form and a remedying 'egalitarian form' (Cohen, 2010: 98-102). Indeed, we might attribute Cohen's view to Kant here in the suggestion that healthy or 'egalitarian' amour-propre simply requires that all persons are given equal moral consideration in virtue of being (as Kant would suggest) free and rational agents.[6] Based on Rousseau's claim that 'man is the same in all stations [...] he sees the same passions, the same sentiments' (Rousseau, 1979: 225), Cohen describes a 'concern to be treated with respect' and that 'others ought to take his judgements and well-being equally into account' (Cohen, 2010: 102). It therefore follows for Cohen that the single source of 'inegalitarian' amour-propre is in the insatiable desire for superiority over one's fellow beings based on the degree of moral respect one claims for oneself relative to others: a 'demand on others that they think better of us than they think of themselves' (ibid.).

Although this view plays an important role in suggesting how amour-propre might motivate us for the common good,[7] it falls down by assuming that equal moral respect alone could be sufficient to satisfy the needs of amour-propre. Or more specifically, these commentators fail to distinguish between two forms of recognition which amour-propre requires: respect and esteem (Neuhouser, 2008: 63). The prevailing view focuses largely on equal moral respect, which is simply something all humans are entitled to in virtue of their 'common human nature' (Cohen, 2010: 102). Yet the amount of esteem one acquires will inevitably be unequal, varying from individual to individual. It is what we accord to others on the basis of one's particular qualities, advantages and accomplishments (Sachs, 1981: 352). This, in fact, is the initial sign of amour-propre and the 'first step towards inequality and [...] vice' described in the second discourse. 'Each one began to look at the others and wanted to be looked at himself', and thus 'the handsomest, the strongest [...] or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded'. Soon afterwards, the desire for equal moral respect appears distinctly: as 'the idea of consideration was formed in their minds, each one claimed to have a right to it' (Rousseau, 1987: 64). Because 'amour-propre is [...] a sentiment that is relative' (that is, relative to other subjects), both the desire for respect and esteem can therefore be said to constitute amour-propre. Thus, we might redefine amour-propre as relative in two senses (both in stark contrast to amour-de-soi which is 'only relative to itself' (Rousseau, 1979: 39)). The first is the desire is to have a certain standing or 'rank' relative to others (1979: 243). Note that a desire for equal respect is still standing relative to others, and therefore still counts as amour-propre. And secondly, a desire relative to others whereby the good 'opinion of others' is constitutive of the recognition one seeks; from where one 'draws the sentiment of [one's] own existence' (Rousseau, 1987: 81; my emphasis).[8]

Importantly, Rousseau does not appear to suggest that equal respect could ever obviate the desire for esteem. In fact, he encourages a desire for the latter. Once Emile has learned to regard himself as the moral equal of all humans he does not cease to care about his excellences as others perceive them. 'He will have the pride to want to do everything he does well, even to do it better than another' (Rousseau, 1979: 339).[9] There are, I believe, two reasons why Rousseau gives such importance to esteem as well as respect. Firstly, textual evidence aside, it seems that simply acquiring equal respect for characteristics one shares with the rest of one's species, while at the same time by way of accomplishments accepting that one is judged as distinctly and generally inferior, is unlikely to be wholly psychologically satisfying (Sachs, 1981: 351). Neuhouser (2008: 69) for example suggests that while respect is conferred primarily through behaviour and, in the first instance, 'external actions' towards one another, it is also natural for one to desire affirmation that comes from another's more 'internal' source, located in the 'inner' depths of their consciousness. Therefore, beyond external actions, it is another's ('true') opinions that one also cares about; what they really think.

Secondly, and crucially, Rousseau assigns an important role to the desire for esteem in motivating individuals to contribute to the well-being of all. Rousseau calls for 'the good employment of talents' (1979: 264). Elsewhere he suggests that 'man shall move upward [...] only through public approbation' (1986b: 229).[10] This problematises the conception outlined above that labels all individual desire for preeminence as an undesirable 'inegalitarian' amour-propre, since the desire for esteem is accorded unequally, as excellences come in different degrees. While 'egalitarian' amour-propre plays a role, it cannot account for how to cure and cultivate such inequalities.

Therefore, in order to show more specifically that amour-propre is necessary for virtuous conduct, we need to reconstruct Rousseau's account to see whether a healthy form of amour-propre is in fact possible, given the apparent contradictions between the desires for both respect and esteem which our new interpretation creates.

Cultivating amour-propre

First of all, how it is possible to prevent inflamed amour-propre in the first type of relativity, that is, how can one instill in Emile a correct understanding of the 'rank' he occupies relative to others? Here, the question of how to 'moralise man' by entering into legitimate civil society can be answered by ceasing to think of man as purely motivated by self-interest and by appealing to other sources of natural motivation in him, sources which are not moral in themselves, but which enable him to become moral and virtuous agents on entry into legitimate civil society (Chitty, 1994: 20). Rousseau makes pity the source of moral motivations, 'a natural sentiment' whereby one shares another's sufferings therefore feeling it oneself (Rousseau, 1987: 55).[11] In order to do this Rousseau suggests that the formation of pity must take place during adolescence, preceding the stirring of amour-propre. By empathising with the potential pains and sorrows of his rivals, Emile will be less likely to assume exaggerated and harmful desires for relative standing (when he comes to care about it), finding it easier to restrict such impulses. Pity will therefore, 'soften the ferocity of [...] amour-propre' (Rousseau, cited in Neuhouser, 2008: 175).

Yet there is another natural psychological resource at play. In Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages, he clarifies that 'pity [...] would remain forever inactive without imagination to set it in motion', letting ourselves be moved by pity 'by transporting ourselves outside ourselves; by identifying with the suffering being' (my emphasis, Rousseau, 1986a: 261).[12] In Emile, Rousseau again points to the importance of guiding imagination: 'it is the errors of imagination that transform the passions into vices', and in its absence 'one desires without knowing what'. Therefore, it seems that imagination plays an important role, that of 'activating' pity, in extending the reach of Emile's newly acquired sensitivity so as to direct pity to encompass other human beings. For example, Emile's tutor focuses on evoking experiences of the misfortunes of humanity; 'let him see, let him feel the human calamities. Unsettle and frighten his imagination' (Rousseau, 1979: 219-24). These impress on him the pervasiveness and universality of human suffering. Even the poor, who appear accustomed to their situation, 'feel' the pains and sorrows to which they are subjected (Neuhouser, 2008: 177). Embedded in him, Rousseau therefore emphasises, is this sense of moral equality so essential for virtue. 'Man is the same [...] he sees the same passions [and] sentiments' (Rousseau, 1979: 189), most notably in this case the ability to feel pain.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that the subsequent awakening of Emile's amour-propre occurs simultaneously with his exposure to social inequality. His newly acquired pity stands in tension with, and serves as a necessary counterbalance to, amour-propre's tendency to acquire an inflamed desire to acquire superior standing. Importantly, Emile comes to understand that excessive social disparities in wealth and power are rarely associated with one's genuine merit, and often require greater fortune or good luck. He therefore realises that 'the error most to be feared' is to 'believe himself worthier' (Rousseau, 1979: 245) since it is incompatible with what political justice and virtue require, namely his newly embedded equal moral respect of all citizens.

However, as argued in the previous section, while this account of how amour-propre may be cultivated is useful, it does not take account of the fact that healthy amour-propre desires more than acquiring equal comparative 'rank' among citizens. How then is amour-propre to be cultivated so that humans might acquire healthy desires for preeminence or esteem, that is, acquiring the good opinion of others? Here, 'until the guide of amour-propre', Emile must do 'nothing [...] in relation to others'.[13] Because 'he is seen and heard', he must do only what nature asks of him (Rousseau, 1979: 92). This includes exploring his natural capacities, including learning a skill (carpentry) in the absence of the distorted and arbitrary evaluative gaze of others. Thus Emile acquires standards which he himself understands and gives value to, independent of perverted evaluations whose only law is fashion or prejudice (1979: 339).[14] Thus, by the time Emile comes to give weight to the opinions of others, he will have built up a significant pool of self-esteem giving him confidence in the goodness of his own judgements: 'his reason, not someone else's' (1979: 201-207).

But even though acquiring an independent pool of self-esteem will prevent Emile from assigning too much importance to others' opinions, this does not detract from the fact that Emile, recall from above, will still want to be the best at what he does (Rousseau, 1987: 64).[15] Rousseau, however, aims to cultivate this drive to occupy 'the first position's in the eyes of others by transforming this general desire into the specific desire to be best for one person, namely Sophie. This potentially dangerous aspect of the desire for esteem is therefore used to secure the final important step in his education: a lifelong, monogamous relationship with Sophie. [16] But most importantly, although Emile is now the best only for one person, it is no less satisfying for his amour-propre. This is because marriage provides this private attestation to each other's worth a public conformation, a legalised 'objective' status in the eyes of all. Thus Emile is not just 'first for another' but 'first for another for everyone' (Neuhouser, 2008: 171).

The important point to note in concluding this section is that what at first seemed like an almost contradictory project, accommodating both a healthy desire for respect and esteem, now appears to be possible. For example, when the problem of esteem was first outlined, the way in which it is inevitably unequally distributed seemed contradictory to the objectives of applying 'egalitarian' amour-propre. Although some desires for pre-eminence appear to be inflamed or 'inegalitarian', we should not completely condemn such impulses. This is because, although Rousseau describes the importance of the desire for esteem, it seems to have to meet a rather strict criterion of universalisability in order to be deemed as healthy. This is why Emile must be 'best' for one person, since the inflamed desire to be best for everyone would impinge on their desire to be best.[17] Therefore, the esteem which Rousseau suggests we need does not pose a threat to the idea of equal moral respect, rather, it supplements it.

Pity and the desire for equal moral respect, therefore, provide a baseline, or hold a check on Emile's desire for esteem: instead of envying, he 'pities those miserable kings', who are 'enslaved' by their inflamed and 'empty' desires for preeminence, which often come hand in hand with jealousy, insecurity, obsession and pain (Rousseau, 1979: 244). Therefore, as I aim to show in the following section, if amour-propre's ability to create equal moral respect forms an important basis for virtue, then the desire for both this respect and esteem can be shown to be virtuous. Yet to suggest that esteem is simply an 'add-on' which must meet the requirements of equal moral respect to some extent undermines the importance which Rousseau ascribes to esteem which I have shown throughout. However, I aim to show below that there is one way in which Rousseau ascribes esteem crucial and distinctive importance.

Respect, esteem and virtue[18]

Having delineated what healthy amour-propre is and how it is possible to arrive at it, we may now focus more specifically on how it may bring virtue. In Rousseau's The Social Contract virtue is described as 'obedience to the law' (1987: 151) that is justice, or more specifically in the third discourse:[19] virtue is merely conformity of the particular [will] to the general will' (1987: 119). Only then do we 'consult [our] reason before listening to [our] inclinations' (1987: 150-51).Thus, if we can show how amour-propre can impel us to take the standpoint of reason (which is for Rousseau to adopt the general will) then we can show how it provides us with the cognitive capacities that open up the possibilities for morality, freedom and virtue.

Rousseau describes in the third discourse the general will's aim as 'securing the goods, life, and liberty of each member through the protection of all' (1987: 116). The rational legislator therefore asks whether each law will be consistent with the fundamental (as opposed to particular) interests – life and liberty – of all those governed under it. At this point, it may seem that Emile's 'natural', non-inflamed desire to be loved by his fellow beings brings with it an ability to engender in us a pressing need to anticipate others' desires, so that we may act in conformity with them. This seems to be the obvious aspect of amour-propre which reason requires for the general will. It gives us the ability to view the world from a standpoint other than our own; to live 'always outside ourselves' (1987: 81). Yet the key problem if we adopt this suggestion is that amour-propre in this instance is not necessary for fostering our capacity to anticipate others' desires. As suggested in the previous section, natural sentiments such as pity and imagination are capable of doing much the same. Indeed, Rousseau's account of amour-de-soir – a pre-societal, more instinctual form of self-love – may be at work here. Humans may be interdependent without showing desire for esteem or approval ('non-relative' desires); such as the desire to help others because of the pain we imagine to 'feel' ourselves when seeing one of our own suffer.

What, then, is distinctive about amour-propre in attributing to our reason, and therefore virtue? First it is necessary to show why natural sentiments – pity and imagination – alone fail to meet reason's ends, despite being able to on first appearance. Emile's pity is a 'sentiment', or a 'passion' and therefore must be guided by reason in order to produce reliable actions (Rousseau, 1979: 220). Naturally, for example, Emile's pity is described to extend only to his particular interests: the intimate circle of associates he lives among (1979: 233). Rather than serving justice, pity – no matter how widely extended by imagination – unconstrained by reason can lead us to distribute our beneficence arbitrarily (to the wrong subjects, or the right subjects in wrong amounts (Neuhouser, 2008: 222)). There is, therefore, a qualitative difference between the extension of natural sentiments such as pity and the extension of amour-de-soi to mankind as such, that is, when it is for the first time informed by a general notion and so made rational and principled ('generalise[d] [...] under the abstract idea of humanity' (Rousseau, 1979: 233)). This latter transition is what gives us the moral virtue of justice: 'the love of mankind is nothing other than the love of justice' (1979: 252). The transition requires us to abstract from the consideration of whether any particular person will be harmed or helped by an action. Becoming just, therefore, requires overruling the promptings of pity: 'to prevent pity from degenerating into weakness, it must [...] be generalised and extended to the whole of mankind. Then one yields to it only insofar as it accords with justice, because of all the virtues justice is the one that contributes most to the common good of men' (1979: 253).

The question therefore is how Emile is to make the transition from pity to justice, when justice is a virtue which has to overrule pity itself (Chitty, 1994: 52). Immediately after the question of generalisation, Rousseau suggests that this is where the awakening of amour-propre must take a positive role in Emile's moral development.[20] What amour-propre contributes to the proper ordering of pity is the idea that originates in its 'relative' character in the first sense mentioned above, namely the idea of the comparative worth of all individuals: 'the first look he casts on his fellows leads him to compare himself with them [...] where amour-de-soi turns to amour-propre' (Rousseau, 1979: 235). Amour-propre therefore makes comparisons where pity does not (Neuhouser, 2008: 223). This clarifies what was suggested but not made explicit in the previous section. Namely, natural sentiments are not sufficient, and Emile's subsequent tour to see the pains of human suffering plays on not only his pity and imagination, but most importantly – for his development of the moral virtue of justice – his amour-propre. Here, when he sees and feels others' pains and sorrows, it is amour-propre's idea of comparative worth which is cultivated in order to form the idea of equal moral worth, and without this and its reliable ordering of pity there can be no reason or virtue.[21]

This is because assigning equal moral worth or respect to all citizens means taking no-one's fundamental interests for more than anyone else's. This is what reason requires; adopting the general will means 'turning man back upon himself' (Rousseau, cited in Neuhouser, 2008: 196) and the putting to one side of one's own particular interests and desires such as the impulses of pity.[22] This means that citizens will endorse laws that harm their particular desires in order to safeguard the fundamental interests of all. Thus amour-propre plays the important role for reason, described above, in 'separating himself from himself [...] to look at the species in general in order to impose on himself duties whose connection with his particular constitution is not visible to him' (Rousseau, 1997b: 157). This form of abstraction from ourselves is why the general will is 'always right'; it allows one to 'appl[y] the word each to himself' (1997b: 157). In other words, we may adopt the perspective of an abstract 'each' that stands in for every particular member of the community.[23] Important in this latter quote is the meaning behind applying 'each to himself'. What this suggests is that in legislating for all, one takes the qualities that characterise 'each' to be the central aspects of one's own identity. More specifically, one regards what is common and essential to all humans as one's own most important interests. Furthermore, that one should then 'think [...] of himself as he votes for all' (Rousseau, 1987: 157) suggests that one's desire for equal moral respect enables a kind of affective identification with others, which allows one to will their good out of love for oneself (Neuhouser, 2008: 200-01).

As suggested at the end of the previous section, it may now be clear how a healthy desire for esteem, somewhat grounded by the ideal of equal moral respect, plays its part in creating virtuous citizens. Indeed, 'the universal desire for reputation [...] trains [...] talents' can be placed in the service of collectively beneficial ends (Rousseau, 1987: 78). In Considerations on the Government of Poland the most important task of education is to inculcate patriotism – or the desire for honor – in the hearts of free citizens; to be 'accustomed from an early moment to rules, to equality, to fraternity, to competitions, to living with the eyes of their fellow-citizens upon them, and to seeking public approbation'. Thus healthy amour-propre in this community will flourish towards moral and egalitarian ends 'because all their citizens know each other and keep an eye on each other' (Rousseau, cited in O'Hagan, 1999: 172).[24]

Yet there is one more related but distinctive reason why this desire for esteem, or more specifically the inevitable desire for the good opinion of others, is ascribed so much importance in Rousseau's texts, and subsequently, why there is such a flaw in suggesting that the desire for equal moral respect alone could bring us to be virtuous citizens. One way in which this desire of amour-propre differs from pity and amour-de-soi in that it leads one to care about,[25] and try to occupy the point of view others take on a specific object: ourselves. One who seeks others' good opinion is motivated to imagine how one's publicly visible actions and qualities appear to others, since what others see will elicit one's esteem. This incentive to learn and judge ourselves from an external perspective is crucial in allowing us to recognise others as active judging subjects, not merely passive, sentient beings (Neuhouser, 2008: 225). Therefore, the importance of the contribution of this desire is evident in the part it plays in allowing one to adopt the standpoint of reason described above. That is to distance oneself from one's own particular viewpoint (to 'separate himself from himself') where only one's own interests count, and therefore to regard oneself instead from an external perspective that considers only fundamental human interests which accord equal importance to the interests of everyone (Neuhouser, 2008: 227).

Indeed, Emile's education will be essential in preventing him from succumbing to arbitrary opinions of others, and instead judging himself from an abstract, impartial point of view. The important point to remember is that this cognitive ability to make oneself an object for reason (and therefore virtue) also originates in, and is a refinement of, amour-propre's desire for esteem. And while it is the source of many dangers, such a desire enables us to make our actions and traits conform to other peoples' perceptions of the good. It is rooted in the human desire to step outside our own subjective viewpoint and see ourselves through the eyes of the others whose good opinions we so desperately need.


We began with an interpretation which, contrary to primitivist interpretations, suggests a positive role for amour-propre. Before moving on to show precisely how virtue requires amour-propre, first it was necessary to broaden our conception beyond the parameters of simply associating healthy amour-propre as 'egalitarian' amour-propre. While the distinction between respect and esteem complies more accurately with Rousseau's texts, at first it appears to be riddled with contradictions: how can one apply equal moral respect to all when the immutable desire for esteem is always distributed unequally? On further investigation and reconstruction of Rousseau's account it appears that esteem can and must be tapered to the needs of equal moral respect. While at first this appears to diminish the importance of esteem, the previous section has shown that both desires provide us with essential capacities to adopt the standpoint of reason; to become virtuous citizens. Our desire for respect and comparative worth can be cultivated to motivate us to value equal moral respect so essential for adopting the general will. Furthermore, in accordance with this, the desire for the good opinion of others plays a vital role in providing us with the cognitive capacities to establish ourselves as an equal, and recognise the fundamental interests of all.




[1] Theodore Bass recently completed an undergraduate degree in Politics at the University of Warwick. He is currently taking a year out to earn money for further study, in addition to widening his academic knowledge. Though his interests are broad, he hopes to study for an MPhil in Politics and International Relations next year.

[2] This is how the literature commonly refers to Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality.

[3] Further textual evidence includes his suggestion that 'by awakening amour-propre [...] he showed [Emile] a happier future in the good employment of his talents' (1979: 264). Also see Rousseau's Geneva Manuscript (1997b: 159), where it is said that mankind must 'endeavor to derive from the evil itself the remedy which will cure it'.

[4] In Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues, Rousseau even explicitly states that 'one can never return to the times of innocence and equality when one has once left them; that is one of the principles which [I have] insisted the most' (Rousseau, 1990: 213).

[5] Here Rousseau suggests that 'moral or political inequality [...] depends on a kind of convention and is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men'. Gourevitch's 'Introduction' also elucidates the description of perpetual consent of a flawed contract in Rousseau's Considerations on the Government of Poland (Rousseau, 1997a: xxiii).

[6] The propagation of this view is also evident in Rawls, whose version of a healthy amour-propre is ensuring 'our equal standing is accepted and made secure in social arrangements' (Rawls, 2008: 199). Similarly, Dent cites Kant: 'by making comparisons' we either acquire an 'unjustifiable craving to win [superiority] over others' or 'to allow no one superiority above oneself'. He subsequently endorses the similar view that 'demands of any one individual's amour-propre can be met consistently with those of each and every other person [...] relating to one another on a footing of equality and mutual respect' (Dent, 2005: 105-06).

[7] I explicate this role further in the final section.

[8] Further evidence or this can be found in Rousseau's Emile(1979: 39, 213).

[9] Rousseau goes on: Emile will want to be 'the swiftest at running, the strongest at wrestling, the most competent at working' (Rousseau, 1979: 339).

[10] For further evidence we can go back as early as Rousseau's Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, where he attributes his admiration for the 'genius' of Descartes and Newton, suggesting that 'the wise man [...] is not insensitive to glory' (Rousseau, 1987: 17, 20).

[11] This is why Cooper suggests it is 'an expression of amour-de-soi' (1999: 24). This consideration will become important in the following section.

[12] Also see Emile where Rousseau suggests that imagination allows one 'to feel oneself in one's fellows' (1979: 222).

[13] Recall that this is the first form amour-propre takes. Therefore Neuhouser suggests that it is a more 'primitive' form, hence why it must be cultivated from an earlier age (2008: 65). Cultivating esteem, therefore, is the task of books one to three of Emile.

[14] Rousseau goes on to give examples of the kind of esteem Emile will avoid seeking: '[Emile] will hardly seek advantages which are not clear in themselves and which need to be established by another's judgment, such as being more intelligent than someone else, talking better, being more learned, etc.; still less will he seek those advantages which are not at all connected with one's person, such as being of nobler birth, being esteemed richer, more influential, or more respected, or making an impression by greater pomp' (1979: 339).

[15] I take this from Rousseau's suggestion that Emile will want to be the 'handsomest', the 'strongest' and so on (1979: 339).

[16] Chitty suggests this marriage therefore legalisation plays an important role in settling Emile's 'anger at the prospect of her changing her mind' (1994: 46).

[17] Neuhouser endorses the point that healthy esteem is possible when grounded in equal moral respect when he says egalitarianism 'does not rule out all such desires, because a desire to do better than others in some particular respect is compatible with others satisfying similar desires of their own' (2008: 100).

[18] I begin the following section (as before) by assessing the first of these two desires.

[19] This is how the literature commonly refers to Rousseau's Discourse on Political Economy.

[20] This is the point where his amour-propre will be either 'humane and gentle or cruel an malignant' (1979: 235).

[21] This cultivation is what Chitty describes as 'transforming pity into the love of justice by turning this tendency to self-comparison towards other ends' (1994: 53).

[22] As Rousseau puts it, 'the silence of the passions' (1997b: 157).

[23] Neuhouser (2008: 197) suggests, therefore, that the general will 'is general [...] in a sense that approximates Kant's understanding of the universality of a rationally legislating will'. Under this view citizens decide on a law with a 'universalizability test' to see if one's opinion on the law could be shared by every other citizen insofar as it affects their own fundamental interests. This helps to explain further the criterion of universalisability which equal moral respect requires, described at the end of the previous section.

[24] Subsequently, O'Hagan suggests esteem's moral incentives - 'the moral glue that holds the legitimate state together' will replace extortionate financial ones (O'Hagan, 1999: 172)

[25] More specifically, the distinction between amour-propre and amour-de-soi here is that the former leads us to care about others' opinions of our deeds and qualities for reasons that are not instrumental (because meeting others' expectations is required if my labour is to command a price on the marketplace, for example). For amour-propre's drive to make us really care, in this sense, about how one appears to others is because one take one's actions and traits to reflect (in the public' s eye) what stands behind those appearances, the ultimate object of one's concern: one's 'self'. Thus Neuhouser suggests that because of these non-instrumental standards of worth, 'the self-examination that amour-propre impels individuals to undertake is much closer to moral self-assessment than anything amour-de-soi (or pity) can engender'. (2008: 227).



Primary sources

Rousseau, J. (1979), in Bloom, A. (trans.), Emile: or On Education, New York: Basic Books

Rousseau, J. (1986a), in Gourevitch V. (trans. and ed.), The First and Second Discourses Together with the Replies to Critics and Essay on the Origin of Languages, New York: Harper and Row

Rousseau, J. (1986b), in Watkins F. (trans. and ed.), Political writings, University of Wisconsin Press

Rousseau, J. (1987), in Cress D. (trans. and ed.), The Basic Political Writings, Hackett Publishing

Rousseau, J. (1990), in Kelly C. and R. Masters (trans. and ed.), The Collected Writings of Rousseau: Volume 1, University Press of New England

Rousseau, J. (1997a), in Gourevitch V. (trans. and ed.), The Discourses and Earlier Political Writings, Cambridge University Press.

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Chitty, A. (1994), 'Needs in the Philosophy of History: Rousseau to Marx', unpublished PhD thesis, Oxford University

Cohen, J. (2010), Rousseau: a free community of equals, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cooper, L. (1999), Rousseau, Nature, and the Problem of the Good Life, Pennsylvania State Press

Dent, N. (2005), Rousseau, London: Routledge

Dent, N. and T. O'Hagan (1999), 'Rousseau on 'Amour-propre'', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 99, 57-73

Lovejoy, A. (1933), 'The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau's 'Discourse on Inequality'', Modern Philology, 21 (2), 165-86

Neuhouser, F. (2008), Rousseau's Theodicy of Self-Love, Oxford University Press

O'Hagan, T. (1999), Rousseau, Routledge

Rawls, J. (2008), in Freeman S. (ed.), John Rawls: Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Harvard University Press

Sachs, D. (1981), 'How to Distinguish Self-Respect from Self-Esteem', Philosophy & Public Affairs, 10 (4), 346-60



To cite this paper please use the following details: Bass, T., 'Freedom, Morality and Self-Love? Reinterpreting Rousseau's amour-propre as fundamental for the virtuous citizen,' Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 6, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.