As you might know, I'm working on a theory of jerks. Here's the central idea a nutshell:
The jerk is someone who culpably fails to respect the perspectives of other people around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers.The characteristic phenomenology of the jerk is "I'm important and I'm surrounded by idiots!" To the jerk, it's a felt injustice that he must wait in the post-office line like anyone else. To the jerk, the flight attendant asking him to hang up his phone is a fool or a nobody unjustifiably interfering with his business. Students and employees are lazy complainers. Low-level staff failed to achieve meaningful careers through their own incompetence. (If the jerk himself is in a low-level position, it's either a rung on the way up or the result of injustices against him.)
My thought today is: It is partly constitutive of being a jerk that the jerk lacks moral self-knowledge of his jerkitude. Part of what it is to fail to respect the perspectives of others around you is to fail to see your dismissive attitude toward them as morally inappropriate. The person who disregards the moral and intellectual perspectives of others, if he also acutely feels the wrongness of doing so -- well, by that very token, he exhibits some non-trivial degree of respect for the perspectives of others. He is not the picture-perfect jerk.
It is possible for the picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. "So what, yeah, I'm a jerk," he might say. As long as this label carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk's moral self-ignorance remains. Maybe he thinks the world is a world of jerks and suckers and he is only claiming his own. Or maybe he superficially accepts the label "jerk", without accepting the full moral loading upon it, as a useful strategy for silencing criticism. It is exactly contrary to the nature of the jerk to sympathetically imagine moral criticism for his jerkitude, feeling shame as a result.
Not all moral vices are like this. The coward might be loathe to confront her cowardice and might be motivated to self-flattering rationalization, but it is not intrinsic to cowardice that one fails fully to appreciate one’s cowardice. Similarly for intemperance, cruelty, greed, dishonesty. One can be painfully ashamed of one’s dishonesty and resolve to be more honest in the future; and this resolution might or might not affect how honest one in fact is. Resolving does not make it so. But the moment one painfully realizes one’s jerkitude, one already, in that very moment and for that very reason, deviates from the profile of the ideal jerk.
There's an interesting instability here: Genuinely worrying about its being so helps to make it not so; but then if you take comfort in that fact and cease worrying, you have undermined the basis of that comfort.