There's a very negative connotation surrounding the phrase "self-righteous". There shouldn't be. Admittedly, there's a natural distaste when someone's moral standards seem unnecessarily lofty and more heavily advertised than our own. However, one cannot be righteous on behalf of others. One can only be righteous on behalf of one's self.
Condemnation of self-righteousness is often a slippery condemnation of righteousness itself. This may be one's intent, but that's a surprisingly dark flavor of moral nihilism, reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker.
Batman's nemesis was set on eliminating any manner of righteousness, due to--what he sees as--its inherent phoniness and antithesis to our animalistic human soul. Modern reasonable men and women are obsessed with shades of gray, but at the end of the day we all need to lighten up when someone decides they want to actually stand for something.
Let's look at a Rick Santorum. If there is a politician who comes to mind as being self-righteous, it is he. He touts his religion as being the highest ethic. He upholds (should-be) antiquated ideas about homosexuality. Let's presume, for the sake of argument, that Santorum is heterosexual (which is probably an okay assumption to make, but one which shouldn't be taken for granted). If he is a heterosexual, and touts the ethical importance of heterosexuality, then he is called self-righteous. If he is someday found to be homosexual--and these kinds of flip flogs are not alien occurrences in modern times--then he is called a hypocrite.
It would seem that, for Santorum to avoid criticism for his ethical beliefs, he must either 1) share the beliefs of everyone listening or 2) not share his beliefs publicly.
At this point, you may say, "Why can't he keep his ethics to himself?"
Did we insist on the same ethical isolationism from Al Gore when he was telling us to recycle? No, we generally accepted Al Gore's ethics as actually righteous, which sounds way more righteous than "self-righteousness". The reason for this was simply... we agreed with Gore.
Even when we found out that Gore's eight mansions all require nine liquified private jets per day to power the mosquito-zapper on the veranda, we didn't condemn him because we know his message is more important than the messenger. Just as we (hopefully) wouldn't condemn an anti-smoking crusader who backslides to a pack of Camel Lights, because the greater cause is more important than than any one instance of a dude smoking.
What I see most when I see people use the phrase "self-righteous" -- often with a scoffing indignation -- is insecurity. Why should advocacy of a moral idea be such a turn-off?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. I was excited to someday be a man of the cloth and I remember being somewhat surprised that EVERYBODY didn't share this aspiration. At least among the faithful, which,in my community, was sorta everyone. To my way of thinking, if you hold a set of sacred beliefs, why wouldn't you aspire to the highest level of sanctity possible? I'm not saying everyone would make it there, but to not even aim for the the highest calling would be like playing the video-game of reality and calling it quits after you beat the first mini-boss. If eternal salvation was real, it seemed pretty FUCKING important. So important, in fact, that it was unfathomable to me that some believers weren't interested in doing God's most important work: rescuing other souls while securing a seemingly guaranteed spot in paradice.
Now that I'm an adult and I've succumbed the addictive sensations of factual knowledge and syllogistic reasoning, salvation may not be in the cards for me, but I am still appalled by the supposedly faithful who only participate in a luke-warm manner. I don't think I could live with myself if I truly believed in liturgical scripture and didn't spend every waking moment helping the poor and spreading the word of God like free tickets to our sinking ship's life-raft.
Maybe that's just me being self-righteous. But true participation in any type of elevation would seem to include sharing one's successes with others, no? Unless you're the Joker and you believe that mankind's highest calling is... every man for himself.
So feel free to dispute Santorums views as moronic. But don't accuse him of touting unpopular, and essentially indefensible social policies for his own personal glory. To him, rehabilitation of the homosexual lifestyle is just as humble a gift to his creater as the Sistine Chapel was by Michelangelo.
"Never do unto others as you would have others do unto you. They might have different tastes."