Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Aaron James's Theory of Assholes

The nature and management of assholes -- or as I generally prefer to say, jerks -- deserves far more attention than it has received thus far in moral psychology. Thus, I commend to your attention Aaron James's recent book Assholes: A Theory.

James defines an asshole as follows. The asshole

(1.) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2.) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3.) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p. 5).
Nuances of ordinary usage aside, it does seem to me that this captures an important type of person, and one deserving of the epithet.

Two of James's insights about the asshole particularly strike me. First, why is the asshole so infuriating, even when the harm he does is slight? James's answer is that the asshole's entrenched sense of entitlement -- the asshole's refusal to treat others as equals -- adds particular sting to the injuries he forces upon us. It's not just that he cuts in line or takes the last two cookies for himself. It's that, even when confronted, he refuses to recognize us as deserving equal consideration for line position and cookie consumption. A mere jerk (in James's terminology) might be moved upon reflection to confess the wrongness of his actions (even if still refusing to yield the second cookie) but all such appeals slide off the asshole. In fact, the more you protest, the more the asshole glazes over and rises, in his own mind, above you. (Here I go somewhat beyond James's own remarks, but I hope I remain within his general spirit.)

Second -- and equally infuriating -- the asshole, unlike the psychopath, is morally motivated. It's not just "morality be damned, I'm getting mine!" Rather, the asshole feels morally entitled to special advantages. An injustice is done, he feels, if he has to wait in the post office line equally with everyone else. After all, he's not a mere schmoe like you! Sanctimonious selfishness is the mark of the asshole.

However, I think James hits one wrong note repeatedly in the book, concerning the asshole's self-knowledge. For example, in the conclusion of his book -- his "Letter to an Asshole" -- he addresses the asshole with remarks like this: "we should ask about the nature of your own presumed special moral status" (p. 198) and "I address you here to give you... an argument that you really should come to recognize others as equals, that you should in this way change your basic way of being" (p. 190). This is off key, I think, because many assholes, perhaps most, would not explicitly acknowledge, even privately to themselves, that they deserve special moral consideration; they would not deny that "all men are created equal" -- in the morally relevant sense of "equal". Rather, I suggest, their spontaneous reactions and their moral judgments about particular cases reveal that they implicitly regard others as undeserving of full moral consideration; but when pushed to verbalize, and when reflecting in their usual self-congratulatory mode, they will deny that this is in fact their view.

Why shouldn't the asshole wait his turn in the post office line, then, in his own mind? Well, it's not that others aren't his equals -- not really -- it's just that he is particularly busy, since he owns his own business, or that he's a particularly important person around town, since he's a distinguished professor at the local university, or... whatever. Anyone else in the same position would (the asshole insists) deserve exactly the same special treatment! It's not that he's inherently superior, he says, but rather that he has achieved something that others have not, and this is entitles him to special privileges. Or: I've got especially important stuff going on today! Alternatively, if achievement and importance-based rationalizations aren't handy, the asshole has the following ready fallback: Cutting in line if you can get away with it is just how this game is supposed to work. Others could easily do so too, if they were more on the ball, if they weren't such cow-like fools. (But not in front of me! Part of the game is also enforcing your line position against intruders; too bad for them that those other people didn't.)

Conveniently for him, there always seems to be a rationalization lying around somewhere. All men are created equal, of course, of course! But not all achieve the same and not everyone can take first place.

Update, Nov. 8: Aaron James has launched a blog on assholes.

12 comments:

exapologist said...

Nailed it.

BNT said...

Three quarks should take notice-- this is some fine conceptual analysis here, and more useful to me than more posts about realization, side-effects, causal powers, or whatever.

jordanhorowitz said...

I think whether those moral views are implicit or explicit depends on the asshole in question.

A Randian asshole might readily tell you that others are not as deserving of consideration as he himself is.

I suspect that the asshole with the implicit views is more common but there are definitely exceptions to the rule.

Carl M. said...

The genius of being an asshole is that I'M NOT THE ASSHOLE, YOU'RE THE ASSHOLE.

Cf. the Dunning–Kruger effect.

Callan S. said...

but rather that he has achieved something that others have not

Yeah, I told him that, even as he put the cuffs on...wouldn't have accepted me putting the cuffs on him! Asshole! Acted like his position was part of the institution...

Oh wait, we do condone imbalanced, inequal positions, don't we...

;)

But when someone plays the wrong game, well - we don't say he's playing the wrong game. He's an asshole, instead...strange, that.

Scott Bakker said...

Dunning-Kruger, but also a greater liability to commit fundamental attribution errors more generally.

I've actually come to prize assholes myself, because I've learned you can make them characters in your books without any fear whatsoever that they'll recognize themselves! I've even suffered the complicated joy of sitting and listening to assholes describe what assholes they were in fiction.

But I fear this means I'll never be able to write an autobiography in any possible world!

Anonymous said...

Scott says:

"you can make them characters in your books without any fear whatsoever that they'll recognize themselves!"

I wonder if this applies to Aaron's model and inspiration as well.

Unknown said...


Condition 1 raises the following question: can you suck at being an asshole? That is, could you be bad at being an asshole in so far as you *allow* yourself to enjoy special advantages but fail, due to incompetence and/or bad luck, to actually accrue those advantages?

A simple example: I'm quite prepared to allow myself two slices of cake even though I know that there is just enough cake for everyone at the party. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to put down my son prior to getting to the cake table. So, due to lack of preparedness, I can only walk away with one slice of cake, which is all I can carry with my remaining hand.

According to condition 1 I'm I still an asshole, albeit one that's really bad at being an asshole.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unknown: Interesting thought! Maybe this person is good at being an asshole but bad at reaping the benefits? For some reason, I am struck by an experience I once noticed of an asshole driver on the freeway, swerving, cutting people off, tailgating, who seemed to be *falling behind* the average flow of traffic due to his poor tactical choices in doing these things.

"Allowing" is a funny term in this context, since it seems to have a tinge of a "success" term in this context, and yet also one doesn't always get one one is allowed.

Jonathan Finch said...

Hello Everyone,

Not bad, I see what they want to do. I am not sure one could not look at the virtues and vices of Plato/Aristotle/Aquinas (C.S Lewis has a very good treatment of the virtues and vices in his "Mere Christianity" and his "Screwtape Letters") and get a pretty good idea of what it is to be an asshole.

With a bit up-dating these older thoughts would give one lots of ways to classify assholes. Some people are 'cheap' or an asshole when it comes giving but have courage when it comes to 'promises of pleasure or threats of pain.' Others eat too much and will grab the two pieces of cake, 'the glutton,' but are very witty. Since the term asshole covers so much territory it would seem useful to start making a more distinct list of annoying behavior or types of assholes.

Given that asshole is a noun and is thus different in meaning from the phrase 'acting like an asshole' one might want to maintain that the state of being an 'asshole' is also a temporal concept. One must demonstrate ass-hole like behavior over time and in many cases to rise to the full rank of asshole. Being an asshole needs to come from 'a firm or regular state of character' to paraphrase Aristotle as I would maintain nearly everyone has acted like an asshole at least few times in their lives but that this does not make them assholes in the full sense.

Finally one might also want to consider writing a defense of assholes; lots of assholes, or people acting like assholes, have shaped history. Moses was not being very nice, perhaps even acting like an asshole, when he killed the 3,000 worshipping the golden calf, etc. It is not always possible to play to nice and get the results needed for survival, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I especially like your last point, Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

How can anyone force anything on another adult?

Physically yes otherwise No. Eleanor Roosevelt said "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent."

Saying as an adult that anyone can treat me unequal means I'm a victim.

All people aren't created equal, treating others equal if possible is interesting, some won't allow to be treated equal.

Judging a person an asshole or jerk is also a error in my my unentitled opinion (I'm not entitled to my opinion until I know yours (if I want to know yours) and then my choose to leave my opinion at the door.

To judge you means I would have to know your past, present and future which is impossible. Most people mature.

The whole asshole theory is adolescent and