The past few days, I've been appreciating the Grinch's perspective on Christmas -- particularly his desire to drop all the presents off Mount Crumpit. An easy perspective for me to adopt! I've already got my toys (mostly books via Amazon, purchased any old time I like), and there's such a grouchy self-satisfaction in scoffing, with moralistic disdain, at others' desire for their own favorite luxuries.
When I write about jerks -- and the Grinch is a capital one -- it's always with two types of ambivalence. First, I worry that the term invites the mistaken thought that there is a particular and readily identifiable species of people, "jerks", who are different in kind from the rest of us. Second, I worry about the extent to which using this term rightly turns the camera upon me myself: Who am I to call someone a jerk? Maybe I'm the jerk here!
My Grinchy attitudes are, I think, the jerk bubbling up in me; and as I step back from the moral condemnations toward which I'm tempted, I find myself reflecting on why jerks make bad moralists.
A jerk, in my semi-technical definition, is someone who fails to appropriately respect the individual perspectives of the people around him, treating them as tools or objects to be manipulated, or idiots to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers with a variety of potentially valuable perspectives. The Grinch doesn't respect the Whos, doesn't value their perspectives. He doesn't see why they might enjoy presents and songs, and he doesn't accord any weight to their desires for such things. This is moral and epistemic failure, intertwined.
The jerk fails as a moralist -- fails, that is, in the epistemic task of discovering moral truths -- for at least three reasons.
(1.) Mercy is, I think, near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything everyone does falls short of perfection. Her turn of phrase is less than perfect, she arrives a bit late, her clothes are tacky, her gesture irritable, her choice somewhat selfish, her coffee less than frugal, her melody trite -- one can create quite a list! Practical mercy involves letting these quibbles pass forgiven or even better entirely unnoticed, even if a complaint, were it made, would be just. The jerk appreciates neither the other's difficulties in attaining all the perfections he himself (imagines he) has nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralizing principle comes naturally to the jerk, while it is alien to the jerk's opposite, the sweetheart. The jerk will sometimes give mercy, but if he does, he does so unequally -- the flaws and foibles that are forgiven are exactly the ones the jerk recognizes in himself or has other special reasons to be willing to forgive.
(2.) The jerk, in failing to respect the perspectives of others, fails to appreciate the delight others feel in things he does not himself enjoy -- just as the Grinch fails to appreciate the Whos' presents and songs. He is thus blind to the diversity of human goods and human ways of life, which sets his principles badly askew.
(3.) The jerk, in failing to respect the perspectives of others, fails to be open to frank feedback from those who disagree with him. Unless you respect another person, it is difficult to be open to accepting the possible truth in hard moral criticisms from that person, and it is difficult to triangulate epistemically with that person as a peer, appreciating what might be right in that person's view and wrong in your own. This general epistemic handicap shows especially in moral judgment, where bias is rampant and peer feedback essential.
For these reasons, and probably others, the jerk suffers from severe epistemic shortcomings in his moral theorizing. I am thus tempted to say that the first question of moral theorizing should not be something abstract like "what is to be done?" or "what is the ethical good?" but rather "am I a jerk?" -- or more precisely, "to what extent and in what ways am I a jerk?" The ethicist who does not frankly confront herself on this matter, and who does not begin to execute repairs, works with deficient tools. Good first-person ethics precedes good second-person and third-person ethics.