Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Jerk-Sweetie Spectrum

A central question of moral epistemology is, or should be: Am I a jerk? Until you figure that one out, you probably ought to be cautious in morally assessing others.

But how to know if you're a jerk? It's not obvious. Some jerks seem aware of their jerkitude, but most seem to lack self-knowledge. So can you rule out the possibility that you're one of those self-ignorant jerks? Maybe a general theory of jerks will help!

I'm inclined to think of the jerk as 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 characteristic phenomenology of the jerk is "I'm important, and I'm surrounded by idiots!" However, the jerk needn't explicitly think that way, as long as his behavior and reactions fit the mold. Also, the jerk might regard other high-status people as important and regard people with manifestly superior knowledge as non-idiots.

To the jerk, the line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it's a felt injustice that he must wait while they bumble around with their requests. To the jerk, the flight attendant is not an individual doing her best in a difficult job, but the most available face of the corporation he berates for trying to force him to hang up his phone. To the jerk, the people waiting to board the train are not a latticework of equals with interesting lives and valuable projects but rather stupid schmoes to be nudged and edged out and cut off. Students and employees are lazy complainers. Low-level staff are people who failed to achieve meaningful careers through their own incompetence who ought to take the scut work and clean up the messes. (If he is in a low-level position, it's a just a rung on the way up or a result of crimes against him.)

Inconveniencing others tends not to register in the jerk's mind. Some academic examples drawn from some of my friends' reports: a professor who schedules his office hours at 7 pm Friday evenings to ensure that students won't come (and who then doesn't always show up himself); a TA who tried to reschedule his section times (after all the undergrads had already signed up and presumably arranged their own schedules accordingly) because they interfered with his napping schedule, and who then, when the staffperson refused to implement this change, met with the department chair to have the staffer reprimanded (fortunately, the chair would have none of it); the professor who harshly penalizes students for typos in their essays but whose syllabus is full of typos.

These examples suggest two derivative features of the jerk: a tendency to exhibit jerkish behavior mostly down the social hierarchy and a lack of self-knowledge of how one will be perceived by others. The first feature follows from the tendency to treat people as objects to be manipulated. Manipulating those with power requires at least a surface-level respect. Since jerkitude is most often displayed down the social ladder, people of high social status often have no idea who the jerks are. It's the secretaries, the students, the waitresses who know, not the CEO. The second feature follows from the limited perspective-taking: If one does not value others' perspectives, there's not likely to be much inclination to climb into their minds to imagine how one will be perceived by them.

In considering whether you yourself are a jerk, you might take comfort in the fact that you have never scheduled your office hours for Friday night or asked 70 people to rearrange their schedules for your nap. But it would be a mistake to comfort oneself so easily. There are many manifestations of jerkitude, and even hard-core jerks are only going to exhibit a sample. The most sophisticated, self-delusional jerks also employ the following clever trick: Find one domain in which one's behavior is exemplary and dwell upon that as proof of one's rectitude. Often, too, the jerk emits an aura of self-serving moral indignation -- partly, perhaps, as an anticipated defense against the potential criticisms of others, and partly due to his failure to think about how others' seemingly immoral actions might be justified from their own point of view.

The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart or the sweetie. The sweetie is vividly aware of the perspectives of others around him -- seeing them as individual people who merit concern as equals, whose desires and interests and opinions and goals warrant attention and respect. The sweetie offers his place in line to the hurried shopper, spends extra time helping the student in need, calls up an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude.

Being reluctant to think of other people as jerks is one indicator of being a sweetie: The sweetie charitably sees things from the jerk's point of view! In contrast, the jerk will err toward seeing others as jerks.

We are all of us, no doubt, part jerk and part sweetie. The perfect jerk is a cardboard fiction. We occupy different points in the middle of the jerk-sweetie spectrum, and different contexts will call out the jerk and the sweetie in different people. No way do I think there's going to be a clean sorting.

I'm accumulating examples of jerkish behavior here. Please add your own! I'm interested both in cases that conform to the theory above that those that don't seem to.

Compare also Aaron James's theory of assholes, which I discuss here.


Helen De Cruz said...

The problem here is the bias blind spot, which has been demonstrated in, for instance, the better than average illusion. While high cognitive ability can counter some biases, the bias blind spot seems to be quite resilient to it, e.g., people believe that they are better than average in assessing their own ability to fall for biases! See this paper,%20Meserve,%20%26%20Stanovich%20(2012).pdf

Combined with the empirical work on moral self-licencing (as reviewed here:
the prediction is that most people would place themselves on the sweetie side of the spectrum

You could easily test this by creating a short online survey with a slider that goes from total sweetie to total jerk and you would probably find that most people put themselves at the sweetie end. It would be interesting to see what predicts jerkhood, e.g., occupational status, yearly income, gender, or how people behave on a standard economic game such as the dictator game.

clasqm said...

You define a jerk as "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."

But before you can go on, you really do have some cleaning up to do here. This definition is loaded with unsupported assumptions.

* create a scale of appropriate respectfulness.
* Prove the non-idiocy status of the people around the jerk
* Prove the peer status of these people
* demonstrate the value of their perspectives.

In other words, what if the jerk is actually right? What if the people around him really are inferior idiots whose perspectives have no potential value to him or anyone else?

I believe we would still say he was acting like a jerk. But if so, there must be a different set of considerations in play. Considerations that say that one should be kind and considerate even to idiots whose useless perspectives are so much waste of valuable oxygen.

Anonymous said...

You say that a jerk tends "to exhibit jerkish behavior mostly down the social hierarchy." Better to say "down the social scale *as he or she perceives it*". Toward whom does a jerk who is in fact at the bottom of the social scale tend to exhibit his jerkish behavior? Likely, toward the people he regards as beneath him.

Howard Berman said...

So Kant would call violators of the categorical imperative jerks?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

@ Helen: Yes! There's some good work on people's tendency to err in their self-ratings on traits that are both normatively loaded and not straightforward to observe -- traits like "creative", "unreliable" -- compared to ratings by peers and external observers. I'm not sure if "jerk" is in there, but it would fit right in among the one's on which one would predict a self-flattering bias.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michel: I didn't get into this in the post (which was already long), but I agree it's an issue. What if one *really is* important and surrounded by idiots? I think of this as the David Hume / Benjamin Franklin, because of what Hume and Franklin recommend one do when one thinks that about one's situation, whether rightly or wrongly. They both recommend faking it.

I'm inclined to think that even if it's true that one is important and surrounded by idiots, it's jerkish to act that way; so the truth or falsity of the opinions aren't built into my definition. But if it is true, perhaps that's somewhat mitigating, nonetheless.

Of course, this raises the question of what counts as "important". There's a sense in which everyone is equally important and other senses in which people can differ in their importance at least relative to particular social contexts. One ought to respect people's importance in the first sense even if one is objectively important in the second sense, on my view.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 02:43: Right! I accept the friendly amendment.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard: Yes, there are Kantian resonances. But I think of jerkishness as locally-directed violations of some broadly Kantian imperative in the immediate social environment. The function of the phrase "the people around him" in the definition is to give it a local sense and vivid immediate sociality that isn't as clearly present in Kant.

praymont said...

I like the point that jerks tend to direct their shoddy behaviour down the perceived hierarchy. This tracks common usage. E.g., the song "You Jerk" (by Kim Stockwood) -- it's on YouTube) has these lyrics:

'They try to be so cool
Insult you like a fool
Never take your call when you're nobody at all
Until you're somebody and then they want to be your friend
How come jerks don't know they're jerks'

Also, this tendency's reflected in one of the main pop-culture models of the jerk, Herb Tarlek in the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.

On the Poetry Foundation's website, there's a poem called "You jerk you didn't call me up" by Bernadette Mayer. It depicts jerks as being relatively well off and uncaring.

An odd use appears in a poem that Paul McCartney wrote about Mark David Chapman (John Lennon's killer). The poem's called 'Jerk of all jerks'. This use of the term seems out of joint with the way the term is generally used (in North America at least).

Anonymous said...

The jerkish examples you give are good examples, but I don't think what makes jerks jerks is failing to see things from other people's perspectives for there are such things as sweet eccentrics or harmless and good natured slightly autistic people.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Praymont: Thanks for finding those references. Interesting!

@ Anon Apr 18 07:15: Right! The clearest cases of this is babies. They aren't jerks even though they aren't very good at perspective taking. Same with people with certain psychological disabilities. I've left the ability condition as an implicit background condition in this post, though in my fuller essay-length treatment I'll have to deal with it.

The sweet eccentric seems a more potentially troubling case. I'm inclined to think that there can be some failures of perspective-taking in such cases, but there won't be a general tendency to treat people as tools or objects or idiots. Maybe you could draw the picture more vividly for me?

So what's relevant, maybe, is the *source* of the failure to perspective-take. Hm.... Deserves more thought. Thanks for pushing on this!

Unknown said...

What about the under achieving jerk. One word I have not seen is jealousy. Jealousy often promotes jerkitude by people who feel that anyone more successful than them is an asshole. This type of jerk fails to understand that they are an under achiever for a reason. Rather than taking responsibility for there lack of success they need to lay blame on someone or something other than themselves. In an effort to ignore their own faults that include such deficiencies as laziness and lack of accountability, they will pass judgement on those who have actually worked for what they have achieved. Jerkitude is not just for the successful. It is a useful trait for those at the bottom as well. I guess misery loves company at the top and the bottom

Callan S. said...

Unknown, there's also those who don't recognise they simply had the luck of being born into a better position and are equally as lazy as the 'complainer'. It's mostly the lucky circumstances that they were born into that are doing the real work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unknown & Callan: Yes, both of those comments seem right to me!

Daryl said...

So basically a jerk is someone who can't handle frustration in a socially acceptable manner.

Chris Hallquist said...

One potentially useful product of a theory of jerks would be advice on how not to act like a jerk when you feel like you're surrounded by idiots.

Because, how do I put this... I think the socially acceptable way to say this is that I'm a fairly smart guy, and often have to deal with people who aren't as, um...

Okay, screw socially acceptable: it's been completely obvious to me since I was in second grade that I'm way above average intellectually, and while I know mathematically that it's unlikely that I'm constantly surrounded by idiots, being surrounded by people of average intelligence can feel that way sometimes.

I don't particularly mind if I sometimes come off as a jerk on my blog, because any blog is only ever going to suit some people's tastes. But in social situations, I find myself smiling and nodding a lot. But probably there's a more I could do than that.

seeker said...

Hi: I saw your article at WordPress and I want your point of view of the intruder in my post. How does "it" fall into the category?

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Unknown said...

I'm just starting to scratch the surface of what really makes me happy and it's taken me a while to admit that acting like a little child and being a jerk and a punk is fun. See the link below for more info.