Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An Argument That the Ideal Jerk Must Remain Ignorant of His Jerkitude

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.


Callan S. said...

Isn't that basically sociopathy?

Essentially you can draw a spectrum - the jerk level goes up until you hit platonic ideal with the true sociopath. The in between spectrums are degrees of sociopathy (of course technically only the extreme degrees are called sociopathy, but even in psychology there are recognised degrees of sociopathy)

I agree with the 'on the hop' of your instability. It would be interesting to chart the degree to which someone makes a conclusion of their own worry (that they are fine) and to the degree of the conclusion, how much they rise on the chart.

Spurious fun: I'd almost call that 'on the hop' the very notion of a soul. :)

clasqm said...

I'm not sure you have given us the picture-perfect or, as Callan S puts it, the platonic ideal, of the jerk here.

"I'm important and I'm surrounded by idiots!"

"I'm important" requires the existence of others to form a scale of importance and to occupy the lesser rungs. Likewise, the jerk's typification of others as "idiots" shows that they do have a role to play, they do have moral and epistemic value. Their preordained roles may be to act as lesser beings, mere foils to the jerks's shining brilliance, but even in their ineptitude, they do have that much. They may even, as they cower below the jerk, rank themselves in internal hierarchies of relative idiocy, not that the jerk would deign to take official notice. Their idiocy sets the baseline against which the jerk's non-idiocy may be noted.

No, the jerk in his ultimate glory, would turn to solipsism. The so-called others are not idiots. They are denied even the meager dignity of their idiocy. They are mere figments of the jerk's imagination.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Callan and Michel!

Callan: Although the "jerk" as I define it has some resemblance to each of the "dark triad" personality disorders (sociopathic, narcissistic, and Machivellian), I don't think it's quite the same as any of them. The sociopathic personality, for example, involves impulsiveness, which might be no part of the "jerk". I'm broadly sympathetic with scaling this as you say, but dimensions can come apart.

Michel: But that's the solipsist, not the jerk!

Callan S. said...

Eric, so maybe instead of the sociopaths disconnection from any moral code, the Jerk, even at its extreme, has some moral code, but just applies it to other human beings as much as you and I apply our moral code to granules of sand or pieces of lint?

Thanks for the reply. Hope you don't mind questions :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

My view is that jerks can be very moralistic, in a way. Some characterizations of Martin Luther King, Jr., suggest that he might have been a jerk. I don't know if that's right, but we can at least contemplate the case: harnessing one's self-important ego to a cause and pushing it forward in an arrogant way that no "sweetheart" would ever do. A highly moral concern for humanity or for particular moral principles (vegetarianism, workers' rights...) is entirely compatible with a jerkish attitude toward the people in your immediate environment.

Edward Champion said...

Here's a corollary to your thoughts: Very often, the jerk rises in status and begins to promulgate misinformation to the public. When the jerk is challenged, he calls other people who criticizes his viewpoint jerks and uses his fan base to attack the critic, who is often operating from a legitimate dialectic position. We see this with Amanda Palmer, in the way that she rallied her fan base to attack anyone who criticized her for not paying musicians. We see this with Ricky Gervais and Caitlin Moran, when they have vocalized insensitive positions. We saw this recently with Malcolm Gladwell, who was given a review-size space to "respond" to his critics, but did not actually address the criticisms.

My feeling is that, while common definitions of "jerk" are helpful in identifying rude and/or aberrant behavior, it is equally valuable to consider the power dynamics that lead people to become jerks, that allow jerks to rise upward, and that creates conditions in which jerkdom is likely to be encouraged by fawning acolytes or unquestioning sycophants. But I believe this post is most certainly a helpful start!

Callan S. said...

Eric, are we discriminating between those who know they will be disrupting the status quo for a cause, Vs those who simply don't detect any (or to them, any 'significant') disruption to the status quo in the pursuit of their cause? I'm sure the former is called a jerk, but I'm not sure its the same thing you're talking about.

Edward, I think that is possibly it's own area - 'Jerk wannabes' - people who want to say or do the jerk stuff the person does, but don't have the guts to. Which explains why Gordon Ramsay gets anywhere as a TV entitity.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, here is a slightly different position.

The ideal jerk is someone who simply has no disposition to consider the feelings of others.

His jerkitude is not even slightly diminished by the fact that he would feel ashamed if he did consider them. It consists in the fact that he has no inclination to consider them.

Consider a man who constantly cheats on his wife. He feels genuinely horrible every time she catches him and sees how much it hurts her, but he does not stop, because he simply has no inclination or capacity to consider her feelings when he is not being forced to.

Is he less of a jerk because of his capacity to feel momentary shame, even though it does not affect his behavior?

I think I would prefer to say this. He is not as bad a person as someone who feels no regret or who even takes pleasure in the harm he is doing. But he is just as much of a jerk.

I guess my general point here is that you don't need a person's jerkitude to account for all his unsavory characteristics. Whether or not he would feel bad about what he does if he thought about it may just not be relevant.

Callan S. said...

I would think that brings in another factor - feeling horrible about something, but that feeling horrible does not modify behaviour at all. To me it sounds like the notion of feeling pain at touching a hotplate - yet not modifying behaviour and removing ones hand (or perhaps removing it, but just touching the hotplate again and again, never learning). That seems a rather extreme factor to bring in?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thank you for the interesting continuing discussion, folks!

Edward: Yes! I think the power dynamics here is a very interesting and important feature of the story (though I hesitate to commit on the particular cases you mention).

Callan Oct 20: It's not the disrupting of the status quo that I am imagining to be central to jerkitude -- whether the disruption is good or bad -- but the respect one has for the people around one.

Randy: Very interesting conceptualization! I don't think it's psychologically realistic to think of non-psychopaths as having no disposition to consider the feelings of others; so then the question is -- if we are to have a more moderate view of jerks -- to what extent or in what respect one doesn't consider those feelings. And then it might come fairly close to my conceptionalization. What's the difference between considering feelings and respecting attitudes, values, desires, perspectives? Here are two: (1.) the latter is wider including, e.g., intellectual opinions, (2.) considering doesn't necessarily mean respecting, as in the case of the sadist.

On the cheater case you consider: I would say he's less of a jerk (although still maybe a jerk overall), but I think ordinary language here is mushy so one can stipulate and rigorize either directon.

Callan Oct 23: I agree that it's a pretty weird case when there's no effect on behavior at all; so I wouldn't want to build my theory in a way that depended essentially on such cases.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric,that's a solid reply I think.

The main issue here is you want your theory of jerks to explain the behavior of people we generally regard as actual jerks. Obviously, we don't need the extension preserved completely, but some continuity with ordinary judgments is essential.

There are two possibilities here as I see it. One is that actual jerks typically don't care that much about people's feelings. The other is that they typically just don't think that much about them because they are unreflective. (And, of course, it may be both.)

It sets up an interesting experimental scenario. Round up the guys who we intuitively judge to be bona fide jerks after filming them in their jerky interactions. Measure how they evaluate both their own behaviors and the behaviors of other jerks when they watch the videos.

This may tease out some other interesting properties. For example, jerks might be highly critical of other jerks but be largely incapable of admitting that they are doing the same thing. This would actually be an indication that this possibility is a source of anxiety to them, which would make them not as jerky on your view.

I'm really glad you are thinking about this stuff and look forward to reading what you come up with!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Randy, that's a very interesting thought! And something close to it could actually be done, e.g., using Simine Vazire's peer-evaluations and real-life recordings....

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, thanks for mentioning her work. I wasn't familiar with it.