Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Moral Epistemology of the Jerk

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.

(image from

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.


G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, I'm a bit reluctant to accept your characterization of the Grinch as a jerk. He is someone for whom the happiness of others is a source of personal suffering. (On the most existential reading, he is angry at the materialistic simplicity of the Whos and the way in which it seems to prevent them from feeling anguish at the fundamental absurdity of life.) I don't think that for your typical jerk the happiness of other people is a source of angst.

This goes back to a point I made in response to a previous post, that there is an important difference between a jerk and an asshole, which is worth preserving. It's true that the Grinch does not respect the perspective of the Whos but he does think about their perspective in order to develop a theory about the source of their happiness and what would make them unhappy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Randy! The Grinch does seem to relish the thought of the Whos crying boo-hoo, so it seems that there's some sadism going on and not just indifference. But I don't think a jerk needs to *not* be sadistic; most of us are a little sadistic, sometimes, I think, and I'd guess that the jerk will permit himself to enjoy those sadistic pleasures more regularly than a typical non-jerk.

But if you're right that it's the happiness of others that is the driving source of the Grinch's hatred of Christmas, that's a kind of pathology somewhat different from (though I think not inconsistent with) the pathology of simply being a jerk.

I read the Grinch at the beginning of the story as having an aesthetic dislike of Christmas -- all the consumerism, the banal songs, the self-indulgent gluttony (a reaction I can definitely sympathize with). But if you're right that what he really dislikes is others' happiness (maybe as a result of their failure to recognize the absurdity of life), then there's a different syndrome going on here than simple jerkitude. Maybe "necrophilia" in Erich Fromm's sense.

Howie Berman said...

Might the jerk lack a theory of mind; the case being a lack of awareness rather than respect?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard: I wouldn't want to call, say, a severely mentally disabled person a "jerk" simply because she couldn't take others' perspectives into account. To be a jerk, in my intended characterization, one must *culpably* fail to take others' perspectives into account -- one condition of which, presumably, is that one be able to take others' perspectives into account. You're right that I could be more explicit about this!

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, thanks. You have to be right that real world jerks will also (like most people)have sadistic tendencies. Whether being a jerk will tend to enhance our ability to enjoy the suffering of others isn't clear to me, but I think this is probably entirely because of my preference for thinking of jerquiddity in terms of disregard rather than disrespect.

Of course I understand that this project is partly for fun, but it might be an interesting teaching moment as well. Are we explicating the term so as to refine our ordinary language notion of a jerk? If so, then it seems right to think of the jerk in terms of behavioral symptoms. The distinction between disregarding and disrespecting isn't that important here because the behavior they illicit are very similar and have roughly same social significance.

On the other hand, if we thought of the project in terms of appropriating a term from ordinary language and refining it for explanatory purposes, then I think it would be a strong move to attach it to a particular etiology, and I think that the distinction between socially unacceptable behavior that results from harming others as a result of the ability to consider their perspective (what I would call the a-hole) and one that results from the inability to consider it (what I would call the jerk) is very useful.

What's interesting here to me is that in some ways your efforts are occupying a middle ground between these two kinds of explicative projects. You don't quite want to go the causal route because you're not really trying to pathologize jerkiness. But you're also not just trying to refine ordinary language intuitions either. At least I don't think you are.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! And I agree that's a useful distinction. I'm inclined to massage the term "jerk" closer to what you call the "a-hole", because I think the ability case more interesting than the inability case, and I want a good term in common usage for the target personality of interest. "A-hole" has at least two disadvantages as a potential label for the phenomena I want to highlight: It is regarded as a more offensive term, and Aaron James has appropriated it for a slightly different (but closely related) type of character. You're right, though, that "jerk" does have some tinge of cluelessness about it -- which I think traces back to its older usages -- which perhaps favors using the terms in something closer to the way you do. But maybe, too, I can turn that fault also into a partial advantage, since the jerk in my sense *does* suffer some substantial epistemic liabilities (e.g., the ones mentioned in the post), and it's probably not accidental that the "clueless person" usage shifted over time into the "inconsiderate person" usage.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

That makes a lot of sense to me. My analysis tries to carve psychological nature a little closer to its joints, but ends up with an unsatisfyingly limited range with fewer people satisfying it.(At least that sounds right to me. Maybe if it's explored thoroughly, we'd find more than we expected.) Your analysis seems to capture a much broader range of intuitively jerky people and behaviors, though the difference between jerks, a-holes and other unsavories may end up being less categorical than a matter of degree. Which is fine.

I do think my approach might afford a better explanation of why almost all jerks are men, though. Your definition will make lots of women into jerks. But that, too, can be counted as a virtue if you can manage to make it intuitive somehow.

Callan S. said...

appropriately respect

What is 'appropriately'?

What if 'appropriately' is giving the same respect you would expect yourself.

Which begs the question - what if the grinch is indeed giving the exact amount of respect he would expect to be given to himself?

Is he a jerk then?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: By "appropriately" appropriately I mean what they deserve, not what the candidate-jerk *expects* to be given himself. And clearly the Whos' attitudes deserve more respect than the Grinch gives them!

Callan S. said...

Eric, you know I'm gunna ask about this 'what they deserve' and how is that determined? Bit question begging, isn't it? Seems to be a value out of nowhere?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Are all moral values "out of nowhere"? If yes, that is no objection to this case. If no, then how are my moral judgments in this case different from more legitimate moral judgments?

Callan S. said...

Are all moral values "out of nowhere"? If yes, that is no objection to this case.

Why is that, Eric? Seems the same objection as wanting to determine the author of a text, even if the best author that can be found is 'Anonymous'?

Alan said...

"It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you." ~ George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

"You say you care about the poor? Tell me their names." ~ Craig Greenfield

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Does your position imply that you object to all moral evaluations? That's a coherent position if so, but the not an objection very specific to my treatment of the jerk in particular.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cool quotes, Alan -- thanks!

Callan S. said...

Eric, I do object to authorless moral evaluations. 'what they deserve' falls very much within that. Or atleast by one structure of evaluation, it does.