I have a life without latent content

November 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

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.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: David Crawford

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