By Aaron James
Too loud a cell phone voice; two seats on the subway; line jumpers; name droppers; self important shits. Sound familiar in NYC? Well we do seem to have more than our fair share of A**HOLES.
In a recent book, Assholes: A Theory, I define the term “asshole” in hopes of helping us clearly identify an bothersome type of moral personality. On my analysis, the term “asshole” isn’t simply a term of abuse—however abusively we use it in traffic. Properly used, it is the perfectly good name of a moral vice, like cowardice or slothfulness or callousness. Yet the vice is distinctive. It is perhaps not necessarily as bad as being a treacherous bastard, but usually worse than being a mere jerk, schmuck, or douchebag.
My definition is this: the “asshole” is the guy (yes, they are mainly, but not only, men) who systematically allows himself special advantages in social life out of an entrenched (but mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.
So, for example, the asshole is the guy who swerves through three lanes of traffic, driving like he owns the road, cuts in line at the post office, and talks too loud on his cell phone in the café. When someone complains, he either walls them out or angrily objects that he is the one not getting the respect he deserves. He gets angry when people complain because, for one or another reason, he feels entitled to the special advantages he takes. He might cut the post office line, for instance, because he is rich, and because, in his view, his time is therefore more important that the people standing in wait.
A natural question to ask is then who, in particular, qualifies as an asshole. But before we rush to judgment about Donald Trump, it is best to ask about ourselves: Am I an asshole? While it can be difficult to tell whether someone else is an asshole, in the case of ourselves we have a handy self-test: Consider the possibility that you are, really and truly, an asshole. If you feel ashamed of yourself in the thought of being an asshole, then you probably aren’t one (even if you pull an asshole move from time to time, as most of us do). If you don’t feel ashamed of yourself, and especially if you have a sense of pride, then odds are good that you are, in fact, an asshole.
This self-test is not as straightforward as Descartes famous proof of his existence, cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” It is not enough, according to the test, that you think you are an asshole. You could well be wrong about that, worriedly thinking you are an asshole when you really aren’t one. The test is a shame test: if you really are worried, from a sense of shame, you probably aren’t an asshole. But even if you don’t now consider yourself an asshole, if you feel a certain delight in the thought of being an asshole, and maybe a sense of pride, then you’re in asshole territory.
Even this isn’t entirely straightforward from a philosophical perspective. Many assholes do seem to proudly own the name. “Yes, I’m an asshole, and proud of it,” the asshole might say while he is taunting those he mistreats. But here we might be skeptical about whether the asshole really means it, whether he really does sincerely believe he is an asshole, at least if my definition is correct.
Why is that? Because the very idea of an asshole, according to my definition, implies that someone is wrong about what he is entitled to. The asshole is just the guy who takes special advantages from cooperative life when they aren’t his to have. He vigorously defends that position from a mistaken sense of entitlement.
Now, this is no problem at all when we say of someone else that he’s an asshole; we are then simply saying that he is wrong. But saying this of ourselves is puzzling. To regard yourself an asshole, as assholes do, is then in effect to say that you are both right and wrong, that you don’t have the entitlements that you yourself, being an asshole, think you have. But isn’t that some kind of contradiction? Is it even a coherent perspective? If an asshole could take that view of himself, is he not in some deep way inconsistent, in some deep way confused?
Maybe, but here are three ways to explain what is going on. (I like the third.)
(1) True assholes don’t really fess up. They truly believe they have certain entitlements, and so they won’t, if they are consistent, also admit to a self-description that is tantamount to admitting that those entitlement beliefs are wrong. So when an asshole says, “Yes, I’m an asshole; deal with it!”, he’s merely saying this for show. He’s saying, “Yes, I am what you all would call an ‘asshole.’” But he’s merely mentioning rather than using the moral term (he’s speaking “disquotationally” or in the “inverted commas sense,” as philosophers put it). The same would go for a psychopath who lacks moral concepts and yet says, “Yes, what I do is ‘wrong.’” He doesn’t really believe his actions to be wrong; he merely understands how others would describe what he does and mimics that description, perhaps out of curiosity, or for purposes of better manipulating people, by being able to predict what *they* will call “wrong.” Likewise, we might say, for Milton’s Satan when he says “evil be thou my good.” What he really means is: “evil”—or what people regard as “evil”—be thou my good.
(2) Or we could say that the asshole doesn’t really believe he is entitled to special advantages when he takes them. Maybe he takes them anyway, perhaps knowing, deep down, that he’s wrongfully making an exception of himself. In that case, he’s more like the insensitive jerk or dolt who won’t finally go to bat for his misconduct, except that, being an asshole, he’ll keep up a show of defense for an inordinately long time. He vigorously defends what he, in his heart of hearts, knows isn’t true.
(3) Or, finally, we might say that the asshole is incoherent, in a certain way, or at least stuck in a deep internal conflict. In his normal moments of defensiveness, he vigorously defends his specific entitlements, and he believes he has them, even “deep down.” Yet in a moment of reflection, he can also correctly admit that he’s an asshole, and that he doesn’t have a lot of the entitlements he usually thinks he has. How is that possible? Well, it could just be a case of someone accepting a straight-up contradiction (the asshole believes “I’m entitled to X” while at the same time believing “I am not entitled to X”). This is irrational, but perfectly possible; people manage it all the time.
Still more realistically, the asshole’s beliefs could stand in an unresolved tension. Maybe he believes “I’m entitled to X” and “I’m entitled to Y”, etc., while he also believes “A lot of my beliefs about my entitlements are mistaken.” That isn’t a logical contraction. In fact, we can all consistently hold that we are probably wrong about something or other but then defend any particular belief when we consider the matter on its merits. (Philosophers call this the “paradox of the preface.”) Indeed, to different degrees, we are all more or less in this situation about our own beliefs: we think we must be wrong somewhere, but don’t know where.
What’s special about the asshole’s situation, then? Well, his predicament might work like this. He’ll admit that some of his entitlement beliefs are wrong, in a way that makes him an asshole from his own point of view. But he sees no reason to find out which particular entitlement belief is mistaken. He just carries on without sorting out which of his particular errors he is making, mainly by ignoring the issue. Maybe he doesn’t care, or prefers the benefits he gets from being an asshole over the benefits he’d get from having a well-integrated mind. He’d rather be rich than perfectly coherent, for example. (And wouldn’t you, if you had the choice?)
If we like, we can add that the asshole who calls himself an asshole (and really believes it) doesn’t take the fact that his entitlement beliefs are mistaken as a weighty reason to do anything about those beliefs. He’s wrong again on that score, since he really should think harder and better about what others can reasonably expect of him in specific situations. But this is of course just another instance of his general failure to see others as equals, another way he is “immunized” (as I put it) against the complaints of other people.
All of which suggest that it isn’t especially pleasant trying to get inside the mind of an asshole, even if some of us may well find ourselves already there.