Is there such a thing as an honest-to-God, real-life asshole? This was the debate my brother Zach and I had after hiking the mountain passes in Colorado. I was on the pro-asshole side, while Zach argued that nobody is truly an asshole. Our debate was a rather sucky one as debates go, and quickly ended at an impasse. The problem was a failure to define what an asshole actually is.
My own definition of an asshole, loosely, is somebody who consistently and persistently acts in their own self-interest without regard for others. I think that Zach’s would be a little tighter: an asshole is somebody who has no redeeming qualities, is devoid of good, and is beyond rehabilitation. Now, using these definitions, I believe we were both right.* According to my definition, there are gaggles of assholes in the world. According to Zach’s, one would find it hard to finger a single asshole.
But who’s definition are we to use if we’re to get a handle on the asshole conundrum? Enter Professor Aaron James from the University of California, Irvine, with his book Assholes: A Theory. James defines an asshole as one who: “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.” I imagine that within the hallowed halls of academia it is quite fun to disgorge the word “asshole,” to hear it echo through the marbled corridors. James does this a lot (172 assholes in the first chapter alone, by my count).
Beyond the fun and jackassery, Assholes is a serious examination of morality in modern society. James believes that the U.S. capitalist system is on its way to becoming an asshole capitalist system, in that it incentivizes asshole entitlement through underregulation – assholes take advantage of lax regulations to create more wealth for themselves, to the detriment of the rest of society.** This individualist mindset destabilizes cooperation, and ultimately tears at the fabric of our society. There is a proliferation of assholes in American society, as James sees it, and it could lead to the deterioration of our system.
But is this not a bit of grotesquerie? Study assholes long enough and you start to see assholes everywhere. Weren’t there a lot of assholes during slavery, and later during the era of the robber barons, under Prohibition, into the Great Depression, in the ’80s? Are there really more assholes now than ever before? The wealth gap is unacceptably high (though not unprecedented), too many people in our country are struggling to make a decent living, it’s bleaker than it should be, but does this really point toward the unraveling of our whole society? As always, though, we have a responsibility to work together to make the system better, to dampen asshole proliferation – in this I agree with James completely.
Aside from the impacts of assholery on our society, Assholes raises a number of interesting philosophical questions. Are humans predisposed toward assholery, or are we by nature cooperative? If one believes that most people are assholes, one is more inclined to be an asshole oneself.*** Put another way, the least trusting person is the person that is least trustworthy. If one always feels as if one is being treated unfairly, one is likely to treat others unfairly. I think that self-interest is part of the human phenotype, but so is cooperation. A little reciprocal altruism goes a long way. To survive and thrive as a group, humans must balance self-interest with cooperation, but different systems can tip the balance one way or another: an unfair system will promote assholery, whereas a system that fosters cooperation and equality mitigates asshole tendencies.
The system may shape society, but unless you’re a psychopath, you do have some agency in how much of an asshole you are. Does free will exist? Yes, of course it does, at least in the sense that we have evolved to be able to make complex decisions in the face of complex situations. To be, or not to be an asshole – that is the question.
Are You an Asshole?
We all do something assholish every now and again (yes, Gandhi was sometimes an asshole). Does this make us all assholes? No. As you may recall from our discussion of Eudaimonia, a single virtuous act does not make one virtuous – similarly, a single asshole act does not make one an asshole. One must display a persistent tendency to act assholish before one is actually deemed an asshole. Our goal should be to reduce the number of asshole incidents we each perpetrate, but allow ourselves occasional slip ups.
Because achieving fulfillment or eudaimonia requires virtue, the very act of assholery diminishes your chance at true happiness. If your goal in life is to get more stuff, regardless of the cost to others, assholery might be for you. But if you want true happiness, you need to temper your self-interest with some selflessness. Just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. I’ve spoken of the farting-in-a-crowded-elevator syndrome; you can fart in a crowded elevator, but, well, it’s kind of an asshole thing to do.
Given that I, like Professor James, have been discussing assholes as if it’s a given that they exist, you may be wondering what happened to Zach’s definition, wherein there are no true assholes. I do believe that, in a pragmatic sense, it’s useful to understand that there are people who too often act selfishly, and that it’s ok to categorize this malignancy. On the other hand, calling someone an asshole is a failure to try to connect with that person, to understand what circumstances may have motivated them to act in such a way. Herein lies the value of Zach’s thinking; by trying to empathize rather than ostracize, we become more humanized, rather than assholized. Asshole is a very dehumanizing word – it is, in fact, an absence of anything, a void.
Perhaps Zach and I can reconcile our positions by recognizing that, broadly, the asshole exists, but we should refrain from labeling any one person an asshole.
*”What about Hitler?” you ask, because you have to bring up Hitler as the Platonic ideal of assholism. Well, according to Zach’s definition, even Hitler might not be an asshole. I didn’t really know the guy – maybe he had a passion for nurturing orphaned kittens.
**Corporations seem to epitomize the asshole. People, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, corporations use their outsized influence to shape the political system to their advantage, regardless of the cost to society. In the beginning, though, the idea of the corporation was that it must be beneficial to society as a whole. Because corporations have no conscience – they are effectively psychopaths – society must force them to be good. This is what regulation is for.
***I suspect that certain political ideologies and demographics lean one way or another here. Maybe we should ask Jonathan Haidt.