YOU KNOW HIM, I PROMISE. He is difficult to avoid — especially, it seems, in our great urban centers. Curiously, the tonier the ZIP code, the more he seems to multiply like some droning, infuriating ungulate. He is the person who weaves through three lanes of traffic suddenly, without signaling. He is the person who sits near you at a movie theater and proceeds to take a phone call in the middle of the feature. He is the person who cuts in front of you at your local lunch spot and pretends not to realize that he is doing so, blithely. He makes his presence felt: he is to be accorded special privileges, and his precedence over you is to be accepted a priori. He is morally stainless, for is it not merely in accordance with the natural order of things for him to leave work early, but make you stay late? For him to purchase a third term as mayor of The Greatest City in the World™, no matter the laws or the express desires of his own constituents? For him, as head of a major investment bank, to cause through his avarice a global financial crisis, but to blame that crisis on the fecklessness and greed of middle-class homeowners? Or for him, as vice president, to lie repeatedly to his compatriots, justifying an invasion of a certain Middle Eastern country on the grounds that the dictator he is seeking to depose is lying? Of course this is natural, he thinks: of course. How could it be otherwise? This man, I think you will agree, is an irritant. This man is an outrage.
This man is an asshole.
He is also, as Aaron James rightly observes in his convincing and often quite funny book, Assholes: A Theory, an important object of moral inquiry. Assholes are a social type. They arouse our anger and indignation, and sometimes leave us with a vague feeling of powerlessness and self-loathing. The strength and nature of our reaction to assholish behavior signals the extent of the moral violation caused by it. Thus, for James:
The problem of the asshole [. . .] presents a major obstacle to progress and social justice but also threatens the hard-fought and hardwon gains for decency a society has already made. The problem affects whole societies, international relations, and so the entire world.
The problem of the asshole, then, is a problem for us all.
This may sound overstated or glib, but James, a professor of philosophy at UC Irvine, makes a rigorous case for why we should take the problem of the asshole seriously. The book surveys diverse asshole subtypes: asshole bosses, royal assholes, the corporate asshole, and delusional assholes, to name just a few. But first James neatly unpacks the basic features of this most loathsome individual. For him, an asshole is defined by three important qualities, which also serve to differentiate his behavior from other morally repugnant characters such as the jerk, or much more seriously, the sociopath. First, the asshole considers himself — and James and I agree, assholes are almost always men — to possess special privileges or advantages over others. Moreover, he behaves in a manner that reflects this belief (making the asshole distinct from the mere egoist, who may believe that he is better than others, but for a variety of reasons, does not act on this belief systematically.). Second, the grounds for this belief are assumed and not argued for. An asshole believes deeply that he alone deserves special treatment, that he is somehow entitled to it. This kind of asshole behavior, as James goes on to show, produces both minor-league assholes, such as the line-cutter or reckless freeway driver, as well as their major-league brethren, such as, say, Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner. (Of course, significant overlap is possible, and minor leaguers rarely disappoint when called up to the big leagues.) Third, and finally, assholes are “immunized” to the protests of others. An asshole might hear you out, recognizing your complaints as valid in an abstract way, but he never truly listens. A real asshole does not feel the need to justify his behavior to you, okay? Thanks.
The idea that the asshole is able to comprehend moral claims in general, and the particular moral claims of other people, is an important one. Crucially, it is how James is able to differentiate the asshole from, for instance, the sociopath, who is unable to reason in such terms. The sociopath does not understand rationally why morality proscribes some actions and prescribes others, or why morality finds certain kinds of behavior praiseworthy and other kinds censurable. According to his own demented understanding, the sociopath does not break moral rules as much as operate on an altogether parallel ethical plane. This is obviously monstrous, and explains the overrepresentation of sociopaths in history’s gallery of mass murderers: Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler were all pretty clearly sociopaths, and are also all quite clearly among the worst people who have ever existed.
Comparatively speaking, then, assholes are an altogether different breed, and are generally far less destructive to the social order. For assholes, while they might consider themselves “special,” understand the strictures of morality, and often employ moral reasoning to explain their own mistreatment. And, to risk stating the obvious, your run-of-the-mill asshole would never condone (even if he committed it) serious moral violations, such as rape or murder. Assholish behavior is therefore almost always a venial sin, and not a cardinal one. Our reactions to assholes differ accordingly: while sociopaths induce our horror, given their manifest inhumanity, assholes tend to irritate and anger us in more pedestrian ways. But while we feel ourselves to be at a cognitive remove from true sociopaths, assholes — since, as James argues, they are essentially rational beings, capable of moral reasoning and affected by it — are part of our general social order. They are our moral intimates, and so their casual disregard for our status as equals, worthy of the same treatment and respect they would accord themselves, makes the wound more visceral, if ultimately less destructive. Sociopaths cause singular flesh wounds to our psyches; assholes, a million little paper cuts.
The reasons for this have to do with our conceptions of who we are, and how we assign ourselves worth as human beings. As moral creatures capable of rational action, we all feel that we are entitled to respect, to the acknowledgment of our common humanity, to what James calls the recognition that should be accorded an autonomous thinking being whose existence is defined by the same basic parameters as every other person. In failing to recognize us as equal in this deeper moral sense, in arbitrarily placing themselves above everyone else, assholes dehumanize us. In a word, assholes violate our fundamental sense of human dignity.
The concept of dignity, as Michael Rosen shows in the erudite and compact Dignity: Its History and Meaning, possesses a rarified pedigree. It has come to dominate the modern human rights discourse, and has been a key concept in moral philosophy since at least the 18th century. Yet, as Rosen rightly notes, much confusion still exists about the meaning of the term, as well as its sources. Is dignity merely expressive? That is, is it a mark of certain outward forms of behavior? Does it inhere in institutions, such as when we refer to the dignity of a certain public office? Does it apply only to human beings, or could other living things be endowed with certain forms of dignity? We are left in a conceptual morass. Perhaps, then, Rosen suggests, we should take the opposite tack, and argue with scholars such as Steven Pinker — Rosen’s colleague at Harvard — that since the idea of dignity is simply reducible to that of autonomy, we should do away with the first concept altogether.
But I am not so sure this is wise, and neither is Rosen. While the meaning of dignity may vary, our conviction that the idea of dignity captures something fundamental to our experience, something that cannot be captured by the idea of autonomy alone, remains constant. Dignity is an attempt to flesh out these strands of thinking, and to investigate the commonalities, or common sources, that link these different conceptions. To use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, Rosen asks us to “think what we are doing” when we confer dignity to a person, or an office, or — in a particularly memorable section — to a corpse. Although the book draws on sources as varied as Friedrich Schiller, Cicero, and Catholic social theory, Rosen leans most heavily on Immanuel Kant, who is by far the most influential thinker to have written on the subject. (In so many ways, when we speak about morality, we inhabit Kant’s conceptual universe.) He develops an unusual account of Kantian morality that focuses on Kant’s ideas about the “transcendental kernel” of the human person, which is derived from our ability to be moral. For Kant, morality is what makes us human — and what confers dignity upon us. In Rosen’s reading, then, while we certainly possess stringent duties toward others, our primary moral duty is to ourselves, because we are obligated to respect first and foremost the foundation of our own humanity. For Rosen, too, it is these moral duties that are the fundamental source of our dignity, for they “are so deep a part of us that we could not be the people that we are without having them.” But if morality makes us human, then the opposite is also true: immorality literally de-humanizes us. This is a harsh but precious insight.
It is also cold comfort to the asshole, who is most naturally at home in a world of hyper-individualistic morality, one where obligations toward others are argued to be minimal, or at least apply only to the other, littler people, and never to the asshole himself. Looked at from the perspective of American society in general, this pretty accurately describes our Ayn Rand fever dream: the idea that greed is good — even morally laudable! — and that the strong have every right, in fact, a duty to rule over the weak. (For those enraptured by this idea, an investigation into the origins of inequality is pointless: the weak are weak because they are weak; the strong rule by virtue of their — often material — inheritances, which magically pass virtue down from generation to generation, in the form of lucre.)
This strain of thinking offers a kind of social Darwinism on methamphetamines, a philosophical gloss for the overstimulated and intellectually bereft iPad generation. And, as James argues, it is in no way far-fetched to connect the rise of assholish forms of behavior with social and institutional structures that may encourage it. As he notes in his wonderful chapter on “asshole capitalism” (which he considers a degraded form of capitalism, and not necessarily a feature of the system itself), if those who succeed in today’s economy tend to evince such characteristics, is copycat behavior not altogether likely, even rational? We have a long history in this country of turning a blind eye toward the illegitimate and immoral acquisition of wealth — it only took the Kennedys one generation to go from crooks to kings — but it might be worth considering whether the moral decay of 21st-century America is related to this loss of dignity in the way we conduct our business, and in the rotting away of the economic institutions and values that reflected the dream of equality and fraternity, and not just (negative) liberty. We have lost a sense of what we owe each other: what constitutes our duties, and how these duties should be negotiated as individuals and as a social collectivity. All that remains inviolate is the norm of noninterference, or the right to be left alone, to do what one wishes without considering the wider effects of one’s actions. This is a desiccated and corrupted understanding of liberty, and it would have been unfathomable to our republican forebears in Greece and Rome.
If asshole institutions or systems compromise our dignity, given that they disregard our human — moral — core, so too do asshole individuals. Assholish behavior is a gesture of profound disrespect, and the right to be respected and treated in a dignified manner flows from the unique part of every individual that, perhaps paradoxically, is the common inheritance of our species. Still, as Rosen points out, the primary victim of such behavior is the moral offender himself, as his actions amount to a denial of his own basic dignity. The asshole may not realize it, but he is the saddest bastard of them all.
Zach Dorfman is associate editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council.