Assholes — A Theory

“Well, he’s got the asshole vote,” I remarked to my wife early in 2016. “But are there enough assholes?”

Now I’ve read Aaron James’s book, Assholes — A Theory. Trump appears right on page 2. The book was written in 2012. (James has produced a sequel titled Assholes — A Theory of Donald Trump.)

Of course not all Trump voters are assholes. But they deify him regardless. That signals something disturbing in today’s America.

So what exactly is an “asshole?” My 2016 remark entailed a very general concept of obtuseness. James (a philosophy professor) is concerned with something more particular, defining it in terms of interpersonal relations: systematically arrogating special advantages to oneself, from an entrenched sense of entitlement, disregarding complaints of others.

A quintessential asshole utterance is “Do you know who I am?” Asserting status above ordinary peons.

James is talking about an enduring pattern of behavior, recognizing that even normal people lapse into it occasionally. Thus he excludes someone “better classified as a jerk, a boor, a cad, a schmuck, or a mere ass.” Yet he also inexplicably excludes “the ‘royal asshole,’ who is distinguished even among assholes.” These categorizations seem weird.

James uses male pronouns throughout, on the basis that assholes are generally men. He explores how males in particular are thusly acculturated, from early childhood. Indeed, he considers “asshole” a gendered word (like “bachelor” or “spinster”). With a different word applicable to females: “bitch.”

Yet curiously, the book is short on etymology. I would note that “ass,” importantly, references an animal (donkey) considered to exemplify dumbness, as well as human anatomy, whereas “asshole” refers exclusively to the latter. James does associate it with “a foul stench,” and “a part of the body we hide in public . . . that many people feel alienated from and perhaps wish wasn’t there.”

His take on the subject is fundamentally moralistic. Assholes are morally repugnant, in failure (or refusal) to operate according to the most basic social precept: recognizing everyone’s human equality. That doesn’t mean we’re all alike. But the asshole puts himself before others in a way that doesn’t accept their right to any consideration at all from him. (White supremacist racism is a special subclass of this.)

I’ve written in this vein myself, under the rubric of “arrogance,” deeming that the ultimate sin underlying every moral violation. The unjustified privileging of oneself above others.

A related concept is narcissism. Now, we are all narcissists, to a degree; we all have egos. It’s a fundamental psychological reality that for each individual, the most important person on Earth is themself. And a certain degree of self-love is essential to a healthy psychology. But the degree is crucial. When it trumps other people’s right to recognition of their proper self-concern, that makes an asshole.

James invokes Rousseau’s distinction between a person’s natural sense of self-worth (amour de soi-même) and a “potentially destructive concern for rank or status as compared to others (amour propre).” Rousseau said healthy self-love does not require feeling superior to anyone; we can recognize mutual needs for status recognition while still considering everyone basically equal. But the asshole, says James, “won’t settle for mere equality.”

He posits that unlike “the psychopath, who either lacks or fails to engage moral concepts, and who sees people as so many objects in the world to be manipulated at will,” the asshole is morally motivated, in deeming his behavior justified, and being resentful or indignant when his claimed entitlements are not respected (“treated very very unfairly”). This distinction too eludes me; assholes and psychopaths fall along a spectrum, it’s only a matter of degree in privileging oneself above others (which again every normal human does, to some degree).

And while James works from the standpoint that assholes, believing they’re entitled to behave as they do, are thus acting according to a moral concept, albeit a mistaken one, I think this perspective is itself mistaken. Assholes need notconsider themselves morally entitled. Morality mostly does not enter the picture for them. Rather, it’s solipsism, acting as they do simply because it suits them, serving their own felt needs and wants, which requires no further justification. That is the essence of assholery.

James suggests its proliferation might be explained by “the near plague of narcissism in our culture.” Through most of human history, almost everyone was treated like dirt, making humility the norm; its reversal a largely positive development. But perhaps we’ve overcompensated, giving too many people an exaggerated sense of themselves. It’s one thing to have a world where everyone feels their human dignity respected; another where everyone thinks he’s king. (Trump an extreme case.)

Yet on the other hand, my own positive outlook is grounded in lifelong observation seeing most people as basically virtuous. I’ve actually encountered relatively few proper assholes. Maybe this testifies to my discernment in associations. Or maybe modern life has not corrupted us that much after all.

A chapter titled “Naming Names” does so. Yet much here just vents the author’s personal animus, without in fact fitting his own “asshole” definition. Certainly Richard Dawkins does not (his The God Delusion deemed an “asshole title”). And James blasts French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy for calling the “lynching” of Libya’s Gaddhafi “revolting,” after having advocated his armed ouster. I guess that means I’m no asshole since I wrote a poem celebrating the episode.* But Lévy’s alternate view is defensible. Perhaps James is the asshole here.

Many pages explore whether assholes are blameworthy for their behavior, or it’s outside their control. This is the eternal question of free will. James calls it “freedom of will” and, strangely for a philosophy professor, doesn’t reference much of modern philosophizing (or neuroscience) relevant here. He seems to go around in circles on the subject. Getting tangled in the question of whether an asshole can reform; suggesting that maybe it’s like alcoholism, the person can restrain their behavior, but would still remain an asshole inside. His conclusory line here: “They are to blame simply because they think like an asshole, whether or not they will, or even can, ever change.” Thought crime?!

I’d answer the problem this way: people may not be able to control their personality, but behavior is always within one’s control. Good people squelch their worst impulses. Assholes do not.

* Read it here:

6 Responses to “Assholes — A Theory”

  1. Lee Says:

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on the distinction between “asshole” and “selfish,” with the latter in the positive sense that I’ve seen you use it; capitalism works well because each of us is acting selfishly. (Apologies if I am mischaracterizing your words. If so, the rest of this may be moot.)

    For asshole we have from your article:

    > Rather, it’s solipsism, acting as they do simply because it suits them, serving their own felt needs and wants, which requires no further justification. That is the essence of assholery.

    How would you articulate that “selfish” is different?

    For example, I am seeking the machinery to evaluate whether laissez-faire “equal opportunity” fairness is positive selfishness or negative assholery. If we make sure that no one is prohibited from starting a business is that sufficiently positively selfish? Or is this assholery when we ignore the back story? For example, it takes money to make money—or, at the very least, it helps a whole heck of a lot. Is it assholery if we conclude that this lack of prohibition means that we don’t owe anything else to our fellow human beings who have a much steeper climb when starting a business?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    It’s all really a matter of degree. It’s a mistake to view “capitalism” as pure selfishness. In my own business I’m very mindful of serving my customers’ needs and interests. That’s how businesses succeed— and benefit society.

  3. Lee Says:

    Thank you for the quick response. Am I positively selfish or an asshole if I don’t support ways to help those with less money overcome the hurdles of starting a business?

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    You have no moral obligation to help anyone with whom you have no relationship entailing some reciprocity. It is a choice.

  5. Roger Says:

    Assuming that djt is an asshole, does James, and do you, consider him a psychopath as well?

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    I do

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