A Critique of Aaron James’ “Asshole” Theory
by Benjamin Studebaker
I’ve recently been reading Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory, in which James attempts to sort out what it means to be an “asshole”, how people get to be “assholes” and what methods people and societies should use to contain and contend with them. It is an interesting book, but I have a quibble over James’ claim that assholes are to blame for their asshole status.
James claims that an “asshole” is someone who, in interpersonal or cooperative relations, has the following characteristics:
- He allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systemically.
- He does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.
- He is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
This is pretty straightforward–an asshole might cut in line, interrupt you with regularity, cut you off in traffic, knowingly and deliberately say unnecessarily hurtful things, and so on, all because the asshole feels entitled. He believes he is genuinely superior to you and that his interests intrinsically outweigh yours. When you challenge him, he grows indignant, as if it were ridiculous that one such as you would dare to dispute his superior status.
James then goes on to discuss what causes people to become assholes. He rejects the idea that there are assholes by nature, maintaining instead that different incidences of asshole behavior in different societies indicates that assholes are culturally produced. While genetic background may predispose someone to becoming an asshole for James, he nonetheless maintains that environmental factors will determine whether or not that preset is actualized. He gives a variety of examples of environmental factors and cultural norms that might lead to a wider proliferation of asshole behavior in some societies than in others. Among these are:
- Gender norms, which encourage boys to be assholes while discouraging girls
- Proliferation of narcissism via social networking and self-esteem parenting
- “Asshole capitalism”, a model of capitalism in which citizens feel entitled to unlimited personal enrichment even at social cost.
- Weakening of “asshole dampening systems” like the family, religion, the law, the regulatory state, etc.
In sum, we see roughly the same two-level model of human behavior causation we so often see in philosophy:
- Nature–genetic and biological content which people receive at birth.
- Nurture–environment, education, parenting, socialization, social norms, and other such wider cultural influences that fundamentally determine who we become.
James puts the emphasis on nurture rather than nature. There is much debate in philosophy about which of these two predominates. Someone like Hobbes strongly emphasizes nature, while someone like Marx strongly emphasized nurture. But what is most interesting about this model is that there is no obvious place in it for free will, for acting independently of one’s nature and one’s nurture.
Galen Strawson’s basic argument offers the neatest explanation of why free will doesn’t fit in. Strawson points out that whenever a being makes decisions, that being necessarily makes decisions with some decision-making procedure (that may or may not have a randomness component–it really doesn’t matter). We cannot be the authors of the decision-making procedure we use to make decisions, because this presupposes the existence of some prior decision-making procedure which we would have used to determine our subsequent decision-making procedure. The very same question could be asked of that prior procedure, and so on, in an infinite regress. A visual is of some use here:
Ultimately, this regress leads away from me. Sooner or later, we end up with the nature I was born with, the nurturing experiences that formed me, or some combination as the cause of my behavior. I did not choose my nature or the nurturing environment I would have, so I am not the uncaused cause of the way that I am, the decision procedures I use, or the ultimate results of those procedures.
James acknowledges Strawson’s argument and claims that in light of this we cannot expect the asshole to change his ways. The asshole has picked up an entrenched sense of entitlement that he did not choose. This sense of entitlement makes it impossible for the asshole to see day to day interpersonal relations the same way other people do.
But then James goes on to say something odd. He insists that despite this, assholes are to blame for the fact that they are assholes:
For the asshole to be the appropriate object of blame he must be the sort of person who does what he does for what he thinks are good reasons.
This directly contradicts the foregoing argument–James has just spent many pages elaborating on how the asshole is socially conditioned to think like an asshole through nurture, through his environment, education, parenting, etc. Of course the asshole thinks he has good reasons–he was socialized to believe that bad reasons were good. It was not his choice to be socialized in this way, and James readily admits at other points in the book that those of us who are not assholes are “lucky”. If we are lucky, this implies that it is not to our credit that we are not assholes, but that this is a mere happy accident of birth or rearing. If we are lucky to not be assholes, then assholes are unlucky rather than blameworthy.
Yet James remains committed to the view that assholes are to blame because he wants to hold onto the view that it is justifiable to feel indignant and resentful toward the asshole rather than merely annoyed or pitying. He seems to believe that blame is a necessary prerequisite for resentment. Is this true?
When we blame someone for some harm, we say that a harm is that person’s fault. There are two senses in which a harm might be someone’s fault:
- That the person has some fault or defect that is the proximate cause of the harm.
- That the person not only has some fault or defect that is the proximate cause of the harm, but that the person is the cause of that fault or defect, that the person is not merely the proximate cause, but also the root cause.
Strawson’s argument negating free will seems to cause serious problems for “blame” in the latter sense, but less so in the former sense. If an asshole cuts me off, it is the asshole’s fault, insofar as it is his defect that is the proximate cause of the harm, but it is not his fault in any larger sense. He is not the uncaused cause, he did not decide to be the kind of person that he is.
Corresponding to each form of blame is a different from of resentment:
- When we feel resentment in a case in which we recognize the person to be the proximate cause only, we resent not the person himself, but the larger systems that made that person the kind of person that he is. In short, the resentment is directed at the universe or at society for having made the asshole the way he is rather than at the asshole himself. This can be channeled into constructive action to change our society and our world so that they discourage people from becoming assholes and produce fewer of them.
- When we feel resentment in a case in which we believe the person to be the uncaused cause, both proximate and root, we resent the asshole and the asshole alone. Since this form of resentment holds the asshole alone to be the only cause, it can only make appeal to the asshole himself to change.
If we recognize that the asshole is the product of nature and nurture, then we also recognize that this latter form of resentment is not constructive at all. It misses completely the underlying root cause of the way the asshole is and makes appeals to the asshole that, by definition, the asshole cannot hear. By James’ definition, the asshole has an entrenched sense of entitlement, and by his own admission, the asshole learned this sense of entitlement from society (perhaps in combination with some natural inclination toward asshole behavior). By directing our resentment at the asshole alone, we miss the opportunity to identify and confront the root causes of asshole behavior. We are in effect raging against a symptom.
If we recognize that our feelings of resentment and blame are legitimate, but that their appropriate target is not the proximate cause in front of us, the asshole himself, but rather the root causes, the natural and social forces that made the asshole what he is, we are in a much better position to deal with assholes and asshole behavior. Indeed, the anger assholes make us feel can be a galvanizing force for social progress if it’s directed at the social machinery that manufactures assholes rather than squandered in pointless confrontation with the asshole himself.
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I liked reading this post. All good points.
I’m annoyed by this book for the fact that Aaron James distances himself from being a self-described asshole, when he is firmly within that realm. It takes alot of smug to name as many people as he does as being the typical examples of assholery in such a firm and matter-of-factly way while still labeling his definition just a “theory.” If it’s just a theory, then these people are assholes just in theory. He’s calling it a theory, but in reality he’s applying it in such a factually certain manner, placing himself above so many other people, that his examples seem to be the product moreso of personal bias on some occassions (from what I’ve read so far). He makes sure to put Richard Dawkins on a very inferior pedastal, without ever giving sufficient explanation as to why, other than that Dawkins book “lacks serious philosophical refutation of the existence of god of the sort that Dawkins is not, as a biologist, professionally qualified to provide.” Why would you assume that philosophy is the only means to tackle that issue? Scientific facts are required to refute religious claims, not philosophical assumptions. As for assholes, A. James is not exempt, because apparantly, it takes one to know one.
Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked it! I also found some of the examples he used were rather arbitrary. From what I’ve read of Dawkins, his concern seems to be primarily with casting doubt on the descriptive factual claims of various literalist strands of the theistic religions, not with the wider philosophical dispute about whether deism is logically tenable and/or desirable, so to judge Dawkins’ work against that standard is a bit unfair. Dawkins is certainly an atheist, but I haven’t really seen him have much of a go at deists in his writings, and even if he has done so, typically experts make claims outside their areas of expertise not because they are assholes but because they are only dimly aware of their own limitations. It’s more often an honest mistake than anything else.
Agreed. I think that Dawkins indeed tends to use his biological expertise to challenge the literal claims of the bible where the facts of science are best used, and most likely does not challenge the veracity of deistic claims because they are more philosophical in nature. (ie he uses evidence of evolution to discredit many biblical claims. In turn, this evidence doesn’t apply to deism in general because deists don’t have a need to defend there standpoint using the bible).
Since deistic viewpoints don’t have a need to dismantle scientific facts, whereas literal interpretations of the bible do have such a need out of a desire to defend against what would otherwise undermine the specific sets of dogma extracted from literal interpretations of the bible, Dawkins would have no real need to challenge deism, since deism stands on a different set of legs than literal interpretations of the bible. So, indeed I agree that Dawkins is being judged unfairly here.
Again, thanks for posting your critique. I found it very helpful.
I kept having this same thought throughout: i.e. Isn’t it kinda assholic of James to prescribe a classification of assholes as a quote “objective matter of fact” (33)? And isn’t it assholic to apply his theory to various individuals as though their asshole status makes them moral inferiors? The irony. However, I will say that James is self aware of this: “Is it nevertheless an asshole move to publicly name names, perhaps by publishing a book about assholes? I hope not” (35). So James early on is conscious of the potential irony. And he presumptively apologizes for any undue categorization of individuals as assholes. However, to me, the apology feels insincere (who knows? that’s just my interpretation). As I read the book, I personally kept thinking in the back of my mind “James kinda seems like an asshole.” (Of course, perhaps I’m an asshole for saying this.) In writing the book and making money off it and doing interviews and reaping all sorts of benefits, James “allows himself to enjoy special advantages.” Whether it is “out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunized him against the complaints of other people” is uncertain. Of course though, to raise an obvious epistemic question, how do we know whether anyone is truly acting out of an entrenched sense of entitlement? Is outward appearances all we really have to go on? What are the limits of behavior in terms of revealing deep seated world views? How can we truly know whether one is an asshole or merely acting like one? Aren’t these
Basically, doesn’t proudly proclaiming that you are NOT an asshole . . . make you an asshole? Staying in curiosity, a rather un-asshole behavior, avoiding dogmatic conclusions, steers clear of assholery. James fails at doing just that, by proudly proclaiming that he is not an asshole. How can he me sure?
As a friend once said of golf, ‘You never really have it, you only borrow it from time to time.” So it might be with assholicity.
I ran across this while preparing to write a blog post about three separate assholes and their asshole attorneys who professionally attacked me and whom I defeated – in part by developing the ability to out-asshole them. I am not an asshole (at least not a complete asshole), but have constructed an asshole persona for a part of my life and can deploy an arsenal of assholic tactics when necessary or useful.
(I have ordered this book but not yet read it, so forgive me if I sound like a dumbass-hole) I’d love to hear you all address the absolutist tendency of this discussion to define people as Assholes or Non-assholes. By using the slang term “Asshole” it seems like James is trying to engage what the public interpretes as constituting assholes, not simply a strict academic or scientific definition. Aren’t most of the people we consider assholes part-time or situational assholes? What of the asshole attorney who uses brutal tactics to win at any cost, then is the kindest, most affable guy when he gets back home or community? Or the guy who becomes an abusive asshole under stress or when drinking but a non-asshole 90% of the time? Are they assholes or not?
I also find James’ acknowledgement of Strawson’s argument and claims that we cannot expect the asshole to change his ways to be too absolute. Many – not all – Assholes know that they have a choice to cut off an offending driver or not. They decide not to if, say, their kids are in the car or there’s a police car nearby. I know a person who met James’ definition, and broke from his family (in my opinion) in order to spare them his assholery.
Perhaps I am just getting confusing those capable of asshole behavior and those who meet James’ narrow definition of being an absolute asshole. If so, I think the use of the pejorative, though appealing, term then having a much more narrow definition than the term popularly describes may make for higher book sales, but muddier discourse.
I read the book. I read your post.
Assholes are certainly to blame for being assholes. The basis for this assertion is that most assholes can change and become reciprocal in their relationships.
There are some recalcitrant assholes (like Trump) who are “Royal assholes” and are so narcissistic, they lack introspection and real empathy for others almost entirely, giving them no reason to change their behavior.
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Using this for an Intro to Philosophy Class. A nice intro and critique of James’ book. Really nicely done!