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:

  1. He allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systemically.
  2. He does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.
  3. 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:

  1. Nature–genetic and biological content which people receive at birth.
  2. 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:

Basic Argument

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:

  1. That the person has some fault or defect that is the proximate cause of the harm.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.