Asshole management — a practical use for philosophy

This is an advance review of Assholes – a Theory, by Aaron James, which will become available October 30, 2102, from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

There are quite a few good jokes about people with degrees in philosophy. One of my favorite comic strips, Non Sequitur, by Wiley Miller, has a lot of fun with this. One example shows a man standing in front of a hot dog stand. The caption reads, “PUTTING A DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY TO WORK.” The sign on the front of the hot dog stand reads, “Hot dogs – Pretzels – Pithy Quotes.” Another sign on the side indicates that the order comes with a “free side of Goethe.”

Since I teach philosophy, I am often asked to come up with a good reason why a person should major in the subject, and I offer the usual bromides: “It will make you better at what you do, whatever it is;” “It is great training for a career in the law” (except for that pesky ethics course, which frequently gets in the way!). Or, “It makes you think deeply.” I don’t mention that my studies in philosophy and theology opened the door for me in state government. Yes, like most philosophy teachers, I have long wished that philosophy would enjoy a resurgence of applicability to life in the real world.

Well, it has happened!

It started in 2005 with a book titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University and former Professor at Yale. Frankfurt demonstrated the value of philosophy in dealing with one of society’s most troubling aspects. At last — philosophy touched on a real world problem!

Now, another philosopher will publish a long-needed philosophical study of yet another troubling real-world problem: asshole management.

Aaron James. Image souce: U of C, Irvine, Faculty Profile

Assholes: a Theory (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 10/31/2012) is the latest book by Arron James, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He is no dilettante: he has a Ph.D. from Harvard and has authored many books on philosophy, focusing on fairness in society. So, a book on a category of people who basically think what’s ‘fair’ is ‘fair’ only so long as it deals them all the cards is a very appropriate topic, one that everyone–not just philosophy students–can gain something from. In fact, while he drops many big names from the history of philosophy in the course of his book (Kant, Rousseau, Aristotle, Rawls, and even the most feared, Hegel), he does so in a way that makes their points understandable to the average reader and offers a very instructive handbook on how to deal with one of life’s biggest problems.

We’ve all experienced them. Assholes, that is. The boss who, at the slightest hint of displeasure by a board member about a report written by staffers, throws the staff under the bus without even analyzing the worthiness of the remark. The guy who butts into line at the movie theater, or at the lunch counter. The guy who swerves in and out of traffic lanes, frequently endangering other commuters, as though he is the only person who has to be someplace on time. The father who only asks to see his child from a failed marriage when he “misses” the kid in a moment of self pity. We know them when we see them, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves what it is, exactly, that makes a person an asshole? To wax philosophical, what is the “essence” of an asshole? This is where philosophy is very important because philosophy, ever since Socrates, starts out by defining its terms.

James tells us that an asshole is a person who allows himself to enjoy special advantage ‘systematically’ due to an “entrenched” sense of entitlement (“entrenched” means the person will never change), and who is oblivious to complaints about his behavior because of that overwrought sense of entitlement.

Okay. Think real hard. Did you ever encounter someone like that? Of course you have. At work. At church. In school. At home. Just about everywhere.

Here’s a tougher one. Does this describe you? If so, then you could be an asshole. Of course, if you are, it probably won’t register because, after all, you are entitled to be that way!

James’ book invariably takes him into the realm of politics, and I was worried that I was going to encounter a left-wing diatribe (the guy teaches in California, after all), but he is “fair and balanced” in his condemnation of those he feels fit the bill: Rush Limbaugh is an asshole–but so is Michael Moore. Fox News gets a good drubbing–but so does MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (I couldn’t agree more!). And James has an especial dislike for Ann Coulter.

But can Ann Coulter be an asshole? There is an interesting discussion about whether assholes are exclusively male. He notes a difference between men and women that is culturally developed: women tend to be less aggressive, and so (according to him) they tend to disguise their contempt for other peoples’ opinions by pretending to appreciate them–and then turning around and going after them behind their backs. I won’t go any further, except to say that, Oh, ladies, you are going to have a field day with this!

At bottom, James contends that assholery is a moral issue, largely because the asshole disregards the humanity of those whose opinions he ignores. He calls Kant into the debate to recognize that every human being has moral worth, and the importance of every person to be recognized is crucial. The “proper asshole”, by his stable characteristic behavior, completely misses this point.

Where James hits the nail squarely on the head is when he addresses the effect of assholes on society. Why is it, for example, that Congress is unable to do anything except along party lines, (a phenomenon that has also affected the legislature in many states–particularly Illinois)? Here, James speaks the language of the common man and woman, because some visitors to the Illinois State Fair were sporting buttons that read “Vote the Assholes Out!” Come to think of it, it was on Democrat Day.

Assholery affects cooperative effort, and James tells us that “Cooperation is fragile.”

The prospects for any society depend to a large extent on circumstance and fate. And so cooperative people must remain vigilant if decent society is to last. Cooperative vigilance is the only bulwark against decline, especially in capitalist societies.

There are laugh-out-loud-funny parts in this book, but, at bottom, the discussion is a serious one. And it is smartly written. I am thinking about making this book required reading in my philosophy courses. Finally, I have an answer to that pesky question, “Why study philosophy?”

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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