Friday, September 13, 2013

Assholes by Aaron James

Aaron James is an associate professor of philosophy at UC Irvine.

If being a person with basic moral status means anything, it at very least means that one is owed respect and consideration as being endowed with capacity to reason. In particular, people are endowed with powers that enable them to consider and evaluate how someone has acted. The community of persons is, in this way special. I, as an ordinary person, have special powers of self-consciousness, reasoning and judgment. I can observe someone acting, as a mere event in the order of things, but also ask (if only to myself) certain questions of justification. Why, I might ask, should an act such as that be acceptable? In particular, is such an act justifiable to me if it was done in my direction, given how it might effect me?

Likewise, any one of us, so endowed, can ask what would be justifiable to another person, from his or her particular point of view. Is that something she can reasonably find acceptable, given the consequences for her? Or could she reasonably complaint of how she is in effect being treated? In that case, what we think another could or could not accept should have special significance for us and how we act.  It will influence our choices, at least if we are at all morally concerned. Each of us, in acting, has to consider not only what might make the world better rather than worse from an impersonal point of view – factoring in the fate of mountains, whales and trees – but also what could be acceptable to each and every one of us, for reasons arising from  the different, distinctive personal standpoint of each separate person in our common world.

This is not to say that just any complaint someone voices in a conversation should carry the day, as though one always needed explicit or implicit permission from everyone who could be affected by one’s choices, no matter how unreasonable those people might be. The objections or complaints we actually voice sometimes reflect ignorance of crucial facts or lack concern with what is reasonably acceptable from everyone’s point of view. We can be ignorant or selfish, or both.

Neither are our complaints and objections always or inevitably ill- founded in these ways, however. So when someone does object to a particular act, with a quizzical glare or loud words. There is usually some reason to think that the person may have a reasonable complaint.  Even if the objection is ultimately unreasonable, it might also have a element of truth.  Accordingly, one of our basic moral responsibilities is to hear people out, to at least take seriously the reasons they give for wanting to be treated differently, even if we ultimately object. The expectation, in other words, is for us to recognize the person objecting, in something like the way a deliberative body grants someone in the room the right to speak before the group. This is, as we might put it, part and parcel of basic moral respect –that is, respect not simply for the person’s complaint but for the person who makes it.

The Asshole,by contrast, is wholly immunized against the complaints of others.  Whether or not the complaint is ultimately reasonable, the person is not registered, from the asshole’s point of view, as worthy of consideration.  The person who complains is not seen as a potential source of reasonable complaint but is simply walled out. If the person complaining is “standing up for herself” in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally nonexistent in the asshole’s view of the world.

This is why otherwise coolheaded people fall into a fit of rage or lash out at an asshole: they are fighting to be recognized.  They are not fighting for the small benefit of having the asshole move to the back of the line or, more generally, for a slightly more fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of cooperation. The person taking a stand against an asshole is fighting to be registered in the asshole’s point of view as morally real.

The fight can become extraordinarily frustrating because the asshole usually wins: his sense of entitlement is entrenched, so there is usually no way of getting through. (Hence one may spontaneously desire to give the man a sound beating, as though that would help.) The fully cooperative person is accustomed to listening when people complain, and used to be heard when even a suggestion of complaint is made. That is how cooperative people normally work out what is acceptable to all, what the moral equity of each person requires. This comes to feel natural, expected, a matter of course. The asshole, by contrast, is equally accustomed to walling others out. He does it all the time. This is comfortable for him. He is exceptionally good at it: when others complain, he easily dismisses the objection, or quickly finds convincing arguments that rationalize the objection away, and moves on. He compliments himself on how good he is at this because he is very good at it indeed. .  . 
                                                              .  .  .

Certain styles of capitalism are inherently prone to decline or, more specifically, to degrade, due to the proliferation of assholes. Asshole capitalism, as we hereby define the term, is the name of this kind of unstable social system.

Every kind of society requires a reliable asshole-dampening system – that is, a set of social institutions, such as the family, religion, public education, or the rule of law –that keeps the asshole population from getting out of hand. For if the proportion of assholes in the population becomes too large (i.e. the non-asshole to asshole ratio takes a dive) cooperative people will become increasingly unable or unwilling or just too few in number to uphold the practices and institutions need for society to stave off decline. Asshole capitalism is especially prone to undoing itself in this way.

The asshole feels entitled to special advantages in cooperative life to which in fact he has no moral claim. The culture of an asshole capitalism sends just this kind of strong entitlement message.  Roughly, the message is that you can rightly get something for nothing or get rich without having to worry about the cost to others. This message creates powerful incentives for asshole-style reasoning and action, not just among those who are already assholes but among many who would otherwise be content to cooperate as equals in society. The result is a profusion of assholery throughout social and economic life that overwhelms the dampening systems that might otherwise keep the asshole population from exploding out of control. As assholes grow in numbers, or are simply perceived to grow in numbers, cooperative people gradually withdraw from upholding the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to function by its own standard of value.

A helpful way to think about how this works is to start by imagining a capitalist society that more or less fulfills capitalism’s social promises. This means that cooperative people, despite the usual assholes, mostly uphold the various practices and institutions needed for almost everyone to have things like real freedom, real opportunity,  a goodly share in general prosperity: advance in the general welfare, a rising tide (standard of living) in which all boats are lifted, the yacht and dinghy alike. Capitalism we are told, advances these values as well as or better than alternative social forms.

Assuming for the sake of argument that this is right, it is extremely important  to recognize that those grand promises can’t be fulfilled without supportive social practices and institutions. The idea of a  large-scale, self-sustaining, self-organizing “perfectly competitive” and “efficient” market is an intellectual fiction, it bears little relation to any real markets. Large-scale exchange is possible, for example, only within a system of property that demarcates different things as “mine” and “thine.” That will in turn require any institutions of security, law, contract, adjudication, taxation and politics to generally not fall apart (because rampant theft or corruption or constant endemic conflict and so forth).

 But now suppose the society switches to the entitlement system (perhaps the Entitlement Party rises to power). The system is now sending a powerful entitlement message, for instance, that having ever more is one’s moral right, even when it comes at a cost to others. As asshole thinking and culture spread and hold, the asshole-dampening systems that used to keep assholery in check become overwhelmed. Parents start preparing their kids for an asshole economy, the law is increasingly compromised, the political system is increasingly controlled through systems of bribery and so on. As some switch sides while others mainly withdraw, cooperative people ( who recognize each other as ‘morally real’) find it more difficult to uphold the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to do right by its on values. What happens?

Probably living standards increasing rise only for the fortunate few,” the rising tide of capitalism” lifts the yacht but swamps the dinghy. The growth of gross domestic product year after year may increasingly become like everyone in a bar getting “richer”, on average, because Bill Gates just walked in; average per capita wealth spikes, but most aren’t personally richer for it. In more concrete terms, this may show up in various ways: maybe people become increasingly uncertain about their prospects for stable employment and eventual retirement, even though they have “worked hard and played by the rules” their whole lives; or perhaps people are increasingly unable to stay in school, try as they may, because their increasingly vulnerable family can’t support their debts or need them to work to pay urgent bills; or it could be that average people are increasingly unable to get the basic protections of the law in an increasingly cash-strapped police or judicial system, even as assholes get the best justice money can buy; and maybe any or all of these trends result from political power being increasingly concentrated in the hands of an influential few, who steadily change the rules to further entrench that influence which, in asshole culture, become increasingly impervious to complaint, In short, in one way or another, people increasingly see “liberty”, “opportunity”, or “prosperity” in name only, in a form that isn’t especially valuable to them, that doesn’t make good on the promise of capitalism in their eyes.

Now, as we understand entitlement capitalism, the encouraged sense of entitlement is not limited to proper assholes. They readily take to the message, since it confirms what they already believe about themselves. More important is that others who would not otherwise think like assholes are also swayed, especially as the entitlement messages catches on and the practices and institutions designed to hold assholery in check weaken. They, too, begin to aggressively and indignantly defend so-called reforms that give them an ever-greater slice of the pie, regardless of its social rationale and even the great cost to others. That doesn’t necessarily mean that assholery pervades all areas of life. The thinking may be limited to work or to politics, or generally to the economic system. Ordinary persons have no need or compulsion to be particularly “entrenched” in the mentality of entitlement capitalism. When the winds of culture blow in a different, perhaps more cooperative direction, many will go with the flow and perhaps later feel puzzled about how they could have previously thought so much like an asshole. And even asshole reasoning per se will have some sense of limit. Even proper assholes will not knowingly push things into complete collapse. After all, where cooperation doesn’t exist, as in Hobbes’s state of nature, there are no special advantages for the asshole to take.

[Which is perhaps not an unduly optimist note upon which to end this blog entry.]

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