Summary of ASSHOLES: A THEORY, Chapter 1


Aaron James


Assholes abound in history and public life, and while we know one when we see one, putting an exact definition on an asshole proves a little tricky. It would be useful, though, to fully understand the asshole, so that we may better handle him: either better resist him, or ignore.

For the purposes of this book, the author uses he/him pronouns, as the vast majority of assholes, with a few notable exceptions of course (think Ann Coulter), are men.

The type of asshole we are studying here:

a) has a stable trait of character: We are not talking about the person who occasionally acts like an asshole, but might more properly be termed a jerk, a dip-shit, or a douche bag. Everyone is occasionally insensitive to social cues, but a true asshole is always an asshole.

b) imposes only small or moderate costs upon others: We are also not talking about the type of person who is so much of an asshole that the term “asshole” does not go far enough in describing him—think Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. To merely call these people an asshole would be a disservice to the word, and to humanity. Our asshole does not kill, but rather, helps himself to more than his share, acts out of turn, or doesn’t shoulder his fair share of the work load.

c) is reprehensible: Our asshole may not be a person who needs to be removed from society in handcuffs, but is nonetheless, to wide agreement, repugnant—someone capable of driving an otherwise coolheaded person into a fit of rage.

Our theory has three main parts. An asshole:

  1. allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;

  2. does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement;

  3. is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

  1. Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically.

A socially cooperative person, that is, one who respects the unwritten rules of engagement in social situations, has a right to special advantages every now and then, and acknowledges that others have the same occasional right. Everyone is special on their birthday, or can cut the line in an emergency, or interrupt another person from time to time with an important or excited interjection.

An asshole, though, feels entitled every day. He cuts the line when he feels like it. He interrupts others consistently, cuts people off in traffic, and persistently highlights others’ flaws.

2. Acts out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.

It is not that an asshole believes everyone is equally entitled to look out for number one—such a person may act like an asshole but only because he thinks everyone else sees the world the same way, and his actions are almost self-defensive.

Rather, an asshole believes he is better, smarter, more worthy—in short, more entitled—than anyone around him.

However, an asshole is an asshole only if he is assuming entitlements that he does not in fact have. This can give rise to some disagreement over who fits the definition. Lefty thinks Bill O’Reilly is an asshole—opportunistically exploiting working-class resentment. Righty feels, though, that he is heroically giving voice to working-class resentment. The difference in opinion lies in whether O’Reilly is in fact entitled to act as he acts.

3. Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

Here we get to the matter of why assholes are so maddening.

Humans are unique in our ability to reason, and further, to understand that others have a similar capacity to reason.

It is, therefore, one of our basic moral responsibilities to hear another person out; to acknowledge that while we may not ultimately agree with them, we do agree that they, as a fellow human, are capable of respectable, rational thought.

An asshole, however, dismisses not only any complaint, but the complainant. Anyone who objects to his behavior is morally nonexistent in his eyes. An asshole never recognizes the error of his ways. If he is challenged, it is the challenge that is wrong, not his behavior.

This is why otherwise levelheaded people can fall into rage when confronted with an asshole: they are fighting to be recognized. They are not fighting for the small benefit of, say, the asshole moving to the back of the line. They are fighting to be recognized as morally real, and deserving of basic human respect.

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