I recently attended a lecture at Stanford CASBS by philosopher Aaron James in which he ably demonstrated the philosophical method by applying it to the following pressing question: what is it for someone to be an asshole?
James began with a working definition of an asshole, its differences with definitions of other related but distinct personality types (like jerk, bully), exemplars, nature of one's experience with an asshole, some necessary but not sufficient characteristics, cross-cultural and gender specific variations (he proposed that nearly all assholes are men), whether assholes are born or made (if the former, are they responsible for their condition?), their impact on society, how to deal with them, and even whether it is possible to love an asshole. I didn't agree with him on every front but I was impressed with his overall approach to the question.
The talk is hard for me to summarize and the questions from the audience were fascinating. But James is writing a book on the topic, so wait for it! I will provide below only his working definition of an asshole (from a handout) and some of the exemplars he proposed (feel free to add your own exemplars!). The second major bullet is the first bullet broken down into sub-components.
What is it for someone to be an asshole?
- A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations, out of an entrenched sense of entitlement which immunizes him against the complaints of other people.
- In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
- allows himself to enjoy special advantages, and does so systematically.
- he does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
- his sense of entitlement immunizes him against the complaints of other people.
Exemplars: Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Stanley McChrystal, Douglas MacArthur, Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pete Rose, Mel Gibson, Ralph Nader, John Edwards, Julian Assange.