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  • Writer's pictureRicky

My Dissertation, pt. 3

(Links to Part 1 and Part 2)

When you write a dissertation about assholes, you tend to encounter a handful of criticisms over and over.

One of them is that the term asshole is simply too blunt or extreme a term of rebuke to be of any “real” philosophical interest.

I’ve already explained why I think we need to talk about assholes. We really do live in an asshole world, and the more time I spend reading Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, or watching November 2024 approach, the clearer this seems to me.

Fuck Nuance for its own sake. Where the world really is blunt and extreme, our concepts should try to match.

But here’s the more interesting line:

The term “asshole” is much subtler than you might think, and admits of tremendous variation.

And this is the chapter where I explore some of the different kinds and shades of assholes.

There aren’t just full-stop asshole people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk—there are temporary assholes having a bad day, or contextual assholes who just can’t handle certain situtations. (Just about all of us have been one of those before, if we’re honest.)

Plus, assholes can vary along several dimensions. You can be more or less of a total asshole in your reasoning, and more or less of a secret asshole in your behavior.

I suspect we underestimate the philosophical interest of assholes when we zoom in on their obviously crude or bad behavior. But as we gain a more subtle grasp of the term, we recognize that being an asshole is a matter of how you reason, not just what you do.

Suddenly, the asshole’s profound sense of self-entitlement doesn’t render them an unreasoning machine or force of nature whose unpleasant behavior is something to be worked around and dealt with. Instead, their way of living issues a profound challenge, not to morality itself, but to a subtle and puzzling aspect of it that continues to grow in influence and extent over time.

That’s because the asshole lives out a flagrant rejection of egalitarianism—the notion that we are all, in some sense, one another’s equals and ought to be treated as such—by treating himself as morally special.

That means even if we can’t argue the asshole out of it, we can learn more about ourselves through these reflections. And by getting a clearer grip on what the asshole gets wrong, we can illuminate what our own moral commitments to egalitarianism amount to in everyday practice—their “cash value,” as one of my mentors loves to say.

Once we’re able to look past his surface-level bad behavior—and indeed, once we recognize that truly sophisticated assholes will go out of their way to hide their bad behavior from us!—we can see that the asshole is a much more interesting and slippery philosophical opponent than we might have thought.

Take a look—would love to hear your thoughts!

Being an Asshole (2.0)
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