Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

In the New York Times bestseller Nick Hornby calls “helpful, stimulating, and very timely”, philosopher Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary.

This notepad was tagged with: Books

This notepad was written on January 10, 2024.

There are 1133 words in this notepad, and it will probably take you less than 6 minutes to read it.


My Review

This book on its face and in name is about assholes, but really, I think it is a character study and cultural anthropology of the concept of entitlement in society. I think that the piece about examining the entitlement of assholes and also why they frustrate us because of the lack of more recognition is an interesting insight, but I do think that the overall value of this book is found in its examination of entitlement in society. I think that this is more an exploration of capitalism more than anything, one that is very interesting but not entirely under the banner of the book’s title. This book actually got more political than I thought, and is somewhat left leaning and I can imagine that readers and reviewers alike didn’t necessarily like this, especially in a book called assholes, where the author takes on people like Fox News and Wall Street bankers.

I think that the book felt a bit fragmented and that there were parts of the book that might not appeal to various types of readers, depending on what they want out of the book. I think that the book is logically organized in such a way where the book thematically progresses but I think you probably could read individual chapters on their own, or skip chapters if you wanted to. Chapters develop on various points related to the definition of assholes, so if you don’t care for certain parts, I suppose you could take them for granted and just move on to more interesting chapters. I’m sure the author would probably not advise this, but who knows? I am an advocate for getting whatever you need out of a book, whether or not that’s what the author intended or not.

This book is written like a mixture of contemporary moral philosophy, as well as popular science books, so the format is fairly accessible. However I can see some content going over people‘s heads or being lost on people who are not as familiar with the philosophical literature that he sometimes references. The author is sure to explain these references, but understanding the broader context of these ideas does allow you to understand more of what the author is saying. I found his writing to be fairly clear but sometimes I found myself rereading sentences because I wasn’t sure if he was affirming or negating the sentence. Philosophers endlessly qualify and couch their statements in order to protect them from critique so that can sometimes make sentences harder to parse. However other than this the writing is fairly direct and I enjoy how he argued his points.

My Notes

This book was published in 2015 and I think some of the examples aged in ways the author couldn’t have expected. Additionally, a lot of these people I didn’t know because of the age and also because I don’t watch the news. In this way, I don’t know how well the examples aged but also, there’s enough context I can understand the examples, but I think they would resonate more with someone who knows what’s going on

  • Kanye as a case becomes more complicated because of his public diagnosis of Bi-Polar Disorder, but with that being said, who’s to say if that is the cause for his large ego and his antics.
  • It is funny that he cited Donald Trump as just a reality star, it is funny that no one would have foresaw him running for president.

It is interesting to think about the classification of assholes relies on the idea of judging entitlement, and what a person is entitled to, because that would be an interesting debate to have like for geniuses and artists, for example

  • the question of moral luck comes up on page 78

Collectivist East Asian cultures seemingly stand in a weird state. They are much more polite under Western standards but there is a sense of entitlement in the age-based hierarchy of respect in cultures like Japan or Korea. There is an entrenched sense of entitlement of reverent treatment from juniors to seniors in these cultures. While it is technically justified under the tradition and culture of the countries, it does somewhat erase the agency and moral recognition of the younger people, especially when interacting with their elders. I think that a lot of this interaction is much more internal, these hierarchies apply far less to foreigners/Westerns. Of course they expect a reasonable facade of respect, but I don’t think that Easterners really account for Westerners within their age-based hierarchy.

He draws a distinction between moral blameworthiness and accountability which I feel is alright, but I feel like his account of why the asshole is blameworthy is not wholly non-controversial. I wish he would have cited a further paper where the ideas are wrestled in more depth.

  • He cites other papers, but I didn’t notice any citations for this particular concept.
  • For what it’s worth, I found it fairly convincing, but I didn’t want to just take what he said at face value, and wanted to see a longer form development of the ideas.
    • I think that the author largely moved on quickly from the points I found interesting/thought needed more explanation, and then belabored on some points that didn’t need it, but I think that’s just my perception.

The asshole management chapter sometimes feels like r/comebacks or “then everyone clapped” when it comes to giving advice on dealing with assholes. With that being said, I do understand that it is a tough problem, one deserving of a book.

  • The author points out that the trouble of dealing with assholes is that each person has their own idea of what is socially (un)acceptable, as also in what is socially (un)acceptable in terms of dealing with social transgressions.

The fragility of tolerance page 141 is very interesting and I think it goes beyond asshole management, but just society in organization in general.

  • It made me think of leftist spaces where debates about morality, justice, and other topics can quickly turn into in-fighting and prevent actual work from getting done.

Are assholes free riders in a game theory sense? Can we create systems of incentives to prevent asshole capitalism?

The book dodged the black pill by discussing Hegelian and Rawlsian reconciliation, but I guess whether or not you feel hopeful after that is if you buy the premises of the argument.

  • I think that it was good to end on this topic, the hopeful stuff, but I am not sure if it actually cheered me up or not. Definitely left me with a lot to think about; especially in terms of reasonable hope and still striving to better society.

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