Book Review / Reflections On: Assholes, a Theory

The title might make you think it’s not a serious work, that it’s tongue-in-cheek, even a parody of a philosophy book.

But it’s really a very good, intelligently written, well-thought-out exploration of a sadly widespread phenomenon. And yes, it’s so satisfying to finally see that age-old question ‘Why are you being such an asshole?’ addressed and explained so thoroughly.

Author Aaron James is not being merely provocative in using the term ‘asshole’ to designate the particular kind of person he’s talking about. He uses this colloquialism because we really have no other word that’s so specific and so widely understood, to refer to a person who displays a certain attitude and systematically engages in certain types of bad behavior. Here’s James’ three-part definition: the asshole 1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically: 2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and 3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p 5).

When we say of someone: ‘what an asshole!’, or observe ‘that was such an asshole thing to do!’ pretty much everyone recognizes this just the sort of person or behavior we’re talking about. If we were to use a more formal or non-slang term instead, as in ‘what a bad person!’ or ‘that was a depraved thing to do!’, the full richness and specificity of meaning that the colloquial, richly nuanced term asshole possesses wouldn’t be fully expressed. Look at how many words it took James to define what we mean by ‘asshole’ (and I would say, not quite fully: none of the definition’s three parts describe the little shudder of outraged disgust we feel when we see assholes doing what they do.)

That’s why, like James and fellow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose 2005 paper ‘On Bullshit’ caused quite a stir, I disagree with linguistic purists and prudes who wholly reject the use of colloquialisms in serious or academic work (though I speak only for myself as to how far this should go ). Out of self-righteously willful obtuseness, I insist, these purists just don’t ‘get it’. Everyday spoken language is much more fluid and adaptable than formal language, because there’s no arbiter of proper usage ‘breathing down your neck’ other than your partner in conversation. In the virtual experimentation lab that is daily conversation, we search for words that express exactly what we mean as efficiently if possible, and if there’s no ready word available, we adapt one that already exists, or make one up on the spot. As long as the person you’re talking to right then understands you, ‘it’s all good’. Formal language, on the other hand, evolves much more slowly, and must adhere more rigidly to existing standards of usage. Only over long periods of time do newer terms, having entered into common usage, filter up through the levels of linguistic formalization, and become accepted by editors of dictionaries, publishing houses, and news media. Yet the formalization of language doesn’t always result in a more expressive, precise one. As you can see, I used several idioms and colloquialisms in this paragraph, in quotes, to express my thoughts, and if you haven’t ‘been living under a rock’ you probably understood exactly what I meant. You can also see that colloquialisms can not only be a more colorful or amusing way, but more efficient way, of expressing yourself. You can test this by trying to define the full meaning of these colloquialisms, with all their nuance, using a lesser number of terms in formal language. I’d ‘bet your ass’ you can’t!

(In one of my student papers written a few years ago, I explore the linguistic origins and evolution of colloquialisms in the light of Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Dumas and Lighter’s paper on slang, and Steven Anderson’s hilarious and thoughtful documentary F**k. )

But I digress. To return to James’ book: it has a lot going on. So much so that it lead me to think, for example, more about the nature of language itself, just from the parts where he discusses what ‘asshole’ means, the various subtypes of assholes, and compares and contrasts asshole to related terms bitch, schmuck, assclown, douchebag, dickhead, dick move, and so on. (He forgot one of my favorites, asshat, which refers to having one’s head up one’s own ass, thereby wearing it like a hat.) It’s a testament to the richness of ideas in this book that thinking it over, every time, engendered so many other interesting lines of thought. Exploring the concepts contained in the term ‘asshole’ raises important questions about respect for one’s self and others, of human dignity, of exploitation, of how you should act and not act in a cooperative society, what we can rightfully expect of others and why their failure to live up to this is so objectionable, and much more; in short, this term is thick with moral and political implications.

There’s one point on which I disagree: his suggestion that, while assholes are far more likely to be men (which I agree is the case), they are almost entirely a product of culture (chapter 4). While I agree there may be cultural factors that help instill asshole qualities in men, and that some cultures are more likely to instill these qualities than others, it seems that nature plays a larger role than James allows. I think it likely that testosterone, the hormone which we know increases the tendency to aggression, contributes a lot to the phenomenon of assholery. After all, the traits James ascribes to the asshole are aggressive in nature: systematically granting oneself special privileges over others, of feeling entitled to things whatever the circumstances, and rejecting or ignoring others’ just complaints. It’s not that all men are assholes, far from it. It’s just that the biological factor of hormonal makeup increases the likelihood that males will be more susceptible to asshole influences, or more likely to possess aggressive traits that readily fall into asshole patterns of thought and behavior, than women. To my mind, assholery is a product of combined nature and nurture: asshole seeds take root in ground made more fertile by testosterone.

One of my favorite sections of the book was on asshole capitalism. James is not claiming here that capitalism is necessarily an asshole system. What he’s claiming is that capitalism is essentially a cooperative system ripe for exploitation by assholes, which, in turn, puts it in ever-present danger of collapse, of being destroyed from within. That’s because capitalism is a system of exchange and of reward: people exchange goods and services cooperatively and fairly, which generates trust and more trade, and people reward those who devise and provide the best goods and services with admiration and customer loyalty. And assholery, systematically behaving as if one is entitled to things regardless of the actual value of their contributions to the world, threatens the stability of the cooperative environment necessary for capitalism.

Since assholes systematically regard themselves as the rightful recipients of the best of everything, out of a sense that they are entitled to it per se, assholes exploit other people’s willingness to be fair and to reward others. Asshole drivers feel that owning bimmers entitle them to run red lights and rev their motors inches from people in crosswalks; asshole CEOs and managers think nothing of the fact that their wealth is built on the backs of sweatshop laborers or from industries that generate mass pollution; asshole bankers think they should earn millions or billions a year because they ‘have the balls’ to gamble other people’s money in financial markets, even at the risk of bringing down entire economies (to be fair, they are often so obsessed with their own rewards they may have a hard time even conceiving of larger, potentially dire consequences, because that would mean seriously considering interests other than their own).

Capitalism can and does thrive when people act somewhat selfishly within a larger context of cooperativeness. But never to the extent that the system would hold up under too much lying, cheating, stealing, abuse and neglect of employees, etc. That’s because money, and markets, can’t operate without trust. If most people can be trusted and it’s just a relatively few bad apples gaming the system, well, human nature being what it is, that’s to be expected. But if entitled, self-obsessed, rapacious assholes proliferate beyond a certain proportion, all bets are off. James explains why the modern Russian oligarchic system is rightly considered a full asshole capitalist system and the Japanese system is very much not. Worryingly, and not the least bit to my surprise, James presents evidence for what I’ve already been convinced of: the United States brand of capitalism is edging far too close to Russia’s end of the spectrum, and much farther away from Japan’s. That’s because our modern American capitalist culture has become one of entitlement (as much as certain pundits like to use this word exclusively to refer to aid to the poor, not handouts and special privileges to the rich), in which far too many of use we feel justified in grabbing whatever we want because we somehow, innately, ‘deserve’ it, everyone else be damned.

In sum: this book is a very useful book, on how to understand the origins and nature of assholes; on how to recognize and deal with assholes in the media and in daily life (James’ theory helps explain why certain assholes in the media remain entrenched in their self-serving dishonesty); and as a cautionary tale of when societies allow and encourage assholery to run amok.

– This book review is dedicated to my father-in-law, a man given to succinctness. His fatherly wisdom, which so resonated with my husband he has retold it many times over the years: ‘Son, don’t be an asshole. The world has enough of them already’.

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014.

Nicholson, Christie. ‘Testosterone Promotes Aggression Automatically’, Scientific American, June 9, 2012.

Thanks also to, which helped me make sure I had all my colloquialisms right, and avoided spelling bimmer ‘beamer’ like a moron