Aaron James is a political philosopher at UC-Irvine, and despite its eye-catching title and mass appeal, Assholes: A Theory is indeed a piece of philosophy. I expected this going into the book, but I still thought I would find James’s tongue planted firmly (or at least gently) in cheek. But this is sincere work, and contains some genuinely valuable philosophy. It does lack some of the rigour associated with contemporary analytic philosophy, and in the acknowledgements James admits to having “relaxed” his standards to some extent. But James also shares, like me, the skepticism most professional philosophers feel about “pop philosophy,” and I must say that his book fares extremely well in this regard, compared with some of the lay philosophy churned out over the last decade or so.
James’s subject is the asshole, the person who (wrongly) believes himself—assholes are almost invariably male—to be worthy of special treatment due to an entrenched sense of entitlement. Entire chapters are spent discussing this definition itself, and there are also chapters on how assholes differ from mere “jerks” or “pricks,” assholes and gender, and how assholes can negatively impact capitalism, including a game-theoretic appendix on the subject. What we are not given is much useful advice about what to do about assholes. This is partly because James is a bit despairing on the matter, but I can’t help but think that more productive work on “asshole management” is indeed possible, at least on a philosophical level.
- Bill Cameron