Aaron James, a philosopher at University of California Irvine, has a wonderful short book entitled Assholes: A Theory (Doubleday 2012). The title may suggest that it is a silly pop philosophy book aimed at titillation rather than illumination. But it’s actually a highly insightful and persuasive analysis of what it means to be an asshole as opposed to a schmuck, bitch, or psychopath. Crucially for James being an asshole involves a specific kind of moral failing and it is the character of this moral failing that makes assholes both infuriating and destructive to valuable forms of social cooperation. The theory in a nutshell has three components. 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”. (James offers a brief summary of his theory here.)
James gives many useful illustrations of the different kinds of asshole that arise in different social contexts from surfing to the corporate world. (A particularly interesting chapter is devoted to assholes and capitalism. James has a lot of interesting things to say about an ugly form of capitalism in which the 1% portray grotesquely greedy demands for remuneration as a basic entitlements.) There are many political examples and that fact that they seem to be so familiar is itself disturbing. But as an American, James draws most of the illustrations from American public culture so there is little discussion of what results the theory might generate in Canada….
In following discussion of the oxymoronically titled Fair Elections Act, I have been struck by the way in which members of the Conservative party believe it is democratically acceptable to ram through a piece of legislation that is clearly designed to confer special advantages on the Conservative party in contesting elections. The Conservatives clearly believe that the majority they enjoy in parliament entitles them to limit opportunities for careful scrutiny of the bill and that they have no reason to give serious consideration to modest amendments that might merely temper the worst facets of the bill. They also view themselves as immune to criticism. Conservatives have contemptuously dismissed the grave concerns that scores of academics, journalists, election experts and NGOs have expressed about the bill. The facts the proposed legislation threatens to disenfranchise citizens and that there is no problem of voter fraud to be solved are treated as irrelevant in the Conservative conception of democratic discourse.
Regrettably, this kind of conduct by the Conservatives is not anomalous. One need only recall Harper’s cynical use of prorogation to retain the power to which he felt entitled. The objections of constitutional experts be damned. Or the efforts to gut the funding for Insite – the successful supervised injection site program in Vancouver. Medical experts be damned. Or the government’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto accord. Science be damned. Or the decision to make the long form census no longer mandatory. Statistical evidence be damned. Or the decision to ignore rules for the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Law be damned. And so on.
In all these cases, the actions of the Conservatives fulfill the criteria laid out in James’ theory: they display a desire to secure special advantages or exemptions from rules or political conventions; they are grounded in a sense of political entitlement; and they are pursued in a way that expresses indifference to criticism. Their actions disrupt and undermine the kind of respectful, evidence-based, reason regulated, co-operative discourse on which a vibrant democracy depends. So in light of James’ theory, what does all this imply about the political character of many Conservatives in the current government? Draw your own conclusions.