James argues that what is characteristic of assholes is that they systematically "act out of a deep-rooted sense of entitlement, a habitual and persistent belief that they deserve special treatment." He develops a typology of different kinds of assholes, and also theorizes about the rise of "asshole capitalism," which is where:
market thinking. . .[sets] "in motion a spiral of market-induced erosion of other-regarding and ethical values, which in turn prompts greater reliance on markets, which in turn further erodes values, and so on."
A society caught in that spiral, James argues, is a society in distress. The institutions that sustain capitalism—public education, religion, family, law—begin to fray, resulting in a profusion of assholes. . . "Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more."
One can, without romanticizing the past, find this to be a plausible description of our current trajectory.
I haven't read James' book yet, but I'd like to see a discussion of asshole academia. Certainly everyone reading this knows people whose sense of self regard is so buffoonishly high that they are to a large extent simply not capable of envisioning and acting out of a concept of either the communal good or the good of individual members in the community. What factors in academia might select for such people. What forces might increase such personality traights among those of us in academia?
I can think of a couple:
- The job market. The way you have to sell yourself is both easier if you already are an asshole, and tends to bring out one's inner asshole. Take a typical job question, "how do you envision seeing your research develop of the next five or so years?" Now nobody who is actually a very good philosopher could possibly answer this honestly, because creative people end up working on surprising things. But someone with a buffoonishly high sense of self-regard will have a much less hard time selling themselves while answering such questions.
- The academic star system. I suspect any social organization with a star system and/or romantic cult of genius attracts and creates assholes.
- The way people are in the end evaluated almost entirely on research (and I don't just mean at one's own institution, nobody is famous for doing the kind of humble work that is necessary to keep a department running). If you live in an ecosystem where there is not much respect for doing things like advising undergraduates, this is going to push people to be less concerned for the common good.
- Neo-liberalism generally sinking into academia. Consider the erosion of power of faculty senates and all of the other myriad way (esp. "assessment") academics are increasingly treated like atomized employees instead of members of a guild.
- Lack of a shared ethic of institutional loyalty. While this is surely the result of the star system and neo-liberalism, I think it has causal heft in it's own right, bringing people to focus more on what is good for them and not on what is good for their community.
- The ubiquity of critique helping to give rise to what Graham Harman calls "the sneer from nowhere." For a nice related meditation, see a recent post by Levi Bryant HERE.