In Pursuit of Assholes

It says something about our times that a book called “Happiness: A Very Short Introduction” includes an index entry for “assholes.”

“Happiness” is among the slender paperbacks of Very Short Introductions published by Oxford University Press that focus on specific topics – Theology, Drugs, Computer Science, the Harlem Renaissance, Law, Fungi, the Great Depression – to name a few. The authors are considered authorities on a given subject.

At Powell’s on Burnside in Portland, Ore., the Very Short Introduction books are displayed on a carousel in the Purple Room – an enticement to shoppers browsing for a gift.

While I looked at “Happiness,” two young women seemed intrigued by “Reality” and left with a copy.

The author of “Happiness” is Daniel M. Haybron, an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Saint Louis University. He has conducted research on happiness since 1995 and is considered “an authority on well-being and the good life, moral evil, and the virtues.”

Haybron writes that there are five key sources to happiness: security, outlook, autonomy, relationships, and skilled/meaningful activity.

Where do assholes come in?

He counsels that “one should not be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness.”

But Haybron also acknowledges that immorality might make a person happier, even better off, than morality.

He’s right, of course. Look at some of the celebrities that the public and media fawn over. How many of these celebrities arrived where they are strictly on talent and good luck? Even in our own families and workplaces, we might find examples of people who have been rewarded for dishonesty or bad behavior.

Haybron wants us to consider why philosophers place so much emphasis on living a virtuous life.

“Besides the importance of morality, acting and living well go far beyond moral goodness. We don’t just admire people for being good, but also for exercising homely virtues such as friendliness, wit, or resilience,” he writes.

I’d say it depends on where you live. In some places, the concept of “homely virtues” is regarded with political contempt.

“Another crucial part of living well has to do with meaning: being connected to people and things that matter,” Haybron says. “Happiness is part of human well-being and beyond well-being, it is important to act well.”

For him, it seems to be a given that it is important to act well. Why is it important? Goodness for the sake of goodness? Could avoiding punishment be considered a good reason to act well?

A few days ago, there was a familiar commentary in The Oregonian. Under the headline, “Learning to Love the Unlovable, Including Myself,” Karen Campbell of Ashland, Ore., wrote that she was sent to prison for six years for second-degree manslaughter.

She drove drunk and killed two people – her husband, Tom, and a woman she did not identify.

At the time, Campbell was “an educated professional and community volunteer,” as she put it. She has returned to that life and now is writing a book about her prison experience. She thinks prison sentences are too long, that society must humanize inmates.

“Any reduction in a sentence is motivating for an inmate. Who wouldn’t want to be out a month early for Christmas? Becoming a decent citizen takes practice and affordable solutions are available,” she writes.

There are numerous sympathizers to her cause. National organizations are in the news frequently advocating on behalf of reduced prison sentences for criminal offenders. There is even a movement to stop calling them “offenders.” (Don’t even think about calling them assholes.)

Yet America is full of assholes, and they’re apparently a big problem as the book shelves at Powell’s can attest.

“Assholes, A Theory” by Aaron James, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaches philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, is advertised as one of the top selling business books.

“Philosopher Aaron James presents a provocative theory of the asshole to explain why such people exist, especially in an age of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism. We get a better sense of when the asshole is best resisted and best ignored—a better sense of what is, and what is not, worth fighting for,” the description reads.

Two years after “Assholes, A Theory” was published, James came back this year with a follow-up, “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump.”

Also available: “No Asshole Rule” by Robert Sutton; “Assholes Finish First” by Tucker Max; “Assholeology: The Science Behind Getting Your Way & Getting Away With It” by actor Steve Greenberg and acting coach Dennis Lavalle; “War Against the Assholes” by Sam Munson; “Twilight of the Assholes” (about the Bush presidency) by Tim Kreider; “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am? Confessions of a First-Class Asshole” by Justin Ross Lee, and still more titles.

Assholes even pop up in the most innocuous books. From “This is Portland” by Alexander Barrett, a graphic shows a “Yield” sign and offers this explanation of what Portland drivers think the sign says: “If you move, everyone will think you’re an asshole.”

What a peculiar world. It’s all right to condemn assholes, but we are increasingly asked to be sympathetic towards people who commit serious crimes that do physical harm to others.

Asshole or criminal, either could learn from Haybron’s advice in “Happiness.” The good life, he writes, is not hard to get.

You don’t need to commit a crime or be an asshole.

“Maybe people fail to recognize how good their lives really are,” Haybron says. “Perhaps the best way to lead a good life is to conclude your life with a favorable balance sheet.”

Not a balance sheet with assets and liabilities in dollars and cents, but an accounting of how you spent your time.

I ended up buying “Happiness” for one of the funniest people I know, someone who has not had (by American standards) an easy life. I don’t know if he is truly happy or has learned to fake it.

By Haybron’s standards, though, he has a favorable balance sheet.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


  • Retd. teacher wrote:

    After I did all my Christmas shopping, I treated myself to a trip to Powell’s.
    One of the books you mention, “Assholes A Theory” was given a prominent display. If someone hasn’t done so already, somebody will call Trump presidency The Asshole Administration. America has seen a coarsening of the language no matter who’s in the White House.

  • It’s also a coarsening of marketing practices. Anything that sells. Some of these books have been best-sellers. Publishers see that one asshole-titled book captured the public’s interest so here comes another.

    I used to think that words like “asshole” and “pissed off” were crude and ugly. Somewhere along the line I started using them.

  • As a Patrick O’Brian reader I’ve been working to popularize the term “scrub” so that it will eventually supplant asshole. So far it is not working.

    Also working on “ahoo” for “mess” but that really seems an idiosyncrasy too far.j

  • I associate “scrub” with medical slang, although it has many legitimate meanings. If you want to go the medical route, how about “sphincter?” “Scrub” doesn’t sound that insulting, and it seems to suggest inferiority beyond a person’s control.

    Yes, “ahoo” could be a stretch. It sounds too much like “yahoo” (not to be confused with Yahoo).

  • Only some assholes deserve our ire if you listen to the Left. Those that commit crimes or have bad interactions with police apparently suffer from a mental illness, oppositional defiant disorder, and thus police and the rest of us are to blame for whatever happens when interacting with such persons. We as a society need to understand and accommodate them at our expense and inconvenience.

    I hope this pendulum starts swinging the other direction soon.

  • Earlier today, The Oregonian posted a story about a convicted felon who was just hired for a $112,000-position with the City of Portland. This isn’t a case of a long-ago conviction and a proven story of redemption. This woman’s crime occurred all of two years ago when she gave $110,000 from a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit she ran to a city councilman to help pay for his inaugural ball. Then she falsified tax forms to make it look good.

    The outrage online is encouraging, although supporters of this sweet deal are quick to dismiss the critics as “trolls.” What’s interesting is that the “trolls” helped ferret out the truth.

    The Pulitzer Committee may have to create a new category for trolls as the media veer away from straight journalism to advocacy. Consider a new apprenticeship program for the formerly incarcerated, created by VICE Media to help produce special reports to be aired on HBO and in partnership with The Guardian.

    Under this program, anyone on parole or probation in New York City, between the ages of 18 and 25, is eligible.

    “Participants will gain access to some of the best creative and strategic minds in media and take advantage of VICE’s state of the art production facilities, including edit suites, voice-over studios, screening rooms, virtual reality and more.”

    VICE co-founder and CEO Shane Smith said he got the idea while working with President Obama on “Fixing the System,” a documentary on prison reform.

    I don’t regret voting for Obama, but I hope a few years out of the White House, he looks back with regret at how he helped encourage America’s criminal class. They leave prison now with a sense of entitlement.

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