Jerkitude: a theory of jerks?

Bumped into this fascinating read by Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at the University of California.

If you’d like to go deep, read the original post here. I wanted to share the most interesting snapshots that you and I can possibly relate to 😉

Let me set the context first — is this (below) how you feel in general?

The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

That’s great! I do too… thankfully, only sometimes. The post argues (what do you expect from philosophers anyway) why we need a theory of jerks and why “jerkitude” is a real thing. Here’s his definition:

the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers.

Pretty cool for a definition, right? I know, it’s a little heavy but heck, if you’re reading that twice… there’s a possibility that you might be…

… a little curious. I can understand. I experienced that too. But I kept reading patiently until the end… and here’s what I found:

How can you know your own moral character? You can try a label on for size: ‘lazy’, ‘jerk’, ‘unreliable’ – is that really me? As the work of Vazire and other personality psychologists suggests, this might not be a very illuminating approach. More effective, I suspect, is to shift from first-person reflection (what am I like?) to second-person description (tell me, what am I like?). Instead of introspection, try listening. Ideally, you will have a few people in your life who know you intimately, have integrity, and are concerned about your character. They can frankly and lovingly hold your flaws up to the light and insist that you look at them. Give them the space to do this, and prepare to be disappointed in yourself.

Done well enough, this second-person approach could work fairly well for traits such as laziness and unreliability, especially if their scope is restricted: laziness-about-X, unreliability-about-Y. But as I suggested above, jerkitude is not so tractable, since if one is far enough gone, one can’t listen in the right way. Your critics are fools, at least on this particular topic (their critique of you). They can’t appreciate your perspective, you think – though really it’s that you can’t appreciate theirs.

To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found? In other words, how familiar was the vision of the world I described at the beginning of this essay?

If your self-rationalising defences are low enough to feel a little pang of shame at the familiarity of that vision of the world, then you probably aren’t pure diamond-grade jerk. But who is? We’re all somewhere in the middle. That’s what makes the jerk’s vision of the world so instantly recognisable. It’s our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.

Bottom-line: I’m a jerk. Occasionally. Thankfully. Are you? If yes, that’s great! At least you and I now know that the world isn’t full of dumb schmoes but it’s our apparent lack of insight and vision of the world.

What can be done? Taking a step back and appreciate that you’re possibly a unique jerk in your own way. And that is totally fine. We’ve got our own quirks to deal with — a lifetime pursuit in itself. I think we’re better off redirecting our energies to focus on becoming a better version of ourselves.

And while we’re at it, know that jerkitude isn’t the same as attitude. It just means you’re a jerk! Solution? I don’t have one. Moreover, what you do is totally up to you. But as they say, one-day-at-a-time. That’s how it’s done. 😉