You’re Almost Definitely More of a Jerk Than You Think You Are

Toward a Theory of Unpleasant Behavior

Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. 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 stow your laptop. 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. 

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. Imagine the nature documentary voice-over: “Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian-restaurant situation . . .” And second—well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet. 

As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word “jerk” can refer to two different types of person. The older use of “jerk” designates a chump or ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one. When Weird Al Yankovic sang, in 2006, “I sued Fruit of the Loom ’cause when I wear their tightie-whities on my head I look like a jerk” or when, in 1959, Willard Temple wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He could have married the campus queen. . . . Instead the poor jerk fell for a snub-nosed, skinny little broad,” it’s clear it’s the chump they have in mind.

The jerk-as-fool usage seems to have begun among traveling performers as a derisive reference to the unsophisticated people of a “jerkwater town,” that is, a town not rating a full-scale train station, requiring the boilerman to pull on a chain to water his engine. The term expresses the traveling troupe’s disdain. Over time, however, “jerk” shifted from being primarily a class-based insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a moral condemnation.

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Such linguistic drift from class-based contempt to moral deprecation is a common pattern across languages, as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality. (In English, consider “rude,” “villain,” and “ignoble.”) It is the immoral jerk who concerns me here. 

Why, you might be wondering, should a philosopher make it his business to analyze colloquial terms of abuse? Doesn’t the Urban Dictionary cover that kind of thing quite adequately? Shouldn’t I confine myself to truth, or beauty, or knowledge, or why there is something rather than nothing? I am, in fact, interested in all those topics.

And yet I see a folk wisdom in the term “jerk” that points toward something morally important. I want to extract that morally important thing, isolating the core phenomenon implicit in our usage. Precedents for this type of philosophical work include Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit and, closer to my target, Aaron James’s book Assholes. Our taste in vulgarity reveals our values. 

I submit that the unifying core, 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 fools to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship.

No one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude.

The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact, and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of “jerk” has become a type of moral ignorance. 

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Some related traits are already well-known in psychology and philosophy—the “dark triad” of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy; low “Agreeableness” on the Big Five personality test; and Aaron James’s conception of the asshole, already mentioned. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The asshole, James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. That is one dimension of jerkitude, but not the whole story.

The callous psychopath, though cousin to the jerk, has an impulsivity and love of risk taking that needn’t belong to the jerk’s character. Neither does the jerk have to be as thoroughly self-involved as the narcissist or as self-consciously cynical as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common jerkish attributes. People low in Big Five Agreeableness tend to be unhelpful, mistrusting, and difficult to get along with—again, features related to jerkitude, and perhaps even partly constitutive of it, but not exactly jerkitude as I’ve defined it. Also, my definition of jerkitude has a conceptual unity that is, I think, theoretically appealing in the abstract and fruitful in helping to explain some of the peculiar features of this type of animal, as we will see. 

The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. The sweetheart sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals, are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, stops to help the person who has dropped her papers, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right. 

The jerk’s moral and emotional failure is obvious. The intellectual failure is obvious, too: No one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude—a fact about which, as I will explain shortly, the all-out jerk is inevitably ignorant. This brings me to the other great benefit of a theory of jerks: It might help you figure out if you yourself are one. 

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Some clarifications and caveats. First, no one is a perfect jerk or a perfect sweetheart. Human behavior—of course!—varies hugely with context. Different situations (department meetings, traveling in close quarters) might bring out the jerk in some and the sweetheart in others. 

Second, the jerk is someone who culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him. Young children and people with severe cognitive disabilities aren’t capable of appreciating others’ perspectives, so they can’t be blamed for their failure and aren’t jerks. (“What a selfish jerk!” you say about the baby next to you on the bus, who is hollering and flinging her slobbery toy around. Of course you mean it only as a joke. Hopefully.) Also, not all perspectives deserve equal treatment. Failure to appreciate the outlook of a neo-Nazi, for example, is not a sign of jerkitude—though the true sweetheart might bend over backwards to try. 

Third, I’ve referred to the jerk as “he,” since the best stereotypical examples of jerks tend to be male, for some reason. But then it seems too gendered to call the sweetheart “she,” so I’ve made the sweetheart a “he” too. 

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I’ve said that my theory might help us assess whether we, ourselves, are jerks. In fact, this turns out to be a strangely difficult question. The psychologist Simine Vazire has argued that we tend to know our own personality traits rather well when the traits are evaluatively neutral and straightforwardly observable and badly when the traits are highly value laden and not straightforward to observe.

If you ask people how talkative they are, or whether they are relatively high-strung or mellow, and then you ask their friends to rate them along those same dimensions, the self-ratings and the peer ratings usually correlate well—and both sets of ratings also tend to line up with psychologists’ attempts to measure such traits objectively. Why? Presumably because it’s more or less fine to be talkative and more or less fine to be quiet, okay to be a bouncing bunny and okay instead to keep it low-key, and such traits are hard to miss in any case.

But few of us want to be inflexible, stupid, unfair, or low in creativity. And if you don’t want to see yourself that way, it’s easy enough to dismiss the signs. Such characteristics are, after all, connected to outward behavior in somewhat complicated ways; we can always cling to the idea that we’ve been misunderstood by those who charge us with such defects. Thus, we overlook our faults. 

Jerks normally distribute their jerkitude mostly down the social hierarchy and to anonymous strangers.

With Vazire’s model of self-knowledge in mind, I conjecture a correlation of approximately zero between how one would rate oneself in relative jerkitude and one’s actual true jerkitude. The term “jerk” is morally loaded, and rationalization is so tempting and easy! Why did you just treat that cashier so harshly? Well, she deserved it—and anyway, I’ve been having a rough day. Why did you just cut into that line of cars at the last moment, not waiting your turn to exit? Well, that’s just good tactical driving—and anyway, I’m in a hurry! Why did you seem to relish failing that student for submitting his essay an hour late? Well, the rules were clearly stated; it’s only fair to the students who worked hard to submit their essays on time—and that was a grimace not a smile. 

Since probably the most effective way to learn about defects in one’s character is to listen to frank feedback from people whose opinions you respect, the jerk faces special obstacles on the road to self-knowledge, beyond even what Vazire’s theory would lead us to expect. By definition, he fails to respect the perspectives of others around him. He’s much more likely to dismiss critics as fools—or as jerks themselves—than to take the criticism to heart.

Still, it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. “So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,” he might say. Provided that this admission carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk’s moral self-ignorance remains. Part of what it is to fail to appreciate the perspectives of others is to fail to see what’s inappropriate in your jerkishly dismissive attitude toward their ideas and concerns. 

Ironically, it is the sweetheart who worries that he has just behaved inappropriately, that he might have acted too jerkishly, and who feels driven to make amends. Such distress is impossible if you don’t take others’ perspectives seriously into account. Indeed, the distress itself constitutes a deviation (in this one respect at least) from pure jerkitude: Worrying about whether it might be so helps to make it less so. Then again, if you take comfort in that fact and cease worrying, you have undermined the very basis of your comfort. 

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Jerks normally distribute their jerkitude mostly down the social hierarchy and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road—these are the unfortunate people who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognizes that the perspectives of others above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration. Often, indeed, he feels sincere respect for his higher-ups.

Maybe deferential impulses are too deeply written in our natures to disappear entirely. Maybe the jerk retains a vestigial concern specifically for those he would benefit, directly or indirectly, from winning over. He is at least concerned enough about their opinion of him to display tactical respect while in their field of view. However it comes about, the classic jerk kisses up and kicks down. For this reason, the company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it’s no great mystery among the secretaries. 

Because the jerk tends to disregard the perspectives of those below him in the hierarchy, he often has little idea how he appears to them. This can lead to ironies and hypocrisy. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student’s or secretary’s document while producing a torrent of typos himself; it just wouldn’t occur to him to apply the same standards to himself. He might insist on promptness, while always running late. He might freely reprimand other people, expecting them to take it with good grace, while any complaints directed against him earn his undying enmity.

Such failures of parity typify the jerk’s moral shortsightedness, flowing naturally from his disregard of others’ perspectives. These hypocrisies are immediately obvious if one genuinely imagines oneself in a subordinate’s shoes for anything other than selfish and self-rationalizing ends, but this is exactly what the jerk habitually fails to do. 

The moralizing jerk is apt to go badly wrong in his moral opinions.

Embarrassment, too, becomes practically impossible for the jerk, at least in front of his underlings. Embarrassment requires us to imagine being viewed negatively by people whose perspectives we care about. As the circle of people the jerk is willing to regard as true peers and superiors shrinks, so does his capacity for shame—and with it a crucial entry point for moral self-knowledge. 

As one climbs the social hierarchy it is also easier to become a jerk. Here’s a characteristically jerkish thought: “I’m important and I’m surrounded by idiots!” Both halves of this proposition serve to conceal the jerk’s jerkitude from himself. Thinking yourself important is a pleasantly self-gratifying excuse for disregarding others’ interests and desires.

Thinking that the people around you are idiots seems like a good reason to dismiss their intellectual perspectives. As you ascend the social hierarchy, you will find it easier to discover evidence of your relative importance (your big salary, your first-class seat) and of the relative stupidity of others (who have failed to ascend as high as you). Also, flatterers will tend to squeeze out frank, authentic critics. 

This isn’t the only possible explanation for the prevalence of powerful jerks. Maybe the precociously jerkish tend to rise swiftly in government, business, and academia. The truest sweethearts often suffer from an inability to advance their own projects over the projects of others. But I suspect the causal path runs at least as much in the other direction. Success might or might not favor the existing jerks, but I’m pretty sure it nurtures new ones. 

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The moralistic jerk is an animal worth special remark. Charles Dickens was a master painter of the type: his teachers, his preachers, his petty bureaucrats and self-satisfied businessmen, Scrooge condemning the poor as lazy, Mr. Bumble shocked that Oliver Twist dares to ask for more food, each dismissive of the opinions and desires of their social inferiors, each inflated with a proud self-image and ignorant of how they are rightly seen by those around them, and each rationalizing this picture with a web of moralizing “shoulds.” 

Scrooge and Mr. Bumble are cartoons, and we can be pretty sure we aren’t as bad as they are. Yet I see in myself and all those who are not pure sweethearts a tendency to rationalize my privilege with moralistic sham justifications. Here’s my reason for dishonestly trying to wheedle my daughter into the best school, my reason why the session chair should call on me rather than on the grad student who got her hand up earlier, my reason why it’s fine that I have 400 library books in my office . . . 

Philosophers appear to have a special talent in concocting such dubious justifications: With enough work, we can concoct a moral rationalization for anything! Such skill at rationalization might partly explain why ethicist philosophers seem to behave no morally better, on average, than do comparison groups of nonethicists, as my collaborators and I have found in a long series of empirical studies on issues ranging from returning library books, to courteous behavior at professional conferences, to rates of charitable giving, to membership in the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany.

The moralistic jerk’s rationalizations justify his disregard of others, and his disregard of others prevents him from accepting an outside corrective to his rationalizations, in a self-insulating cycle. Here’s why it’s fine for him, he says, to neglect his obligations to his assistants and inflate his expense claims, you idiot critics. Coat the whole thing, if you like, in a patina of business-speak or academic jargon.

The moralizing jerk is apt to go badly wrong in his moral opinions. Partly this is because his morality tends to be self-serving, and partly it’s because his disrespect for others’ perspectives puts him at a general epistemic disadvantage. But there’s more to it than that. In failing to appreciate others’ perspectives, the jerk almost inevitably fails to appreciate the full range of human goods—the value of dancing, say, or of sports, nature, pets, local cultural rituals, and indeed anything that he doesn’t personally care for.

Think of the aggressively rumpled scholar who can’t bear the thought that someone would waste her time getting a manicure. Or think of the manicured socialite who can’t see the value of dedicating one’s life to dusty Latin manuscripts. What-ever he’s into, the moralizing jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else. 

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Excerpt from A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures by Eric Schwitzgebel, © 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of Perplexities of Consciousness (MIT Press). His short, accessible essays on philosophical topics have appeared in a range of publications and on his popular blog, The Splintered Mind.





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