A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures

by Eric Schwitzgebel


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A collection of quirky, entertaining, and reader-friendly short pieces on philosophical topics that range from a theory of jerks to the ethics of ethicists.

Have you ever wondered about why some people are jerks? Asked whether your driverless car should kill you so that others may live? Found a robot adorable? Considered the ethics of professional ethicists? Reflected on the philosophy of hair? In this engaging, entertaining, and enlightening book, Eric Schwitzgebel turns a philosopher's eye on these and other burning questions. In a series of quirky and accessible short pieces that cover a mind-boggling variety of philosophical topics, Schwitzgebel offers incisive takes on matters both small (the consciousness of garden snails) and large (time, space, and causation).

A common theme might be the ragged edge of the human intellect, where moral or philosophical reflection begins to turn against itself, lost among doubts and improbable conclusions. The history of philosophy is humbling when we see how badly wrong previous thinkers have been, despite their intellectual skills and confidence. (See, for example, “Kant on Killing Bastards, Masturbation, Organ Donation, Homosexuality, Tyrants, Wives, and Servants.”) Some of the texts resist thematic categorization—thoughts on the philosophical implications of dreidels, the diminishing offensiveness of the most profane profanity, and fatherly optimism—but are no less interesting.

Schwitzgebel has selected these pieces from the more than one thousand that have appeared since 2006 in various publications and on his popular blog, The Splintered Mind, revising and updating them for this book. Philosophy has never been this much fun.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262539593
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 11/10/2020
Series: Mit Press
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 782,483
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

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.1 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.2 Over time, however, “jerk” shifted from being primarily a classbased insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a moral condemnation. 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.3 (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. 4 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. 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.
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.5 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.6 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.7 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.

Table of Contents

Part One: Jerks and Excuses
1. A Theory of Jerks
2. Forgetting as an Unwitting Confession of Your Values
3. The Happy Coincidence Defense and The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot
4. Cheeseburger Ethics (or How Often Do Ethicists Call Their Mothers?)
5. On Not Seeking Pleasure Much
6. How Much Should You Care about How You Feel in Your Dreams?
7. Imagining Yourself in Another's Shoes vs. Extending Your Love
8. Is It Perfectly Fine to Aim for Moral Mediocrity?
9. A Theory of Hypocrisy
10. On Not Distinguishing Too Finely Among Your Motivations
11. The Mush of Normativity
12. A Moral Dunning-Kruger Effect?
13. The Moral Compass and the Liberal Ideal in Moral Education
Part Two: Cute AI and Zombie Robots
14. Should Your Driverless Car Kill You So Others May Live?
15. Cute AI and the ASIMO Problem
16. My Daughter's Rented Eyes
17. Someday, Your Employer Will Technologically Control Your Moods
18. Cheerfully Suicidal AI Slaves
19. We Would Have Greater Moral Obligations to Conscious Robots Than to Otherwise Similar Humans
20. How Robots and Monsters Might Destroy Human Moral Systems
21. Our Possible Imminent Divinity
22. Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You
23. How to Accidentally Become a Zombie Robot
Part Three: Regrets and Birthday Cake
24. Dreidel: A Seemingly Foolish Game That Contains the Moral World in Miniature
25. Does It Matter If the Passover Story Is Literally True?
26. Memories of My Father
27. Flying Free of the Deathbed, with Technological Help
28. Thoughts on Conjugal Love
29. Knowing What You Love
30. The Epistemic Status of Deathbed Regrets
31. Competing Perspectives on One's Final, Dying Thought
32. Profanity Inflation, Profanity Migration, and the Paradox of Prohibition (or I Love You, "Fuck")
33. The Legend of the Leaning Behaviorist
34. What Happens to Democracy When the Experts Can't Be Both Factual and Balanced?
35. On the Morality of Hypotenuse Walking
36. Birthday Cake and a Chapel
Part Four: Cosmic Freaks
37. Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain
38. A Two-Seater Homunculus
39. Is the United States Literally Conscious?
40. Might You Be a Cosmic Freak?
41. Choosing to Be That Fellow Back Then: Voluntarism about Personal Identity
42. How Everything You Do Might Have Huge Cosmic Significance
43. Penelope's Guide to Defeating Time, Space, and Causation
44. Goldfish-Pool Immortality
45. Are Garden Snails Conscious? Yes, No, or *Gong*
Part Five: Kant vs. the Philosopher of Hair
46. Truth, Dare, and Wonder
47. Trusting Your Sense of Fun
48. What's in People's Stream of Experience During Philosophy Talks?
49. Why Metaphysics Is Always Bizarre
50. The Philosopher of Hair
51. Obfuscatory Philosophy as Intellectual Authoritarianism and Cowardice
52. Kant on Killing Bastards, Masturbation, Organ Donation, Homosexuality, Tyrants, Wives, and Servants
53. Nazi Philosophers, World War I, and the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis
54. Against Charity in the History of Philosophy
55. Invisible Revisions
56. On Being Good at Seeming Smart
57. Blogging and Philosophical Cognition
58. Will Future Generations Find Us Morally Loathsome?

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A lively, wide-ranging, and original collection of short essays from Eric Schwitzgebel, whose mind seems to fizz with ideas. Highly recommended.”

Nigel Warburton, author of A Little History of Philosophy

“This book isn't really about jerks; it's about minds in all their quirky glory. Schwitzgebel thinks hard about what it is for flawed creatures such as ourselves to live a good life, about how philosophers may or may not live up to their ideals, and about ways in which consciousness might be stretched to its limits in humans and machines. The book is full of provocative thought experiments and insightful arguments that will make you think about yourself in ways you haven't thought before.”

David Chalmers, University Professor of Philosophy and Codirector of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, NYU

“Consciousness, the multiverse, what it all means … This book features fifty-eight bite-sized gems from a leading philosopher. Simply put: a joy to read.”

Susan Schneider, NASA Chair, Library of Congress, and author of Artificial You: AI and the Future of Your Mind

“Eric Schwitzgebel represents an almost extinct philosophical type: a humble, humane, down-to-earth soul, with a knack for thinking out loud and clearly about pretty much anything. Curiosity abounds, as does good humor, and a measured dose of existential anxiety as Schwitzgebel wonders about everything from the nature of space, time, and consciousness, to the possibility that we are not very good at detecting our moral blind spots and our excellences at being jerks.  A collection to keep nearby and savor for anyone who likes to think along with a really smart philosopher.”

Owen Flanagan, author of Consciousness Reconsidered and The Bodhisattva's Brain

“Schwitzgebel's short pieces are clever and entertaining, and they fill perfectly the need for a little insight in a chaotic world. These essays should occupy any coffee table for readers wanting bursts of insights wrapped in humor and cleverness. Infuriatingly clever and joyfully observational, these writings mix a comedian's charm with a philosopher's wit and depth.”

Barry Lam, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Vassar College, and host, Hi-Phi Nation podcast on Slate

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