Admirable assholes.

In a hugely powerful paper back in 1982 titled ‘Moral Saints‘, Susan Wolf notes the Kantian ideal which values, above all else, people and actions that are motivated by a respect for humanity. She remarks:

This is a good and noble motivation, to be sure. But it is hardly what one expects to be dominantly behind a person’s aspirations to dance as well as Fred Astaire, or paint as well as Picasso, or to solve some outstanding problem in abstract algebra.

Her point raises a number of interesting questions and problems for most philosophers. In ethics, there is a tendency to shower praise on people only insofar as they fulfil their duties and treat people well. If you generally avoid deceiving people and inflicting pain upon them; if you refrain from raping, murdering and stealing somebody’s stuff; if you donate to charity to help those in need, moral philosophy tends to say you’re a good person.

And Wolf’s point is, at minimum, that this cannot be the whole picture. Sure, perhaps it’s necessary for someone to be a good person that they act morally. But this can’t be all that being a good person is about. We can test this claim by imagining, as she does, a super-bland but infinitely ethical person that conscientiously devotes their life to helping others. They would be boring. They would never pass the Dream Dinner Party test. And this suggests that there are other things we value, like artistic achievements, the entrepreneurial spirit, intelligence and a thirst for knowledge.

But once we make this jump and concede that morality isn’t all that matters, another more daring possibility opens up. If we accept that there are other non-moral values, we can ask the question of whether the moral values matter most, and whether someone can in fact be a good person irrespective of their moral credentials.

This is the kind of worrying thought that Nietzsche toys with. And I think, with a little reflection, we can see that there may be more truth to it than we would like.

As a first case study, take the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network. When he breaks up with his girlfriend in the opening scene, she says this to him:

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

Asshole is the key word here. In his new book expounding a theory of what one is, Aaron James argues that the crucial characteristics of an asshole are his (yes, it’s normally guys) excessive sense of entitlement and his indifference to the moral claims of others. Assholes are not sensitive to the needs and rights of others. Their egos are so inflated that they are blinded. They tend to be sociopaths. In short, they are highly likely to be immoral people.

And most of them are not valuable at all. I’m not going to propose that we start praising Donald Trump. But it seems to me that Zuckerberg is an example of an asshole that is not necessarily viewed negatively, and rightly so. In Fincher’s film and Sorkin’s script, he’s a ruthless misogynistic snob who screws over his only friend. But he also invents Facebook, a site that a billion people now use on a daily basis to stay in touch around the world. And he became the world’s first twenty-something billionaire at a time when most people of his age are still finishing college. That must count for something. And perhaps what we ought to entertain is that it counts most in evaluating him as a person. Do we really care about his callous streak? Or do we, rightly, consider it a trivial fact about him in light of his genius? If most moral philosophers are right, we should barely look positively upon this person. We probably ought to despise him. But we don’t, so we have to wonder what’s going on.

In case you are willing to just concede that Zuckerberg is an unbearable asshole of no worth, though, I’ll offer a few more examples which should help to bring out the wider dilemma.

Steve Jobs: the driving force behind beautiful and game-changing products that almost all of us own and appreciate at some point. And if you object that you’ve avoided the Apple cult, remember that he had his foot in the Pixar camp too. And yet, Jobs was an asshole. It’s highly possible that he was hugely Scrooge-like about his billions, and personal anecdotes confirm he was an insufferable person to be around.

Wagner. Raging anti-Semite, but also a composer of music of insane brilliance.

Rousseau. The hardest case for yours truly. He wrote the world’s first autobiography; wrote the most influential treatise on education in history; wrote the best-selling romantic novel on the 18th century; wrote various works in political theory that influenced everyone from Kant to Rawls. He also happened to have several children and abandon them all at birth in a place where they were sure to soon die.

Roman Polanski. Director of Chinatown, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Also a child rapist.

And the list could easily go on. The number of sports people, innovators, intellectuals and artists that fall far short of ethical standards is staggering. And, once more, in case none of these examples jump out at you, we don’t need to consider actual examples. It will suffice for our purposes for you to imagine somebody that you do value on non-moral grounds. Pick any artist or thinker or innovator that you revere. Now, imagine that you discovered that they cheated on their partner, or ripped somebody off, or, indeed, committed murder. Test how much your feelings change, and whether it disturbs you.

Now, my claim is not that we must praise someone like Polanski and admire him in spite of him being a rapist. In fact, I tend to think that’s anything but the case. I think this example brings out how some moral conditions on character are so central and strong that if anybody violates them, they are automatically rendered bad people that no amount of artistic achievement could override.

But that’s consistent with the fact that there is clearly some trade-off of sorts here. We value things other than morality, like artistic genius, and this may mean we hold an all-things-considered positive view of someone despite their being in significant ways immoral.

If that suspicion turns out to be true, then as Wolf argued all those years ago, moral philosophy’s focus is inexcusably and sadly narrow. The subject used to strive to offer guidance on what the best way to live is. Nowadays, maybe it’s only concerned with giving a small if significant answer to such questions. In doing so, perhaps it can explain why we praise people like the selfless Saint Francis of Assisi. But it can’t explain our attitude to assholes like Steve Jobs. As long as that remains the case, philosophy is failing as a discipline.


2 thoughts on “Admirable assholes.

  1. The question of how to weigh moral values against other values is one of the most difficult and important questions in moral/normative philosophy. The question it raises for me is that if we can admire assholes (in your terms), how are we to decide whether we want to be moral people or assholes? Do we want to be more Zuckerberg or Assissi?

    Here’s something I’ve written on the question:

  2. But surely what these admirable assholes have in common is simply their admirability – there is something about them and their work that we find interesting, even amazing, and that sets them apart from the vast mediocre herd (as we perceive it in comparison with them) of the rest of humanity. But this is not the same as our perceiving them as *good*. Now, it’s true, as you point out, that one of Wolf’s points is to question the remit, as it were, of ethics as a field of enquiry – to challenge the narrowness of what most contemporary ethicists concern themselves with. But I still think there is a relevant distinction between a person who is admirable but not good and one who is good but not admirable in as a sexy a way as the admirable assholes are. It may be that Wolf’s ideas serve simply to make this relevant distinction less interesting.

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