One of my most consuming questions is what makes someone a jerk, a person worth doubting, ignoring or even fighting. I’m not satisfied with the conventional answers, for example that a jerk is anyone we don’t like, or a jerk is someone who has wrong ideas (in other words ideas that counter ours), because these exclusively subjective answers don’t resolve anything, leaving us rather with a world full of people squared off against each other, each deciding the other is a jerk. And I do think there are jerks. I don’t go along with those who say everyone is good and that only jerks think that people are jerks.
I don’t believe that there are any truly objective standards for determining who is a jerk. Still I think seeking more objective standards is a worthy pursuit, perhaps the worthiest what with so many people squared off against each other calling each other jerks and armed to the teeth.
I’m a moral minimalist. I embrace a live-and-let-live policy as far as it goes, which isn’t as far as most people assume it goes. For example, I don’t have a live-and-let-live policy toward jerks who do us large-scale damage.
Moral philosophy has mostly concentrated on how we should all live. I think that’s a mistake. Instead we should focus on defining the minimal shouldn’ts. Shouldn’ts are more live and let live than shoulds. Moral to-don’ts define the outer limits of acceptable behavior leaving people free within those limits. Moral to-do’s attempt to conform everyone to some standard for ideal virtuous behavior.
Besides, anything that belongs on everyone’s moral to-do list is destined to be vague—like be nice and kind—way too open to interpretation to have any moral teeth. Better a barking dog guarding against trespasses into the outskirts of acceptable behavior.
The greatest moral question therefore is not how to be a saint, but how not to be a jerk.
Here then is my best guess so far, after about 15 years wondering, a work in progress, the assumptions I find worth embracing about what makes someone—anyone, me included—a jerk, assumptions I try to live by and apply 24/7:
1. We’re all guessing what to do: No one can know the absolute truth. There is no formula for perfect wisdom, wisdom that leads infallibly to the best or correct behavior. We try to do today what worked tomorrow, but since tomorrow isn’t here yet, there’s no infallible formula for deciding what’s right to do.
2. Still everyone wants perfect wisdom: At least on tough, pressing, high-consequence decisions, we all wish we had infallible formulas for deciding perfectly. An enormous amount of human energy goes into finding such formulas, either through revelation (the truth revealed through a flash of insight or through some source of perfect wisdom, a god or guru letting us in on the formula), logic (working out step by step the perfect formula from perfect assumptions) or science (systematically testing assumptions, ideas and assumption against evidence.)
3. Everybody wants the last word sometimes: It’s hard to get things done if you keep changing your mind. On big projections, campaigns and crusades, focused, resolved perseverance furthers, so we all need ways to say, “this is my plan, I’m sticking with it, and that’s final,” ways to ignore or resist counter-options. When challenged, we all value ways to get the last word, to say “We’re done talking. I’m not listening any more.”
4. Words make last words impossible: Human language gives us a way to one-up each other’s last words infinitely. Words give us a way to mark and challenge assumptions, saying “that’s wrong,” or “that’s doubtful” about any proclaimed last word.
5. Discouragement makes us reach for the last word: When we’re angry, hurt, offended, threatened, challenged, disappointed or otherwise thwarted in our perseverant strivings, we reach for last words. We get on our high horse and pull out trump cards, last word ways of saying “shut up, I’m right.” Everyone does it. It’s what you get when you cross emotions with words, you get words for accommodating your emotions.
6. The more emotionally sensitive we are, the more we crave ways to get the last word: More than we notice, we seek wisdom for the high-horse, last-word trump cards it affords us. Moral principles, values and systems appeal to us in large part because when we’re sensitive and emotionally unstable, they provide us high-minded ways to deflect challenges and doubts.
7. Every moral formula can and will be used as a last word: As soon a moral formula becomes widely embraced, we’ll tend to deploy it self-servingly, claiming ourselves saints, and our challengers sinners by its standards. We are naturally more sensitive to injustices to us and so will tend to employ double standard interpretations of the formula, holding challengers to the formula’s standards more than we hold ourselves to them.
8. Trump cards breed counter-trump cards: When enough people get sick of being bullied by one moral formula, they come up with a counter formula. For example, when people got sick of the high horse virtue of conformity (“Shame on you for being a heretic), they made a new virtue out of being open-minded, which then became the new high horse last word trump card, with people proclaiming themselves virtuously open-minded and accusing others of sinful conformity.
9. Jerks are quick to mount and slow to dismount their high horses: Jerks are quick to pull their trump cards out, shutting challengers down and very slow to return to receptivity to challenges. Absolute jerks trump absolutely, their absolute moral formulas corrupting absolutely.
10. Jerks disavowing their old formulas often carry their absolutism with them to their new formulas: Beware of recovering fundamentalists. They’re likely to be weaning themselves off old beliefs while maintaining their addiction to old self-certainty. This is why we can’t identify jerks by the beliefs they hold but by how they hold them.
11. Yasom: If, to persevere on our various campaigns, we all need last word ways to stop challenges and doubts, and yet there are no real last words how can we balance doubt and certainty, confidence and receptivity? Non-jerks commit to one overarching absolute belief: However confident you are in a bet you’ve placed always be more confident that it is a bet. Practice saying “yasom” an acronym for “Yes Absolutely Still Obviously Maybe.”
12 We try to explain a jerk’s behavior three opposite ways: Either a jerk is:
1. Handicapped: Poor guy, he’s scared, incapable of imagining that he’s wrong, or otherwise helpless to be more receptive. We should be more compassionate and cut him some slack.
2. Indulgent: She could be more receptive but isn’t because she’s lazy or just likes believing she’s right even when she isn’t. We should be more assertive and not cut her any slack.
3. Just Different: He need not be more receptive. His views are valid, just different from ours. We should be more tolerant and respectful of our cultural differences.
13. Jerks make it hard to know what motivates them: They play shell games shifting between three different ways of scolding people for challenging them:
1. I can’t be receptive. Show some pity. This is no time to challenge me. It’s cruel of you to try to get me to listen to you.
2. I am being receptive. Why can’t you see that I’m listening? Obviously you’re just prejudiced against me.
3. I shouldn’t be receptive. Show some tolerance for our different values.
14. Jerks have an answer for everything and it’s never self-inquiry: No matter how you try to challenge a jerk, you can’t get her to visit the possibility that she’s wrong. She has a high horse last word trump card argument why she’s right, why the problem is in you, why you’re unkind, discouraging, mean, intolerant or blind to question her assumptions. The arguments can be entirely inconsistent, a shell-game of reasons why you’re wrong. But they will be entirely consistent in that they always deflect all challenges.
15. As for leaving them alone, do when you can, but not when you can’t: Live and let live, but not when how jerks live imposes real costs on others. Sidestep jerks altogether when you can, but sometimes you have to fight them. And if you do fight them, be prepared to be called a jerk. More, be prepared to consider seriously that you are the jerk. No one is jerk-proof — not you; not me.