We have all experienced this from time to time. It is the experience with a selfish person who puts her or himself first over anyone else.
The last time I encountered this was a few months ago. I was returning from London Heathrow and my flight was late getting into Toronto. As the plane taxied to the gate, connecting flights were announced. Many were cancelled because it was when the pilots were in labour disputes with Air Canada.
As I made my way to the service desk after Customs and Immigration, many people were all doing what we normally do in such circumstances. We formed lines and set up a queue behind the customer service desk. We did this with the exception of two people, both of whom charged around the lines and pushed themselves in front of the two people who were working at the desk.
I felt my blood pressure rise and went from being tired and quiet to being in a frenetic state of rage. That is always my reaction to people who do this kind of thing, but I have never spent a lot of time analyzing why it makes me so angry. I frequently think in my head, "what an (insert rude noun here)!"
Now I understand it better because I am reading a good book by Aaron James which is titled by that very same word.
"Assholes" is a philosophical analysis of individuals who by character and disposition have what James describes as an entrenched sense of entitlement and go through life feeling perfectly justified in butting in, talking over and generally ignoring the rule to treat people in a mutually respectful manner. It is a very engaging book to read — but more to the point for me, it is a book about morality, which is the topic of much of my academic work.
I research and write about ethics. My focus is generally on what makes people act in morally good ways. James takes as his topic what makes some people morally bad in a number of fairly inconsequential acts.
What I started thinking about is how much of what makes daily life more livable and more pleasant is a series of implicit and usually unstated agreements among strangers in groups that are impartial, respectful and based on a common sense of fairness and mutuality.
When we queue in a line, we all accept that although we probably wish all the other people weren’t there because then we could get our business done more quickly, the fairest and most equitable way to act in these circumstances is to line up patiently and wait until you get to the front of the line. Sometimes you are lucky and manage to get there early and are at the front of the line.
Sometimes you end up at the back, but we trust that the law of averages will work out OK in the long run.
A related type of this kind of behaviour that makes me crazy is when I am standing at a store counter and someone comes up after I have been waiting and as soon as the salesperson is available charges forward as if she or he were the next in line. Now James points out in his book that these acts are hardly that damaging — so why does it make us so angry when they happen?
I think it is fair to say that these selfish types of acts break some fundamental social contracts among persons that make civility and a reasonable and stable way of life possible.
There is a lot of talk these days that in democratic and capitalist societies in particularly, we are living in entitlement cultures where younger generations do not want to put in the long years of slogging it sometimes takes in the workplace before you are able to acquire some of the material amenities of life.
Further, materiality has become so important that no one wants to recognize that the lifestyles to which many aspire are economically and environmentally unsustainable and unattainable. If such is true, it is even more important that we reflectively enhance our understanding that the world is only as good as we individually and collectively choose to make it and that the boundaries between social mores and moral claims are far more narrow than we frequently assume.
If you want to read an interesting and lively book that illustrates this in a thoughtful and entertaining manner, check out Aaron James’ "Assholes."
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.