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Existential Self-Help 4: How Not To Be an Asshole

“Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey (1950)

Forget the question of being, whether To Be or Not to Be?

The more immediate problem, especially as social media has made interaction a bit more tense, is whether or not we can control ourselves in the face of irritation, disagreement, anger, or even rage.

To be or not to be an asshole?

In this blog, we’ll consider an easy self-assessment exercise inspired by aspects of existentialism. The main culprit we’ll bring into focus is how our goals and projects may be causing us to veer into the dark territory of jerkdom.

It’s Not Me. It’s You.

There’s a phenomenon called “traffic psychology”, part of which involves the belief that individually we tend not to think we’re the bad drivers on the road. Instead, it’s other drivers out there. Neuroscientific studies have revealed that we tend to

  • think we are safer than we are;

  • fail to realize when we’re being aggressive;

  • forget that other drivers are people, too;

  • blame other drivers when there’s a near-miss;

  • etc.

If we dig a little deeper into this phenomenon, there is a problem with how we overestimate our cognitive and perceptual abilities.

We often assume our processes of perception and cognition are formed on the bedrock of clarity and transparency. They allow us to see things more or less as they are, and how we digest and comprehend what we see is more or less trustworthy. Much, but not all, of philosophy privileges the role of clarity and transparency. Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Spinoza are a few of the major figures in Western philosophy who share in the idea that at root our perceptual capabilities rely on or are underwritten by conceptual operations that enable us to see things distinctly.

Drawing that can either be a duck or rabbit.
Duck or rabbit? Image from Wikimedia Commons

Even empirical philosophers—or those who aver that human knowledge arrives through and is built upon sense perception—face the problem of how the things we perceive makes sense to us. It’s not just a mass of sense data that we see since we can pick out trees from grass, people from birds, or even see cloud shapes as dragons or dolphins.

One of the problems with over-emphasizing clarity and transparency in human perception and understanding is that it tends to overestimate the reliability of human perception and rationality. It can also tend toward the idea that when fully rational, humans are to a large extent self-sufficient reasoning machines.

It’s Not Me. It’s the Other.

The branch of philosophy called phenomenology offers a different story.

Phenomenology has its roots in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), who demonstrated how human consciousness, or self-awareness, is possible only because it relies on perceiving other persons and how these persons interact with us. In other words, human consciousness does not arise from introspection but in seeing how others perceive us.

What’s important to note for our purposes is that the role of the other person in self-awareness is not describing a “positive” feature of human consciousness, but a “negative” one. First, it shows that our consciousness relies on something other than ourselves. It is indirect since it must rely on interaction with another. Second, it describes a process of negation in which self-awareness is involved in remaking, or reconstituting, itself by means of reacting to other persons.

Moving through the ranks of the phenomenological tradition, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who argued that human consciousness is primarily defined by this negative feature. He thus describes this in terms of negation and nihilation.

Sound strange? Well, it gets even stranger if you try to parse some of Sartre’s writing, which is notoriously dense:

Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness. Let us understand indeed that this original necessity of being its own nothingness does not belong to consciousness intermittently and on the occasion of particular negations. This does not happen just at a particular moment in psychic life when negative or interrogative attitudes appear; consciousness con­tinually experiences itself as the nihilation of its past being.

Being and Nothingness (Routledge, 1958), p. 28

Think of it like this. Recall those moments when you’re asked to be at a meeting that is pretty boring and perhaps even pointless. Or, you might remember those times when you were a student in a lecture and wished to be somewhere else. Or (I hate to offer this example), recall those moments when you wanted your smartphone in order to message someone who wasn’t present or to distract yourself while passing the time.

Notice how in moments of disengagement, lack, and boredom, your attention moves elsewhere. It seeks something else.

Sartre describes this as the process of negation. Your consciousness is negating the present in order to recognize an alternative mode of existing. Instead of being in class, you can be at the beach riding waves. Negate the class for the beach.

What Sartre adds to this (famously) is that this process of negation can reveal something extremely significant. It might be telling you what it would be to live more fully, more authentically. It’s not exactly clear what criteria are involved in this process of evaluation, but assuming that one has sincerely arrived at an alternative as to what matters, then that alternative ought to be pursued.

Enter the phenomenological conception of the project. Living according to projects means determining what really matters and then choosing to carry out those projects, even if it means failing.

To do otherwise is, as Sartre puts it, a form of inauthentic existence. He even calls it a form of bad faith because given the opportunity to live authentically, failing to choose to do so is a refusal to confront the truth of what you want to and ought to be doing. There is no alibi when it comes to living authentically.

Very powerful stuff.

Sartre: “Hell is other people” (No Exit)

However, like many philosophical theories, Sartre's account of projects becomes lopsided unless it is balanced or constrained by other ideas.

It can very well arise that in pursuing one’s project, one commits so fully simply because one does not want to live in bad faith. This can result in seeing most things, including other people, as the means to your own end.

In a previous blog on friendship, I mentioned an experiment I used to offer my philosophy students when teaching Sartre:

Since existentialism is supposed to be practicable and make a difference in one’s life, try living [as his philosophy proposes] over the weekend. Try to bracket any relations or any feelings you have for other people in realizing some weekend project. Then see how many friends you make or lose. Chances are, in trying to live according to Sartre’s philosophy, you’ll mostly be seen as an asshole.

So does this mean we should jettison Sartre’s description of human consciousness?

I think Sartre’s account is meaningful but incomplete. Completing it, at least on my view, involves balancing the emphasis on self-actualization and living out one’s projects. In fact, when doing so, Sartre’s account of negation becomes a great self-help tool to help individuals better understand the context and consequences that might arise in taking action.

The Road to Self-Reckoning

It is fine to recognize what projects matter to you, but it’s always good to have a safety mechanism to help ensure you have the ability to step back and even reverse course if your project is disadvantaging or harming others (including non-human animals and nature).

An easy way to do this is to envision your project as a road map of sorts.

Instead of the road leading to a destination, it’s a road leading to the completion of a project. Instead of geographical locations and points of interest being listed along the way, we’re essentially going to list pros and cons as we travel down the road.

Drawing of a road with a sun at the horizon labeled "project goal:

If Sartre were the driver, he'd be heading full speed toward the project's end. He might even be cutting off other drivers or refusing to stop for pedestrians crossing the road. A way to remedy this overdetermined attitude to is take note of why you're striving to complete the project (on the left side) and correlatively who may be affected adversely due to the execution of your project (on the right side).

If you find that there is a potential risk of harm or a conflict, imagine it as a crossroad. Are you sure you want to proceed and cross that path. Is there an alternative route or compromise?

Drawing of a crossroads with Pros and Cons on either side.

Asking yourself these questions and visualizing it before you can help prevent you from being an asshole.

If only Elon Musk might have performed this exercise before firing so many of his Twitter employees. He may have prevented himself from being an asshole. To be sure, we tend to associate the “sweet smell of success” with prioritizing oneself and not caring for others. But there are times when certain stories become outdated, and a new style of leadership and social cooperation is built on mutuality and respect.

Drawing of a road with Twitters goal under Musk and the consequences of his actions on the right side.

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About the Author

Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy and is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work. He is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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