My Pal Trigger

I’D LIKE TO THINK I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for most things.

That is to say, I like to fancy myself as someone who isn’t easily offended.

I’ve seen Faces of Death. I’ve watched Cannibal Holocaust.

2 Girls 1 Cup.

Googled “blue waffle”.

I’ve read William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and the Marquis de Sade.

Watched Divine eat dog shit in Pink Flamingos and laughed.



I can watch binge watch documentaries about spree killers and terrorists. I can waste an entire Saturday afternoon watching Forensic Files without being the least bit bothered about stories of kidnappings, rapes, murders, and all the horrible things people do to one another that sometimes makes me wish I’d been born a cat.

These things should offend me. But instead I was all like…


Under any other set of circumstances, I would take some pride in my high tolerance for offensive things. There’s a tendency in people to assume that the things that don’t bother me do not bother other people. However, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t the case.

Some people are really offended by the things that don’t offend me.

So much so that they need to be told that what they’re about to see may be upsetting.

So much so that they need a trigger warning.


What’s a trigger warning? If you haven’t been on or near a college campus lately, a trigger warning is

a statement at the start of a piece of writing , video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).
– Google

A trigger warning is supposed to forewarn a person of upsetting content.

I get the point of trigger warnings.

Cautioning people about content that may be offensive is nothing new. Content advisories are all over popular media. We got parental advisory stickers on music and video games. MPAA ratings on films and ratings on TV shows.



One of my favorite movies, ReAnimator, had a warning on its commercial. The commercial cautioned people who are squeamish to avoid watching the film.

As a fan of ReAnimator I would say that the warning is totally necessary.



So, if the purpose of trigger warnings is utilitarian – we’re motivated by the want to do good – an inconvenience (of some) is outweighed by the overall good a trigger warning produces.

Personally, I appreciate the fact that we’re concerned for people who have sensitivities on certain topics. Giving someone a heads up probably is a good thing.

So why is everybody so upset about trigger warnings?

Unfortunately for the well-intended, looking out for the sensitivities of others hasn’t been received as warmly as their intentions. Trigger warnings, like their also well-intentioned cousin, safe spaces, have been described as political correctness gone amok.

Political correctness, or rather, how much political correctness sucks, leads folks like actor, Libertarian, and former mayor of Carmel, California, Clint Eastwood, to say this:

clint eastwood quote
As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and not all good intentions give good outcomes.

Some folks think that trigger warnings, despite the best of intentions, have done more harm than good.

Alright, we can agree that warnings may be useful, but does that mean they’re a good thing?

Does the fact that someone is sensitive to certain subjects necessitate that we (ought to) warn them that the content of the material is about that subject?

How obligated are we to mind that we don’t offend everybody? To what extent are we morally obligated to not offend?

You don’t have to politically incorrect to think that trigger warnings don’t belong in a college classroom or anywhere else.


You could be a philosopher.

Here’s a thought experiment: We are a professor teaching a Women’s Studies class at a university.

Yes, we.

We also assume that we have at least one student who has experienced a trauma and will react in a particular way to certain material presented in our class. We, for the sake of not triggering a memory of a past trauma, flag possibly disturbing material with a trigger warning.



So far so good, right?

Uh… well…
Well, here’s a possible problem with what we’ve done – we should ask, is our assumption a bit paternalistic? Are we assuming that we know what’s best? Is the trigger warning somehow depriving a person of the ability to make their own decisions over what kind of content offends them?


Wait – before I go any further, let me define paternalism.

Paternalism is

the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest.
– Google

And, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)

The usual justification for paternalism refers to the interests of the person being interfered with. These interests are defined in terms of the things that make a person’s life go better; in particular their physical and psychological condition.

When we act paternalistically, even if our aim is to secure the interests of others, we are, by definition, interfering with another person’s ability to choose. Paternalism acts against a person’s free agency.



You see, philosophers really dig the idea of autonomy. Free moral agents require autonomy. In order to act autonomously, our decisions must be our own. Our choices must be arrived at through our own rational thought processes, without interference from others. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant says autonomy must be absolute, even if our justification for interfering in someone else’s choices is for their own good (Kant was an deontologist, so consequences don’t matter).

A violation of autonomy, according to Kant, is no different than treating rational free agents as if they are mentally incompetent.

And according to Kant that’s not being very moral.

The ultimate consequence of not respecting autonomy, some argue, is this: Although a college campus may offer safe spaces from triggers on college campuses, utilizing trigger warnings are not preparing young people for the world off campus.


You see, on college campuses, subject matter deemed triggering is often avoided out of fear of causing further trauma to sensitive individuals. The real world, according to trigger warning critics, is a harsh place and unpleasant situations and subject matter can’t be easily avoided.

According to the argument against trigger warnings, protecting people from everything that may offend them is shielding them from how things truly are. In turn, shielding people from life’s unpleasant realities makes people weaker. Warning people of any mention or instance of unpleasant subject matter (so as to avoid it) deprives people of the ability/responsibility to toughen up and imbues them with mistaken belief that the “real” world will accommodate their sensitivities.

A generation who is not fully equipped to deal with the real world cannot develop into or thrive as fully autonomous individuals.

As Professor of psychology and trigger warning expert, Metin Basoglu, observes, in the real world, there are “an infinite number of situations can act as triggers”.



We also ask, how can a college professor properly teach a class if the content/subject matter of the class triggers students? If college professors make a habit of avoiding subject matter that upsets people, then why use material on those subjects at all? The ultimate consequence of trigger warnings may not be protecting people from trauma, but a chilling effect on the expression of ideas, creativity, even the exchange of information.

Our intention may be to protect someone suffering from a prior trauma, but slapping a trigger warning may lead some to skip an article, book or class altogether.

After all, an article or class may be upsetting but it may also be informative.
And without the right information, we can’t achieve knowledge.

Trigger warnings may also remove context.

'I was quoted out of context!'
Listen: If a professor assigns a particular piece of work, it’s often because the work contributes to the purpose of the class.

Particular work is assigned because you’re supposed to learn something from it.

Anyone who has ever had to read Mark Twain knows that Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains (potentially triggering) racist language. However, avoiding the book because of it’s racist content doesn’t allow a reader to appreciate Twain’s use of racist language in context. The use of language as it was used in the American South of 19th century enables us to understand Huckleberry Finn’s character development. Should we continue to assign students to read potentially triggering material like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Last Exit To Brooklyn, and The Great Gatsby? Should we stop reading Shakespeare and Vonnegut? Or refrain from discussing topics such as rape, suicide, bullying, mental illness, racism, homophobia, misogyny on college campuses because those topics may upset some people?


Is this where our good intentions will lead us?

Is this where we want our good intentions to lead us?

What about the trigger warning itself? Are some people so trigger-prone that a mere trigger warning will trigger them?

So… in the end, what do we do? I honestly don’t know. My gut and feelings tells me that we should be mindful to the sensitivities of others.
And that’s not always a bad thing.

Especially if you’re an emotivist.

But as a philosopher, the whole topic gets me thinking about slippery slopes and being that guy everybody hates who says “trust me, it’s for the best”.



Maybe I’m not the right person to talk about this.

I just want everyone to stay off my lawn.






EVERY FOUR YEARS Americans go through what can only be described as a moderate case of national silliness. For those who prefer to use technical words to describe these things, the collective silliness is called election season.
This election season has been particularly silly.
And not just because of Donald Trump.
As American politics usually goes, by the time the Democrats and Republicans head to their Party (respective) national conventions, the silliness gives way to the serious business of each Party choosing its presidential candidate.
As I said, this is how it usually goes.
This year, Republican National Convention has guaranteed that the silliness will last until election day in November.

How so, you say?

A single word:


Plagiarism, as defined by Google, is:

The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

Republican Party candidate Donald Trump’s wife (and potential First Lady) Melania was accused of plagiarizing a speech given by current First Lady, Michelle Obama, at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.




Although all of this hullabaloo over Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism seems like it’s just a bunch of journalists and hypocrites (wait, isn’t that the same thing?) causing drama over  political silliness,  plagiarism isn’t such a silly thing. In some circles, using another person’s words or work without proper citation is serious business. There’s an expectation, especially in academia, that one’s writing be original. Every college student knows you can get kicked out of school for plagiarizing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. In professions such as journalism, plagiarism can cost you your job.



When I was in college, a couple of my professors were so cuckoo for plagiarism that one professor even required students to affirm that our term papers were our own original work.

On the cover sheet of every term paper we had to write this:

I understand the rules governing plagiarism and I certify that the work contained in this paper is my own, I have given appropriate citations for quotations and ideas that I have taken from other authors.

In the eyes of academics and many employers, passing off another’s work as one’s own is no different from theft.

They think that this




Is the same as doing this


But for every armchair political pundit, professional journalist, and university professor who believes that a plagiarist is a thief of the lowest order, there is someone looking at all the Melania Trump plagiarism hubbub asking, what’s the big deal? Political speeches are saturated with copious amounts paraphrasing and outright plagiarism.

The correct question isn’t Did Melania Trump plagiarize Michelle Obama’s speech? but Name a politician who hasn’t been accused of or is actually guilty of plagiarism.

This politician was accused of plagiarism.




So was he.

Official Portrait



And so was this guy.



And this president.



These guys have been accused of plagiarism.

led zeppelin 1970s


More than once.
At least seven times, to be exact.

And THIS is the problem with plagiarism. What exactly is plagiarism?

Yeah, there’s the textbook definition, but, you see, people are often inspired by, or borrow from, or even imitate the work of other writers and artists.

And that’s exactly it. Where do we draw the line between inspiration and stealing? Where does mere similarity end and plagiarism begin?

A clear line might have helped Robin Thicke.


FYI: In 2013, the family of the late R&B singer Marvin Gaye sued contemporary R&B vocalist Robin Thicke for plagiarizing Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”. The Gaye family argued (successfully) that Thicke’s 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines” copied chords from “Got To Give It Up” and Thicke and fellow “Blurred Lines” songwriter, Pharrell Williams, were ordered to pay $7.4 million to the Gaye family.

Let’s be honest, these days, few ideas are completely original. So how original can one be when writing on a subject that has been written about before?

Despite our best efforts, sometimes two (or more) people will write exactly the same thing.

How many different ways can you originally say “Make America Great Again”?



Even philosophers are not immune.

Modern philosophy is all based on someone else’s ideas.

I’ve written plenty of papers under the impression that I’d written some deeply brilliant philosophical sigight only to find that someone else had already written it.

The so-called Elvis of philosophy, Slavoj Zizek, was accused of plagiarism.

From the White Nationalist Journal The American Renaissance, no less.



Google search “philosophers on plagiarism” and you’ll find Did Nietzsche plagiarize Max Stirner?

For the record, Nietzsche said he was influenced by Schopenhauer.

So, we’re tempted to say that plagiarism is no big deal, right?



Well, it kinda is and it kinda isn’t.
This is kinda why plagiarism is a big deal:

Plagiarism is defined as The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. In short, if you’re a plagiarist, you’re basically stealing someone else’s stuff.

Stealing stuff is usually considered morally wrong.


Now, if you were a philosopher like Aristotle, this would be a serious moral transgression.

According to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the things we do are the result of what kind of character we have. If a person does good things it’s likely that that is a good (i.e. morally virtuous) person. If you do something bad, like stealing, according to Aristotle’s ethics, you’re probably an absolute POS.*

In Aristotle’s treatise on morality, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says:

It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.

Plagiarizing someone else’s material may seem like it’s no big deal – or it could be an indicator of one’s bad character.

And nobody wants to be around bad people.


People who do bad things may seem like fun people, but in the end they’re not so fun to be with.

Especially when they steal your stuff.

It’s worth mentioning that plagiarism isn’t merely stealing. Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Passing off someone else’s work as your own is deceptive – and deception is a form of lying. So, if you’re doing the plagiarism thing, you’re not only a thief, you’re also a liar.

But wait a minute. If Melania Trump did indeed plagiarize her Republican National Convention speech, are we wiling to go so far to call her a person of bad character? Her plagiarism may not be an act of outright theft. Trump’s speechwriter claims that Melania Trump was “inspired” by Michelle Obama – and that may explain the close similarity between Obama’s 2008 speech and Trump’s Republican National Convention speech. Melania Trump’s intention wasn’t to rip off Michelle Obama, but to express sentiments that she also shared with the First Lady.



So… when all is said and done is plagiarism a bad thing? Is plagiarism even a thing? I don’t know. Maybe.

It’s possible that we aren’t looking at the whole picture when it comes to plagiarism Perhaps we should consider what role influence, inspiration, homage, and when great minds think alike plays in creating a piece of work before we heap our righteous moral condemnation upon so-called plagiarists.

You know I’m saying this only because the chance that I’ll inevitably plagiarize someone is about 80 percent.




* POS: piece of shit.








IT’S BEEN SOME time since the first half season of season two of Fear the Walking Dead ended.

I’ve had some time to sit back and think about what I saw.

For starters, I think the show is getting better.

It’s not great, but it’s better.

And secondly, I’ve noticed that some of the characters on the show are like walking philosophy.

The show should be called Fear the Philosophical Dead.

No. not really. It shouldn’t.

Although some characters are philosophically interesting,

Some, mind you, not all.



After watching Fear the Walking Dead for a season and a half, I think the most philosophically intriguing character on the show is the wealthy, debonair, and most importantly, mysterious captain of the Abigail, Victor Strand.

I gotta admit, when Strand was introduced, I was prepared to see the character die after a few episodes. You know, because, well, people like Strand have a habit of not fairing too well in the world of The Walking Dead.

It seemed that Victor Strand was destined to become another victim of the being-a-black-guy-in-The-Walking-Dead thing, but he was an interesting character – by far more interesting than the characters we were supposed to be most concerned about.

The reason why I think Victor Strand is so interesting is because so many of the show’s philosophical dilemmas have to do with what Strand either does or says. Victor Strand is a one man philosophical conundrum generator.

I’ve spent a season and a half of Fear the Walking Dead trying to figure out exactly where Victor Strand stands philosophically. Is Strand a Randian ethical egoist? Is he a moral nihilist? An incredibly consistent utilitarian? An all of the above?


More than a dozen episodes into the series and I still can’t figure it out.

When we’re introduced to Victor Strand in the season one episode “Cobalt”, we see Strand is one of many detainees imprisoned by the government.

We’re never told exactly why.


We witness Strand goading a mentally fragile man to the point of a mental breakdown. And we learn that Strand is a man who is willing to exchange goods for favors from the National Guardsmen who are guarding the detainee camp.

Strand is introduced as a man who is cool, calculating, and not encumbered by empathy for others. Strand initially displays all the traits of a classic Ayn Rand protagonist. Strand is concerned with one thing: his own interests. Rand writes:

… he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.

We can imagine a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged next to Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tsu’s Art of War on Strand’s bookshelf.



However, Strand quickly realizes that fellow detainee (and main character) Nick Clark is useful -insofar as Nick can serve as a means to Strand’s ends -namely, escaping from the detainment camp.

Using others to further your ends is not a very Randian thing to do.

Ayn Rand also writes:

Man -every man- is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself…

Although Victor Strand isn’t a very good Randian, he still abides by Rand’s principle of pursuing one’s happiness as one’s supreme moral principle. Strand does not allow the misfortunes of others interfere with his main task: surviving.



Here are a few things that Strand says concerning his interests versus the needs of others:


[To Madison after she informs Strand that she sees some people at sea who need to be rescued]: I filled my mercy quota. Seven people saved to date.

Rules for Strand’s yacht, the Abigail: Please, let me explain the rules of the boat. Rule number one, it’s my boat. Rule number two, it’s my boat. And if there remains any confusion about rules one and two, I offer rule number three, it’s my goddamn boat. If I weren’t for me, you’d all be burned. You’re welcome.



[Strand’s response after fellow survivors insist that the Abigail take on more passengers]: If I stop the boat, it’ll be to drop folks off, not take them on.


[Strand’s response when Madison insists that the Abigail take on an orphaned child]:
Children are the definition of dead weight.



Strand on the real danger in an undead apocalypse: You know what the real danger is on the ocean? People.

When other survivors hitch a lifeboat containing a young woman and her mortally wounded companion to the Abigail, Strand cuts them loose, reasoning that the survivors can’t risk their lives to save people who may be dangerous -especially a dying boy (who will become a zombie when he dies).



Everything Strand says strikes of Ayn Rand’s clearly  (at least Any Rand influenced) ethics. Strand clearly puts no man ahead of himself.

This is why Victor Strand is a fan favorite.

And yet, Strand has considered the interests of others, and even put his life on the line to save the lives of people in his group.

Strand not only helps Nick to escape the detainee camp, he also agrees to house Nick’s family and another family (the Salazar family) in his home and on the Abigail.

Although Strand lays down the rules for admission on the Abigail, we know he isn’t just looking after himself. Strand could easily pull up anchor and abandon the group when they leave the Abigail to explore dry land.

Yet he does not.

Strand risks his life to help Nick escape from the detainee camp and in the season two midseason finale, Strand, after he’s expelled from a temporary sanctuary, risks his life to save Nick’s mother Madison.



Wait a minute. Does this mean that Strand is a secret utilitarian? Is he masquerading as a Randian while clandestinely pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number?


But could is it possible that Strand has given up on all ethics? Is it possible that Strand believes that in a world without civilization all things are permitted? Strand tells Nick that the only way to survive in a mad world is to embrace the madness. Is Strand preaching moral nihilism?

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche writes:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

Is Strand telling Nick not just to stare into the abyss but to leap headlong into it? Is Strand telling Nick to become a monster? Is Stand saying that all of the characters should become monsters?




It’s worth noting that the first episode of season two is titled “Monster”. In the season two midseason finale, Nick Clark covers himself in zombie guts (a means of camouflage) and refuses to join his mother and Strand to safety. Nick chooses to join the horde of zombies that has overrun their sanctuary. Nick is last seen walking among the dead, one of the monsters.

Fear the Walking Dead is not a great show. Sometimes it’s not even a good TV show. But what the show lacks in quality it more than makes up for in philosophical interestingness. Victor Strand is just one of the philosophically compelling characters on the series. In a TV world dominated by reality TV it’s refreshing to find a TV show with characters that have us thinking about them and discussing a series days (sometimes months) after an episode has aired.

One can only hope that Fear the Walking Dead continues to be one of the most philosophical TV shows on television.

I’ve got my fingers crossed.

That years from now, when we talk about Fear the Walking Dead, we think of the show as more like Better Call Saul than like Joanie Loves Chachi.




WHEN A PHILOSOPHER thinks of philosophical things, one’s thoughts usually turn to things like the usual philosophical subjects: metaphysics or ethics or epistemology.

A philosopher may even be inclined to think of logic.

Although I would never encourage anyone to do that.

I suspect that it is a rare occasion that one would think of the word philosophy and immediately think politics.

Yes, indeed. As you may have observed, there’s not one thing that philosophers don’t have an opinion about, including the form, purpose, and function of government.


Philosophers think about politics.

A lot.

When professional folks talk about politics they call it political science.
When regular folks talk about government they call it politics.
And when philosophers talk about it, they call it political philosophy.

Now, we’ve become quite accustomed to thinking of politicians and the political process through a cynical lens. Politics is a necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) evil. Many people think of politics as a dirty game where the needs of the people come last and only the most corrupt win. Politics is a bunch of people bought and sold by corporations and special interest groups and the only principles that matter are the ones that come attached to a big, fat, lobbyist check.



Politicians consistently rank among the least trusted professions.

Our dim view of government was echoed in the words of the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan who said


Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.


Reagan also said


The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.


The man was president and he said this.

The freaking head of GOVERNMENT.



Here’s the thing, though: you may not be able to name who came up with what political theory, but you can bet the farm that those philosophers with names you don’t know have influenced the way you live, believe, and act politically more than you know.

Here’s a quick quiz: Name a political philosopher.

Can you?


Come on, take a wild guess.

Still no?

That might have to do with the fact that when we think about politics we think this



Instead of this



When we think about politics, politicians, and people who think about government stuff, we likely to conjure mental images of former B-list actors or former reality show hosts, but philosophers thinking about philosophy is as old as… well, philosophy.
Whether you’re a conservative, liberal, libertarian you have a philosopher to thank for giving you your political ideas.

Philosophers know that politics isn’t just a bunch of theories but a lifestyle.

Take Plato.

Plato’s Republic, written in 360 B.C.E., is all about what makes the ideal city? Plato (as Socrates) asks, what is justice?

You ever heard of Noble Lies? That’s Plato. The Allegory of the Cave? Yep. Plato again.


In Politics, Aristotle wrote “Man is a political animal”.

Aristotle asked how do we achieve the Good life for the people and the polis.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan established the idea of the social contract and is considered to be the foundation of Western political philosophy.

The English philosopher John Locke is credited as the father of Liberalism.

In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Locke lays the groundwork for American political thought, writing of concepts like natural rights, property, the Law of Nature, and the relationship between the government and the governed.

archive lost 110110


Edmund Burke is considered the father of Conservatism.

Political philosophy is all over everything.

Remember that scene in A Bronx Tale when Sonny asked Calogero if it’s better to be loved or feared?

Sonny was quoting Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a political philosopher.



Are you a capitalist?

You are because of Adam Smith. And he wrote about politics.

Did you abandon your children and had them placed in orphanages?

You probably did because you read Jean Jacques Rousseau.


Rousseau argued that monarchies did not possess a divine right to rule.

Some say Rousseau’s writings inspired the French Revolution.

Are you a Bernie Bro?

Thank Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.



Are you a neo-Conservative who hates modernity, thinks Ronald Reagan is the greatest American president, and you often refer to people on welfare as “moochers”?

If so, your personal political philosophy is the product of Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand.

We say we hate all things political, but the political theories of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Hayek, Michel Foucault, John Rawls and Robert Nozick (just to name a few) are such an intrinsic part of how we live and think that political philosophy may be – no, IS the most relevant field of philosophy.
You may never read Kant’s metaphysics. You may never experience your own Cartesian method of doubt. Or figure out how to do one of these:



But you will vote. Or think about voting. Or think about not voting. Vote to stay. Vote to leave. If you pledge allegiance to a flag. Or wave a flag in solidarity. Or burn a flag in effigy. It’s all political – and it’s all philosophical.


… Just something to think about on America’s 200 and something-nth birthday.






FERRIS BUELLER, YOU’RE MY HERO (Updated. Or something)

THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN saying that goes “you’re only as old as you feel”. Well, sometimes even when you feel quite youthful, something happens that makes you feel old.

Like when you remember one of your favorite movies when you were a kid was released 30 years ago.

Or when the person who wrote and directed a movie you loved as a kid dies.

On August 6, 2009, film writer-director and Generation X icon John Hughes died.

Heart attack.

There’s something really unnerving when the idols of one’s youth start popping off from the same diseases, ailments, and blocked arteries that killed your grandparents. The death of John Hughes only reminded me of how old I’m getting; that my chances of dying young and leaving a good looking corpse is quickly slipping away.



I was thinking about how much (way back in the 1980s) John Hughes’ movies were, as they say in the modern vernacular, the shit. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Pretty in Pink were the cinematic soundtrack of my youth. Honestly, who can hear Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” without defiantly thrusting your fist in the air like Judd Nelson? (Alright, no one ever does).

don't you forget about me


New York School of the Performing Arts kids like Doris Finsecker and Ralph Garci might have experienced self discovery while smoking weed and doing the time warp to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but for the suburbia-adjacent kids like me, we saw our so-called lives played out in the teen angst drama of Some Kind of Wonderful.**

black acting school



Not too long ago, partly because a) I had nothing better to do, b) I wanted to honor the memory of John Hughes, and c) I was desperately engaged in a vain attempt to capture my lost youth; I decided to watch a John Hughes movie. After some serious contemplation – and because it was the easiest John Hughes movie to grab off of my DVD shelf – I spent an afternoon watching John Hughes’ teen comedy magnum opus 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

ferris bueller poster

Nearly every one of John Hughes’ movies is quotable but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was the one where we learned the eternally quotable “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it”.

I’m not entirely sure if Ferris Bueller is actually the first person to say it, but I do remember that hearing that line was the first time I’d ever been floored by anyone, let alone a character in a movie, speaking philosophically.

phil pic 234

Imagine this: you’re an eleven year old kid, home alone on a Wednesday afternoon, watching cable TV, probably HBO.



Ferris Bueller is dressed in a bathrobe and is actively breaking the fourth wall just to speak directly to you, the eleven year old kid sitting at home alone watching HBO.


Nowadays, looking back, Ferris Bueller’s wisdom seems a bit trite (were we really supposed to learn the value of carpe dieming from a character who is still in high school?), but back then, just like Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller was my hero.



My, how things have changed.
I thought when I sat down to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so many years after I had initially seen it as a kid, that I would re-experience the same sense of philosophical enlightenment that I had felt all those years ago when I was a lonely latchkey kid looking for someone to look up to.

Because one‘s parents are never the first choice.

Maybe it’s because I’m looking at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off through cynical adult eyes, but while I sat, watching the shenanigans of Ferris Bueller and Co., it suddenly hit me; I realized what a horrible person Ferris Bueller is.

Wait – my revelation didn’t stop there. I realized that almost every John Hughes character was an unforgivable jerk in some major way.

kevin mccallister


Collectively speaking, most of John Hughes’ characters are self- indulgent assholes.
assholes everywhereI


Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples for you:

  • Farmer Ted (Sixteen Candles) is a date-rapist (he has sex with Jake Ryan’s drunken, passed out girfriend, with Jake’s encouragement no less. Watch the movie. It’s true).
  • Andie (Pretty in Pink) was kind of a bitch who not only wanted way out of her league (for even considering that she should go to the prom with high school hottie Blane Mc Donnagh), but Andie in no way deserved Duckie.
  • There is not one redeeming character in The Breakfast Club (we’re supposed to like Andy, this time played by Emilio Estevez, even though he committed a possible sexual assault/battery on a classmate by taping the guy‘s buttcheeks together).
  • And the Griswold family (National Lampoon’s Vacation) are just plain racists.


Watch the hubcap stealing scene if you don’t believe me.

St Louis 4


Now that I’m thinking about it, If characters like Ferris Bueller were supposed to be a portrait of the American teenager (if you live in a world where amazingly enough, everybody is white, upper middle class, and the only minorities you encounter come straight out of Black Acting School), I think in retrospect, that John Hughes’ American teenager was about as true to life as the fictional hamlet of Shermer, Illinois.

jay and silent bob

I know that I am treading on thin ice, here. For those of a certain age, the movies of John Hughes are like GOSPEL and Hughes’ characters are so freaking cool that they can do no wrong. But after several viewings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I really began to think that of all John Hughes’ characters. Perhaps with the exception of Kevin McCallister, who possessed more knowledge about planting booby traps and countermeasures against home invaders than a seasoned Navy Seal, Ferris Bueller is Hughes’ most selfish character.
Really. The entire movie is about how Ferris Bueller spends an entire day scheming, exploiting, and outright lying to people to get what he wants. The fact that all the “sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads,” all adore Ferris, and think he’s a “righteous dude”, doesn’t mitigate the fact that Ferris is an
egoistical asshole.

Not convinced?

The proof is in the viewing: As the movie opens, we see Ferris (Matthew Broderick) faking that he’s sick. Of course we know that Ferris isn’t sick, but Ferris’ very concerned and clueless parents have no idea their is lying to them. They believe that there actually is something physically wrong with their son. After all, why else would their son be bent over moaning and wailing with sweaty palms if he wasn’t dreadfully ill?



Tom and Katie Bueller believe Ferris is sick, and Ferris is glad that they do. Ferris is so glad that he’s duped his parents into believing that he is deathly ill that he doesn’t feel even the slightest tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. In fact, Ferris Bueller doesn’t spend one moment of the movie regretting the fact that he weaves a web of deception around not only his own parents but around practically everyone he knows.

ferris bueller smiling


Ferris doesn’t care when his (supposedly) BFF Cameron Frye tells Ferris that he’s (actually) sick and can’t accompany Ferris on his adventure. SFW, Ferris says. Instead of offering Cameron a decongestant or well wishes, Ferris tells his best friend that if he doesn’t get out of bed and hang out, that Cameron will have to find a new best friend.

Ferris not only decides that he’s going to coerce others to join his plan, he also decides to “borrow” Cameron’s father’s prized sports car for the day’s activities. Ferris could not care less when Cameron tells him that his (likely physically abusive) father will kill him if his prized 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California gets “so much as a scratch on it.” Ferris ignores his (supposedly best) friend and steals the car anyway – even if the consequence of discovery means almost certain death for his best friend.



Unlike a good person, Ferris has no problem lying to his parents or to his principal, Mr. Rooney, or falsifying his school records. Nor does Ferris have any compunction over pulling his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, out of class.

By faking her grandmother’s death, no less.

Ferris gleefully mouths off to a snooty restaurant maitre d’ to prove his moral superiority to the guy and assumes the identity of someone he is not to humiliate the maitre d’ in front of the restaurant‘s patrons.

ferris bueller restaurant


Ferris doesn’t hesitate to commandeer a Von Steuben Day Parade float not only to garner more attention for FERRIS but also to publicly humiliate Cameron in front of the gathered crowd by declaring that his best friend is a grump who didn‘t think he would “see anything good today”.




Ferris Bueller doesn’t care if everyone else has to go to school or to work “on a day like this”. Oh no! Ferris’ day off is all about the fact that Ferris can’t be bothered by responsibility. That’s what other people do. After all, with all that hard work being idolized by everyone at school, Ferris Bueller needs a day off!

ferris bueller day off

By the way, if you really pay attention to the movie, you’ll notice that he only time Ferris shows any sort of remorse for what he’s done is when he feigns an apology so he can further exploit other people.
Now, either Ferris Bueller either is suffering from some sort of sociopathy, which is a matter best handled by mental health professionals, but since I am a philosopher, and consequently, am in no way interested or qualified to render a psychiatric diagnosis, my philosophical diagnosis is that Ferris Bueller is nothing more than a standard ethical egoist.

Ethical egoism is the ethical theory that holds an act is right if (and only if) an act produces happiness for a particular agent — you. Everyone ought to look after, as a follower of the goddess of egoism, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) would tell you, his own rational self interest. The philosopher Gregory Kavka (1947-1994) explained that an egoist (in particular a Rule Egoist) acts according to the following principle:


Each agent should attempt always to follow that set if general
rules of conduct whose acceptance (and sincere attempt to
follow) by him on all occasions would produce the best
(expected) outcomes by him.

In short, egoist ethics is the inverse of utilitarian-esque “Vulcan logic”. Instead of believing that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, the egoist believes the needs of the one, the agent, outweigh the needs of the many.

But enough Star Trek.



The ethical egoist’s reasoning is this: because we are unable to know anyone else’s needs or motivations and because we are restricted to seeing the world from only our own particular point of view, we only are morally obligated to act in a manner that benefits us. Egoism poster-girl, Ayn Rand, wrote, “This is why objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness.” In a way, Ferris Bueller is not unlike Rand’s description of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943). In her description of Roark, Ayn Rand writes:


He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He
has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No
dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it —
because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind,
courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself
at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And,
deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to
win the fight to be himself.


So apparently not only is Ferris Bueller an ethical egoist, more specifically, he’s a Randian objectivist.


**Objectivism is most closely associated with the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand describes the objectivist ethic, based on rational self interest, as “The proper standard of ethics is: man’s survival qua man – i.e., that which is required for his survival as a rational being … Man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose in life”. In short, a Randian objectivist’s primary moral objective is to act only in a manner that is most beneficial to him, which is exactly what an ethical egoist does.**


According to Rand the egoist is concerned about others in so far as his concern for others contributes to his own happiness. Sure, an egoist might give to charity, but he is not motivated by any sense of altruism. The egoist is motivated by a personal want (a good reputation and public accolades, for example) than by a want to selflessly give to people less fortunate than he is. So when Ferris tells Cameron that his day off really was for Cameron’s benefit, we know that Ferris is full of shit.




We know that Cameron’s good day was a only fortunate consequence to Ferris’ egoism. Ferris is so focused on his own day off that if either his best friend Cameron or his girlfriend Sloane has a good day it is an unintentional consequence of Ferris‘ selfishness. In truth, the day is all about as the water tower says, saving Ferris.


As mere movie watchers unaware of the deeper philosophical significance of Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off, we only see Ferris as a go-getter, a mercurial rogue who lives life on his own terms. Ferris knows what he wants and doesn’t let obstacles get in his way. Ferris Bueller is the guy we, and Cameron Frye, always wanted to be.

I don’t know if John Hughes had Howard Roark, Ayn Rand, or ethical egoism in mind when he wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m assuming that he did not. John Hughes may or may not have had Rand in mind, but philosophically speaking, Ferris is imbued with what Rand describes as the three fundamental values of man: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Ferris Bueller is, as Ayn Rand’s ethics describes, a man who lives for his own sake.

As a man who lives for his own sake, a guy like a snooty maitre d’ or a power hungry Principal Rooney isn’t going to get into Ferris’ way. An egoist (like Ferris) does not allow anyone else’s needs trump his own needs and/or wants. That means if Ferris Bueller wants to have his way, Ferris gets his way; everyone else’s needs simply do not come first.

As we watch the film, we come to understand what Cameron Frye must have realized about Ferris – being with Ferris Bueller is easy if you understand this one thing: Ferris comes first.

This explains why Cameron’s father’s car goes from looking like this:

ferrari 1

To looking like this by the end of the movie:

ferrari 2

** It’s worth noting here that an individual who lives for one’s own sake might be interpreted be described by others as acting selfishly. To perceive an egoist’s actions as selfish is not a misinterpretation of an ethical egoist’s guiding moral philosophy. According to Ayn Rand, an ethics of selfishness isn’t a bad thing (in fact, Rand considers selfishness a virtue). An ethical egoist’s selfishness isn’t a moral or psychological defect. Unlike most people who are concerned with soul (and bank account) draining activities and ideals like altruism or a sense of selflessness in dealing with their fellow humans, an egoist knows what he wants and knows exactly what he needs to do to get it (serving others selflessly often interferes with our ability to serve our own interests). Ferris Bueller would inform you that his actions were not due to a lack of morals or because he is an asshole. Ferris would tell you that he is, in fact, quite a moral individual. The situation simply is this: he chooses to not be encumbered by fulfilling the interests of others. **


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off costar Ben Stein described Ferris as having an “inner mobility” and an “inner sense of freedom and self-confidence”, and John Hughes said that Ferris Bueller isn’t “labored with all the difficulties that everyone else is”. Given Ferris’ behavior during his day off, we’re safe to assume that the achievement of his own happiness is Ferris’ greatest purpose in life.

Straight outta Rand.


** This is why we not only like but want to be like Ferris Bueller and why all the sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, and dweebies adore him. The unfortunate reality for most of us is that although we want to be Ferris Bueller, we all know that deep down we all really are like Cameron Frye trapped in lives as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Of quiet desperation”. We need people like Ferris to show us that life is worth living. This is exactly what Ferris does for Cameron. This leads us to a question: since the day ended pretty well for everyone, what’s the harm in what Ferris did? What’s the harm of being selfish and using other people to get what you want if everyone has fun? **

Well, Ferris Bueller’s universally fun-filled day off aside, there’s a tremendous problem with ethical egoism. Namely, the problem with ethical egoism is the fact that egoism tends to be self defeating.



Listen: the only way a person can really ever be a successful egoist is if a person remains closeted about it. The late Australian philosopher, Brian Medlin (1927-2004), says ethical egoism doesn’t work because people don’t want to live in a world where people only live for themselves. Medlin says:


What is he when he urges upon his audience that they should
observe his own interests and those alone? Is he not acting
contrary to the egoist principle? It cannot be to his
advantage to convince them, for seizing always their own
advantage they will impair his. Surely is he does believes
what he says, he should try to persuade them otherwise.

If everybody is an ethical egoist, says Medlin, our selfish pursuit of our own pleasure will inevitably conflict with someone else’s selfish pursuits. Although an ethical egoist can be quite comfortable calling himself an egoist, he is likely to be uncomfortable with other people knowing that he is an egotist. For example, Ferris couldn’t very well ring up Cameron and say, “hey, Cam. I’ve decided, being the ethical egoist that I am, to take the day off. And as an egoist, I’m going to spend the entire day pleasing me, and I’m going to exploit you, Sloane, and anyone else who I need to use along the way. Wanna come along? By the way, bring your dad’s car”.

This would not work. Cameron has his own selfish interests he may want to pursue, including not being exploited by his best friend.

cameron frye


Obviously Ferris’ want to exploit Cameron and Cameron’s want to not be exploited by Ferris conflict. An egoist as smart as Ferris Bueller knows that he cannot and should not prance around waving his ethical egoism in everyone’s faces. And Ferris, like many egoists, is far too clever to let other people in on his game. Ferris says that he’s doing it all for Cameron, but really, Cameron’s happiness is a happy accident. An egoist knows that the key to getting what you want does not mean that someone always gets harmed, but it does mean that nobody else knows you’re an ethical egoist.

ferris bueller's day off meek quote

Alright. Rebuttal time, you say. Ethical egoism naysayers like Brian Medlin and Jesus Christ are only partially right.

The egoism-is-self-defeating-argument may be a problem if an egoist is indeed strictly in it for himself. Doing so would indeed be self-defeating. However, being an egoist does not mean that you always have to seek your own happiness to the exclusion of the happiness of others. Ethical egoists often discover that pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people actually increases the egoist’s happiness as well.

jesus was wrong


Ben Stein claims that Ferris helps Cameron to “liberate” himself. So when Ferris “borrows” Cameron’s father’s car, ignores Cameron’s illness, and talks to the camera about his friend’s non-existent sex life, it’s really to help Cameron to break free from his fear. When Ferris stands completely still and does nothing to stop Cameron while Cameron kicks the holy hell out his father’s car, it’s not because Ferris is looking after his own ass and wants to wipe his hands clean of the whole ordeal, it is because Ferris is being a great friend helping Cameron to gain independence from his father. When Ferris humiliates the maitre d’ at Chez Quis, it’s not because Ferris gets his rocks off humiliating people in public, it’s to put a snarky butthole in his place. When Ferris lip sync’s The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” on the Von Steuben Day Parade float, it’s not to be the center of attention, he’s doing it to show Cameron something good that day.

The fact that Ferris’ happiness was Ferris’ main motivation for taking the day off didn’t necessarily mean that other people had to get hurt. It’s possible that everyone can think you’re a righteous dude and they can get what they want, too.

And because no one admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.

Especially Ferris.

ferrisbueller smirk


In the end, my two cents worth says that Ferris Bueller indeed is a Randian egoist.
I will, however, concede that Medlin and the other haters tend to act as if being an egoist means that you’re required to go all Marquis de Sade in how you treat others. We know that’s not so.
The trick is that you simply don’t go waiving your egoist banner everywhere. If you have to tell people that you’re a Kantian, so be it. Just as long as everyone (especially you) is happy. If you are successful, you can get exactly what you want while everyone else thinks you’re a righteous dude. All it takes is a little bit of obfuscation. And because no one ever admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.

Maybe except for Cameron.

Anyone else get the feeling that Cameron didn’t show up the next day at school?

Or the next…

… or the next?





** I have once again made reference to an original version of a film (and not its sequel). For those who are unfamiliar with the original film, the characters “Doris Finsecker” and “Ralph Garci” are characters from the film Fame, originally released in 1980.

*** For those who don’t know, SFW means “so fucking what?”




Gregory Kavka. “A Reconciliation Project”. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 2007. Ed. Louis J. Poijman. pp. 358-9.

Ayn Rand quote: from “Introduction” from The Virtue of Selfishness:

Ayn Rand quotes on the principles of objectivism are from Ayn Rand Institute website:

Leonard Peikoff. “Afterword”. 1992. In The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand. [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet. p. 698.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 1986. Writ. & Dir. John Hughes.

“Who Is Ferris Bueller?” copyright 2006. Paramount Home Video.

Brian Medlin. “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism” [orig. published 1957]:’sUltimatePrinciplesandEthicalEgoism.html.


I KNOW THAT THIS TOPIC has been written about, nearly to the point that one may add the phrase ad nauseam when talking about the subject – and I know that philosophers have also thrown their two cents in on this overly-discussed topic. But I also know that no matter how much we, normals and philosophers alike, talk about it, it won’t be nearly enough to get to the bottom of this perplexing and often frustrating subject.

Bottom being the operative word, here.
You see, it seems that no matter how emphatically I insist that philosophy is necessary, there will be no shortage of those who will remain unconvinced that studying philosophy is at all necessary for one’s psychological and intellectual fulfillment. But believe me when I tell you this: thinking about life and the world philosophically opens up entirely new ways to look at everything. EVERYTHING.

overthinking 1


There’s something that happens to you once you begin to study philosophy. You’ll find it everywhere. It’s not just that you’ll understand the philosophical undertones of Radiohead’s Ok Computer (and there are plenty to be found) or understand how understanding postmodernism makes watching David Lynch movies much easier (actually, it probably won’t). However, more importantly, you’ll be able to use philosophy in your everyday relationships with your family, friends, coworkers, even with complete strangers!

I cannot say it enough times; philosophy is great. Even though the stereotypical image of philosophers and their theories is not an image that we readily associate with the word “great”, and is even less likely to be associated with the word “fun”, thinking of everyday things from a philosophical point of view can actually be simultaneously informative and tremendously entertaining.

A few years ago, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s 1986 essay “On Bullshit” was republished and became a bestseller on the New York Times non-fiction list. The popularity of the 2005 book version of On Bullshit surprised many, most of whom, I assume, are people who probably did not believe that anything written by a philosopher can be popular.

… Or entertaining.

Or would have the word “bullshit” in it.

philosophical bullshit


Frankfurt’s mission in On Bullshit was to define and develop a theory of bullshit, which Frankfurt describes as “one of the most salient features of our culture”. What Harry Frankfurt proved is that philosophy can not only be entertaining, but philosophy can be used to analyze something that all of us, not just philosophy professors or philosophy students, are interested in and familiar with.

While I was earning my philosophy degree, I had made it a habit of asking my fellow students and (some of) my professors why they had decided to take up philosophy. To be honest, I was shocked by the homogeneity of the answers that I heard. I was well aware that philosophers are the sort of people who make a habit of thinking about things other people usually don‘t think about, so I had expected that their answers would be more varied than they were.

The answer I usually heard was something like this, “I decided to study philosophy because I wanted to learn more about myself and the way the world works”.

Exciting answer, eh?

download (1)
For the record, that’s not why I went into philosophy.

You see, before I became a philosophy major I was a dedicated student of political science. And, as any student of politics knows, what political science really is about is the art of bullshitting. Bullshitting is the politician’s medium. A politician’s finely crafted pieces of tauroscatatological masterpieces have no rival. Politicians dole out bullshit to the public as freely as drunken coeds dole it out in Cancun during spring break. And I was on my way to becoming a master of bullshitting, until I found philosophy.



As I said before, what initially drew me to philosophy wasn’t an insatiable need to know about irrefutable truths or the meaning of life.

Ok, here’s the reason.

Ready for it?

If there is anything that would make the study of philosophy un-fun (besides reading Kant) it’s taking up a major for the sole purpose of staring at a professor. Yeah. THAT kind of staring.



It’s typical, it’s lame, and nothing ever came of my infatuation, but that’s my reason for wanting to study philosophy. The thing is, that for most of the time I was a philosophy major, I told myself that that wasn’t the reason why I was taking philosophy classes. I was bullshitting myself about the reason why I was studying a subject that is supposed to be devoid of bullshit.

Anytime someone asked me why I decided to study philosophy, I gave the same bullshit answer that everyone else did.

bullshit 8

In my philosophy classes I found myself surrounded by people who claimed that philosophy is the real thing – a no bullshit zone; that philosophy isn’t just opinions and rhetoric, but is logically sound and at times irrefutable.
But why, I asked myself, did so much of what I heard in my philosophy class sound like the BS I was hearing in my political science classes?

bullshit 6

As social beings, our interactions with people and how people interact with us influences how we perceive the personalities of others. Based on our perceptions of others, we classify them as nice people or good people or people who are not nice or bad people and so on. So, if, through experience, we come to feel that everyone is unkind, we will base our actions, thoughts, and perceptions of others accordingly.

I found myself thinking not only is all philosophy is bullshit, I found myself growing increasingly disturbed by my feelings towards some of my fellow philosophy students – some of them – many of them were not nice people.

I began to suspect that some of them were assholes.



The actress Mink Stole famously said in John Waters’ 1972 masterpiece of filth, Pink Flamingos, “I guess there are just two kinds of people… My kind of people and assholes”.


ahole 5

As a fan of both Mink Stole and the film, the first several dozen times I watched the film Stole’s sentiment hadn’t aroused my philosophical interest. But as I observed my classmates, I began to find myself feeling more like Mink Stole’s character Connie Marble. The world truly is divided between two different groups.

There’s my kind of people.

Assholes, so far as people go, are an entirely different class of human being.

As time progressed I realized that my impressions weren’t mere delusion or some deep-seeded hatred of philosophers held over from my background in political science. Some of my fellow students were assholes – big ones at that.

ahole 2

Hey, Wittgenstein was an asshole, why not them, right?

The realization led me to think: is there is a connection between being a bullshitter and being an asshole?

Is it possible for us to determine, not only who the purveyors of bullshit are, but also if there are personality traits that are common to bullshitters or anyone else we would sooner throw out of a moving car than help them escape of a zombie infested shopping mall?

My answer is yes.

ahole 13

I observed that my classmates not only had fairly high opinions of themselves, but also all possessed an over inflated sense of their own mental capacity.

Listen, I’m not knocking having a positive self image. A healthy sense of self-esteem is a good thing, but what I saw with some of my classmates was a kind of high-falutin attitude that was something quite out of the ordinary – to the degree that one may, and rightfully so, call these individuals assholes.

Now, for a time I wasn’t sure if they were actually smarter than everyone else, or, perhaps with the encouragement of the professors, had been convinced that they were in fact smarter than everyone else.

I couldn’t help noticing that a not insignificant number of my classmates not only slung a fair amount of bullshit, but I also realized that there was a distinct correlation between those students who thought very highly of themselves and the presence of bullshit.


ahole 3
I have to admit that, until I had become a philosophy major, I hadn’t paid much attention to what kind of person dispenses bullshit, much less if there’s a connection between bullshitting and the kind of person who is prone to bullshitting. I wondered if those people what I considered assholes and the ones that were bullshitters were one in the same. More importantly, I wondered if there was a methodology to figuring out that kind of person a bullshitter is.

Until I observed my classmates, I had been blissfully unaware that we’re even capable of knowing what kind of person is prone to habitual bullshitting, much less that a bullshitting person can be identified by the mere observation of particular personality traits.

So, after conducting a very unscientific poll of some of my fellow, non-philosophy major students, I concluded that there was enough of a correlation between bullshit and assholes that further examination of the relationship was warranted.

This is getting somewhere, trust me.

ahole 14
I was somewhat elated that I had discovered that it is possible to figure that there is a possible formula for finding whether someone is an asshole. However, in my eagerness to label everyone (asshole or non-asshole), I realized that my zeal had led me to an error: some of those who I had squarely tossed into the asshole camp were not assholes at all.

These people were different from the garden-variety assholes that I had encountered in my philosophy classes. Some of the people that I met clearly exhibited asshole tendencies, yet something was missing. There was some quality that they lacked. That moment, I realized that there was indeed something different about these people. They were an entirely other breed of person – they were smartasses.

This threw a serious wrench into my line of thought. How was I to figure out if I was dealing with a smartass or an asshole?

At this point I knew this: I had to figure out what makes a person an asshole, and, if possible, what makes him different from a smartass?

This is where philosophy comes in handy.

ahole 6

I realized that differentiating between regular people and assholes and establishing a relationship between bullshitting and being an asshole required determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be met if I wanted to figure out if a person is “my kind of people” or an asshole.

But I ain’t actually gonna to do that.

That kind of bullshit is what professional philosophers do.

I already knew that bullshitting, although elemental to determining who an asshole or a smartass may or may not be, may not be the sole factor in determining if one is indeed an asshole.

Ok, at this point, I realize that the impression may be that my inquiry is not one of serious academic merit, and to some extent, I heartily agree. However, in all seriousness, my inquiry is only partially in jest. Although I realize the outward appearance of the subject matter may appear un-philosophic, I feel that serious philosophical examination of seemingly un-philosophical topics is not only warranted but long overdue.

** I should take this time to say that I’m not the only person thinking about this subject. The subject of assholes has become quite the hot topic in philosophy. Several books on the subject have been released, including UC Irvine philosophy professor, Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory (also inspired by Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit), published in 2012.**


I must say that my approach is purely one of inquiry. My conditions for assholocity (or assholeness, or assholitude, if you will) may be inadequate or not correct at all. As I have said before, I am not a professional philosopher. The point here is to encourage others to consider this cultural phenomena from a philosophical point of view.

ahole 4


My intention is to suggest that:
1) there is a connection between habitual bullshitting and the personality types more likely to engage in bullshitting.

2) bullshit is more likely to come from assholes,

and 3) it may be useful for us to know what the connection is, so we can easily spot an asshole.

** It is not my intention to be offensive by declaring that bullshit tends to come from assholes. The fact is that many of the people we call “assholes” do indeed have a proclivity for bullshitting. It is unfortunate that the terminology also refers to particular body parts and excretory products. I feel that, so long as Frankfurt suggests that we do a serious philosophical examination of bullshit, it might do us all some good to figure out exactly where or from whom all this bullshit is coming from.**

I have constructed an equation of the specific characteristics that are essential if we want to label an individual an asshole. The equation goes like this:

(Bullshit + Apathy + Duplicity) = Asshole

I believe that all three personality traits are necessary (and/or sufficient… whatever) if we are to accurately identify someone as an asshole. That is, if someone you know is an apathetic, duplicitous bullshitter, it generally follows that the individual you are dealing with is an asshole.* However, I will admit here, as this is still a theory in progress that I have not exactly mapped out the necessary and sufficient conditions for determining if an individual is just a bullshitter or if that individual is a smartass or an asshole. The focus of the matter, I think, is that there is an established a connection between bullshitting and being an asshole.

ahole 1


Of course, as with any theory in progress, there is still much more work that is necessary if I ever intend to develop a real philosophical theory of assholism.

ahole 10

As I said, at the outset my inquiry was motivated by my fascination with bullshit. I had discovered that both bullshitters and smartasses possessed a capacity for bullshiting. Frankfurt writes that a bullshitter is indifferent to the truth and that an indifference to truth is “the essence of bullshit”. I found, in my observations, that assholes share the bullshitter’s indifference to truth.

Frankfurt writes that the bullshitter carefully crafts his bullshit for the purposes of getting what he wants and that the bullshitter is “trying to get away with something”. Frankfurt writes that a bullshitter is careful of his words because he wants the object of his bullshit, the listener, to feel something; namely he wants us to take him at his word, he wants us to believe that he is sincere.


I, however, feel that the asshole’s motivation is different. I observed that an asshole wants to get over on other people, but unlike Frankfurt’s bullshitter, an asshole does not care if he is perceived as sincere or not; he is oblivious to whatever emotional response anyone has to what he says. If you feel any emotional response to what an asshole says, then good for you. He doesn’t care. An asshole is only concerned about himself. This indifference to the feelings of others explains why people often feel (after an encounter with an asshole) as if they have been shit on. Since an asshole has a disregard for the feelings of others and no intention of ever returning any favor, he feels is able to maintain his asshole attitude as long as he is getting what he wants.

A bullshitter’s worse fear is discovery (the fear that we’ll discover that he has been bullshitting us the whole time). The asshole has no such underlying fear. He is not only indifferent to truth; he is indifferent to getting caught. An asshole simply does not care about you or what you think. The asshole, at heart, suffers from an extreme case of apathy.

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However, an asshole’s apathy cuts both ways. Despite the fact that an asshole does not care about other people, he realizes that other people are essential if an asshole is to be an asshole. The asshole, despite the fact that he does not care about you, definitely wants you to be around. I realize that this trait sounds like a contradiction, but for the asshole the sentiment is not so much of a contradiction as it is an indication of the duplicitous nature of an asshole’s personality. An asshole really does not care about you, but he does care about whether you think he is an asshole. An easier way to explain how an asshole thinks is it’s kind of like Nirvana song that goes, “I don’t care what you think unless it is about me”.


** A word about smartasses…

Like an asshole and the bullshitter, a smartass is also motivated by a need to bullshit. His motivation, however, differs from the bullshitter and an asshole in that a smartass’ motivation is not at all influenced by other people. At first glance, this might seem odd, since a smartass, by nature, can only be a smartass around other people (since it’s rather difficult to be a smartass to yourself). A smartass says what he says because his words are pleasing to himself; usually in an attempt at being humorous (I have long suspected that, in the case of most smartasses, the joke is meant to be private; like a joke one tells to one’s self inside one’s own head. In some cases a smartass just happens to say his private joke out loud).
He does not care if his “humor” is humorous to anyone but himself. The fact that anyone or no one reacts to what the smartass says is of no consequence to him or his goals. The fact that the smartass speaks at all is his goal. His goal is self-amusement. He is most impressed by his capacity for witty and/or crude comments. An indifference to truth takes a back seat to the act of speaking itself. The bullshit that a smartass dishes out isn’t said for the purpose of getting what he wants; he says it because he fancies himself a clever and funny person. Usually he is not, which is why smartasses are often mistaken for assholes.**

Although assholes share a number of traits in common with smartasses and bullshitters, there is one trait that distinguishes assholes from smartasses and the garden-variety dispensers of bullshit – an asshole is not limited to language, his assholiness includes his actions as well. One is not usually described as “acting like” a smartass and even more rarely is one ever accused of “acting like” a bullshitter, but people are often described as acting like assholes.

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Now that we know what an asshole is, it might do us some good to figure out how an asshole might act. I mean, actions speak louder than words, right? We might assume that an asshole acts in some way that makes them easy to spot. What ethical theory would an asshole follow – utilitarianism? Deontological ethics? Egoism?

Come to think of it, while we’re asking about which ethical theory an asshole might follow, it might do us all some good to bush up on our Ayn Rand.

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It is an election year, after all.







* An observant philosopher may have noticed that I have not elaborated on any sufficient conditions for being an asshole. If a condition is sufficient when, if the condition is satisfied, the truth of the statement is guaranteed, then bullshit, apathy, and duplicity are also sufficient conditions for being an asshole. But, don’t quote me. I got a D- in logic.

** I believe we shouldn’t hesitate to make our philosophy personal; even if getting personal means dealing out a large portion of TMI.


Harry Frankfurt. On Bullshit. 2005. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p.1, 23, 34.

“Drain You” lyrics by Kurt Cobain. Copyright 1991.



All Around the Maypole (or, Not the Bees!!!)

IT’S GENERALLY ASSUMED that it’s a good thing to be tolerant of other people’s cultures. The person who prefers to “live and let live” or to “let bygones be bygones” is often assumed to be a good, if not reasonable, person.

Reserving judgments might be a good thing.

We shouldn’t judge, right?

Everything’s relative, right?

Need I inform anyone that a person whose moral position is based on the idea that ethics are relative practices ethical relativism.

Ethical relativism is:

Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another.

Wait! Don’t scoff just yet.

We can see that ethical relativists mean well and we shouldn’t fault them for their good intentions.

But we know all those good intentions are lining the pathway to Hell.

good intentions


We can’t help but feel that there are some acts that are inherently wrong and that adhering to ethical relativism doesn’t allow us to call out wrong acts.

If we say that a particular culture’s moral codes are different and therefore we cannot pass judgment, we might end up abetting injustice or worse. We can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) shrug off something like genocide by saying “different strokes for different folks” nor should we think that a practice such as spousal abuse is morally acceptable based on its prevalence in a particular culture.

However, if there is no universal, objective moral standard and no moral system is better than another, then we have no moral high ground from which to criticize when we witness injustice or wrongdoings in other cultures. Ethical relativists can’t decide when one side is right and the other is wrong –

Something that might come in handy when attempting to dissuade a group of Scottish villagers from sacrificing you to their pagan gods so their crops will grow.

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Police sergeant Neil Howie sets down his plane on the remote Scottish isle of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, Howie finds that the natives of the seemingly quiet Scottish hamlet aren’t just a little odd – they’re pagans. What follows during the next ninety minutes is public group sex, bar patrons spontaneously breaking into song about the innkeeper’s less-than-chaste daughter, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars, and dead rabbits; ultimately culminating in the immolation of Sgt. Howie inside a giant rattan action figure.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.



This cinematic gem from 1973, written by Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer, and starring Edward Woodward as the unfortunate Sgt. Howie, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that musician Rod Stewart allegedly tried to get banned – and not because he thought it was a bad movie.

It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing…



The rumor, according to the National Enquirer, is that Rod Stewart supposedly attempted to buy the rights to The Wicker Man in an attempt to prevent anyone from seeing his then-girlfriend Britt Ekland, who appeared in the film as Willow Mac Gregor, the landlord’s daughter, nude. Stewart himself dismissed the allegation as mere rumor. In the end, if Rod Stewart had attempted to get the film banned, it would have been a useless gesture since the offending nude scenes were performed by a body double.


Anyway, Sgt. Howie is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, who has managed to elude her family and small village community for, as the letter addressed to Sgt. Howie states, “many months”. Howie is frustrated by the Summerislanders lack of cooperation with his investigation into Rowan Morrison’s disappearance.




Unfortunately, Sgt. Howie is as rude and nosy as he is persistent, and Howie continues to search for the missing girl, despite the fact that the islanders, including the girl’s mother, refuse to give a straight answer about the whereabouts of the missing girl.




As Howie searches for Rowan, he discovers a horrible reality about the residents of Summerisle. The islanders aren’t God-fearing Christians, like the devout Sgt. Howie, but pagans who worship the old Celtic gods. The people of Summerisle reject Christianity (this offends Howie), and Howie suspects that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than a frivolous re-enactment of ancient rites, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease their pagan gods.

Howie concludes that Rowan is not merely missing, but that she the intended human sacrifice.




Sgt. Howie, horrified by the thought that an innocent child is the intended victim of a barbaric pagan ritual, races to find the missing girl before it is too late.
Although Sgt. Howie fails to find Rowan Morrison, what Howie does find is that it is he who is the intended offering, and Howie is sacrificed to the gods, burned alive inside the Wicker Man.



The film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian thrown into the strange world of paganism. Howie is a modern man with a modern religion who views the old gods and blood sacrifices of the pagans of Summerisle as not only useless but morally reprehensible as well. Howie regards the pagan practices as heathen and blasphemous and demands to know why the children of Summerisle have “never heard of Jesus”. When Howie speaks to Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee (the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to the morally outraged Howie the religious practices on his island:


Lord Summerisle: Now, those children out there. They’re
jumping through the flames in hope that the god
of the fire will make them fruitful. Really, who can hardly
blame them. After all, what girl would not prefer
the child of a god to that of some acne-scared artisan?
Sgt. Howie: And you encourage them in this?
Lord Summerisle: Actively. It’s most important to teach new
generation born on Summerisle be made aware that here
the old gods aren’t dead.
Sgt. Howie: And what of the true God? To whose glory churches
and monasteries have been built on these islands for
generations past? Now sir, what of Him?
Lord Summerisle: He’s dead. Can’t complain. Had his chance.
And in the modern parlance, blew it.
Sgt. Howie: What?!?!?

Lord Summerisle tells Sgt. Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to deliver the residents of Summerisle from their miserable hand-to-mouth existence and spiritual apathy. Returning the people to their beloved old pagan gods, Lord Summerisle explains, renewed the spirits of the tiny island and provided the people with bountiful crops. As long as the people please the gods, Lord Summerisle says to Sgt. Howie, they will be rewarded.


But, Howie soon discovers the crops on Summerisle have not been bountiful.

And on Summerisle, failed crops can only mean one thing to the pagans of Summerisle: the gods are displeased and need to be appeased. If the people of Summerisle want the gods to bless them with an abundant harvest, the gods demand the “fruits of the earth”; a human sacrifice.

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Unfortunately for Sgt. Howie, he’s exactly the kind of human sacrifice the people of Summerisle need to please the gods.



Lord Summerisle tells Howie he was chosen to be sacrificed to the gods because he is the “right kind of sacrifice”. Sgt. Howie qualifies as the “right kind of sacrifice” on four counts:

* He has come to Summerisle of his own free will.
* He has come with the power of the king (as a man of the law).
* He is a virgin.
* He is a fool.


Of course the news of an impending “date with the wicker man” does not settle well with Sgt. Howie. As a Christian, Howie believes that sacrificing him for the sake of Summerisle’s crops is not only futile… it’s murder. The soon-to-be immolated Howie tells the village people that killing him will not only fail to bring back their failed crops, but that the island’s residents will bear the sin of having murdered an innocent Christian man.



Ultimately, Sgt. Howie’s entreaties to the people of Summerisle are of no use. He is placed (or forced) inside the Wicker Man and sacrificed to the island’s pagan gods. While Howie burns to death, the villagers sing a triumphant let’s-roast-a-cop-in-the-fire song, certain that Howie’s death will win favor of the gods and Summerisle once again will be blessed with a bountiful harvest.

At the close of The Wicker Man we know that Sgt. Howie is dead. He is burned alive; sacrificed to the pagan gods of Summerisle. We know that the people of Summerisle truly believe that their religion demands that they appease the gods if they want the gods to bless them and bring back their failed crops. We know they believe if they do not comply with what the gods’ demands, the people of Summerisle believe they will be punished. If the island’s crops die, the people of Summerisle know their lives are doomed as well. For the people of Summerisle, Howie’s death, albeit an unpleasant experience for the Sergeant, is necessary to save the lives of the residents of the island.





We understand that the people of Summerisle believe that they are acting according to the will of their gods, but we also know this: Sgt. Howie also believes that his Christian God demands that those who believe in HIM must reject the sinful pagan rituals practiced by the people of Summerisle. Sgt. Howie believes that his God forbids human sacrifice and believes that God will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of the innocent.

Wait a minute; we should be thinking there’s something seriously wrong, here.


The people of Summerisle believe that they have done the right thing by doing what their gods demand, but we also feel that a serious moral transgression has occurred.


When Howie is burned alive inside the Wicker Man, we’re aware that Howie did not go to his death willingly; he didn‘t willingly sacrifice himself for Summerisle‘s crops. If we had been present on the cliffs of Summerisle during the island‘s May Day celebration, we would have witnessed this exchange between Sgt. Howie and the island’s schoolteacher, Miss Rose:


Miss Rose: You will undergo death and rebirth. Resurrection if you like. The
rebirth sadly will not be yours but that of our crops.
Sgt. Howie: I am a Christian. And even if you kill me now, it is I who will live
again. Not your damned apples.


Obviously Sgt. Howie and the people of Summerisle are stuck in the midst of an ethical dilemma. The people of Summerisle believe that their gods dictate the sacrifice of Sgt. Howie while Sgt. Howie believes his “sacrifice” is murder and morally unjustified.
Usually when we are faced with an ethical dilemma, we assume that a single moral theory will provide a workable solution for our ethical conflict. If everyone on Summerisle were Kantians, we could easily determine which side is morally correct. As Kantians, we can say that Sgt. Howie’s sacrifice was morally impermissible if we hold the maxim “murder is always wrong”.

It is also worth noting that the people of Summerisle can also use a loose interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative to permit Howie’s human sacrifice. The Summerislanders would have no problem universalizing their maxim: if killing a person will save the community, and the gods require a human sacrifice, then it is morally permissible to sacrifice a human. Sacrificing humans may be permitted by Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, however, the Summerislanders might run into a problem with the second formulation of the categorical imperative, using people as a mere means, on the grounds that Howie was not a willing sacrifice.
… AND that this interpretation is predicated on expected consequences, which makes it kind of utilitarian.


If the people of Summerisle were utilitarians, they would simply calculate the expected benefit (consequence) of sacrificing Sgt. Howie to the pagan gods against the cost of another failed harvest.
This unsolvable ethical conflict between the people of Summerisle and Sgt. Howie perfectly demonstrates the problem with ethical relativism.


An ethical relativist believes that there is no universal moral standard for right or wrong and we simply cannot determine which side is morally right. Our problem, and the problem with ethical relativism, is that both Sgt. Howie and the people of Summerisle believe that their religious beliefs are morally correct and that each operates from a divine mandate that cannot be defied.

If each side believes that their side is the only morally correct point of view, how do we assign moral rightness or wrongness when each side claims that their side is morally correct?




Unfortunately for us, on Summerisle the conflict isn’t so easily solved and we use ethical relativism to decide between two conflicting ethical theories.

According to the ethical relativist, the fact that different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (this is called the diversity thesis), means we cannot objectively determine the rightness or wrongness of a given act. As a result, all moral claims have equal moral value.




All an ethical relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another, and since we cannot judge another culture’s morals or practices, we can only assume that both moral systems are equally right.

Naturally this position does no good for Sgt. Howie. We cannot hold that it is morally permissible to sacrifice Howie to Summerisle’s pagan gods while we simultaneously hold that Howie is correct in condemning Summerisle’s religious practices. Howie can’t be immolating inside the belly of the Wicker Man and in his airplane flying as fast as he can away from that damned pagan island at the same time. So what do we do? The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. Who is morally right?

Obviously, a moral relativist would have no idea how to answer this question.

Of course this way of thinking gets us absolutely nowhere.




So naturally, this is where our conversation on ethical relativism should end.

… and by saying “should end” I’m saying no one should follow ethical relativism.



Now, at this point, we may be tempted to throw up our hands and abandon, at least for now, hopes of ever finding an ethical theory that not only gives us a clear cut means of sorting out moral rights from moral wrongs, but also doesn’t stick us with categorical imperatives that stop us from doing what we want to do.

Perhaps we should try another ethical theory.

Maybe we should all become egoists.

*I am writing about the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy not the 2006 remake staring Nicolas Cage. Although I am a fan of the original film and personally not opposed to remakes, I do, however, regard the 2006 remake as the cinematic equivalent of a large dose of syrup of ipecac. It’s not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space or a Coleman Francis movie, but it’s close.