About Withdrawal

Many people will be resolutely antiasshole, however the cultural winds blow and regardless of the potential upside. Yet they may nevertheless find themselves unable or unwilling to maintain full cooperation. Instead of switching [to asshole ways], they simply withdraw, being unable or unwilling any longer to do the things people need to do if cooperation is to continue as before. Withdrawal may take any or all of the following forms:

  • Exhaustion. Try as they might, in seeing assholes flourish, some cooperators will simply lose the motivational steam to carry on as before, perhaps while continuing to sincerely believe in the organising values. Steady, ongoing motivation may require a certain felt esprit de corps that was once there but has since fizzled out (whether by neglect or by sabotage).
  • Underassurance. It may instead be that everyone would easily and happily continue to do his or her full part, but only as long as each one can be assured that enough others are doing their parts as well. As each increasingly senses that others aren’t pulling their weight, it will increasingly seem pointless to continue to do one’s own part. Indeed, even if most people are in fact pulling their weight, the general perception that enough aren’t can mean that not enough people will maintain cooperation going forward. The (mistaken) perception might result from seeing so many assholes on TV, from so many honest but unfortunate mistakes, from confusion or misinformation, or from a disinformation campaign led by assholes who profit when cooperative people withdraw.
  • Rising costs. In other cases, while the values advanced by cooperation previously seemed worth the personal cost to each of the cooperators involved, many have come to feel that the personal cost is becoming too high relative to the values advanced. Commitment might be strained or simply seem too high in principled terms (either because costs dramatically spike or because lesser value is assigned to the general values advanced). If enough people withdraw, then others who are willing to accept the higher costs may nevertheless find it pointless to be fully engaged for lack of assurance that enough others are doing likewise.
  • Unfair burdens. In other cases, increasing costs seem unfair. Even when everyone regards the overall costs of cooperation as justified by the values advanced, most will insist that the burdens of upholding cooperation be more or less fairly distributed if they or others are to be expected to continue to do their parts. If for some reason an unfair burden is placed upon enough people, they may become unwilling to carry on as before. When enough people feel so aggrieved and withdraw, others who feel more or less fairly treated may no longer see the point in picking up the cooperative slack or may feel that the new burdens are unfair to them.

Aaron James – Assholes: A Theory

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