• Human beings evolved moral emotions through living in complex societies where everyone benefits from phenomena like empathy and reciprocity.
  • As far as morality is concerned, there’s a natural progression from sharing mammoth meat around a campfire to posting on the Reddit forum Am I the A**hole? (AITA).
  • We like AITA because it allays our moral anxiety by resolving our ethical disputes one way (“you’re the a**hole”) or another (“you’re not the a**hole”).
  • AITA is similar to professional therapy in that it’s a place where decent people can engage in self-reflection.

In case you missed it, there’s a place on the internet called r/AmItheA**hole (AITA) which aims to determine which party should be blamed in ethical disputes. For example, someone posts the following (paraphrased) moral quandary on Reddit’s AITA forum: “My friend’s baby was crying, so I gave her a sip of my Sprite. The baby stopped crying, but my friend was furious. I think I was treated unfairly. Who was in the wrong?” Then impartial readers vote for who the a**hole was in this situation–the original poster (OP) or the friend with the baby. A healthy debate ensues in the comment section–strictly moderated to keep out the online trolls–then a judgment is handed down in democratic style.

Ultimate verdict: The soda giver was in the wrong. Now, according to AITA bylaws, the soda giver must accept the Internet’s popular judgment and correct the error of their ways. It’s as if tens of thousands of voices suddenly coalesced into a single Judge Judy saying, “I’m the boss, applesauce”.

The AITA subreddit has 3.4 million members, up from 70,000 subscribers to the Reddit forum in June 2018. It turns out that humans like to get anonymous feedback on the accuracy of their moral compass, and to judge–and be amused by–others for their ethical failings. 

The point of the AITA community isn’t to demonize individuals. Rather, it’s a crowdsourced god of judgment that fits human behavior into binary categories: YTA (you’re the a**hole) or NTA (not the a**hole). Though to be fair, Reddit also gives readers the option of voting NAH (no a**holes here), ESH (everyone sucks here), or INFO (more information needed). In the absence of moral philosophers shadowing us at all times, gently correcting our questionable behavior, AITA helps members of polite society determine how they should act rightly in the world. Perhaps religious sermons and psychology books are a tad too general for people of the Internet age. Modern humans need to know exactly how they should have handled specific situations, no matter how mundane. AITA is a deeply personal exercise in moral responsibility. And it seems that the more anxious we are, the more desperately we need the online community’s arbitration.

On Morality and Contemptible Behavior

What makes a person good? How are we supposed to act? Writers, philosophers, and OPs have been asking these same questions for thousands of years. Many moral psychologists think that prosocial behavior evolved in mammals living in complex groups because helping each other out increased their overall chances of survival. So standard-issue humans have an inborn tendency to cooperate, be fair, reciprocate kindness, experience empathy, etc. We also tend to feel guilty when we’ve hurt someone else. 

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt thinks there are five foundations of morality that inform our virtuous behavior:

  1. Harm/care, i.e., we want to nurture crying babies
  2. Fairness/reciprocity, i.e., we want to return favors
  3. Ingroup/loyalty, i.e., we give more resources to members of our immediate family or community
  4. Authority/respect, i.e., we honor a social hierarchy
  5. Purity/sanctity, i.e., we experience disgust in response to biological or social contaminants

An a**hole is anyone who appears to violate the moral foundations we hold dear. Interestingly, research shows that in the United States, political conservatives value all five moral foundations equally, while politically liberal people tend to value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity over the other three foundations. No wonder we go after each other so vehemently. Cultural differences can also influence moral reasoning. For example, people in Eastern cultures tend to value ingroup, purity, and authority more than Western cultures. They feel worse when they violate those foundations.

Which leads us to moral anxiety. Sigmund Freud believed there were three kinds of anxiety: neurotic, reality, and moral. We feel moral anxiety when we’re uncertain about how to act in the world and we’re motivated to figure it out. Basically, we don’t want to be a**holes. So we initiate an investigation, gathering information from people we trust, examining our moral identity and values, assessing and reassessing. Studies show that this kind of moral anxiety can actually lead to more open-minded thinking. 

Someone with anxiety might have a hard time tolerating uncertainty. They have two options for navigating their distress: approach or avoidance. Interrogating the AITA forum seems like a tactical blend of approach (comparing oneself to others) and avoidance (turning to the Internet for social cues instead of facing the situation head-on). And unlike social media, it’s an anonymous community so the OP doesn’t need to worry about gossip or reputation management. 

The simple fact that someone is questioning their own behavior tends to prove that they’re not an a**hole. They might have acted in an a**hole manner, sure, but they’re a decent person who seeks to fine-tune and calibrate their moral compass–even if it’s only through an AITA post. 

How Are We Supposed to Live?: Short Answer

One key attribute of AITA that is often overlooked is that it’s written. Perhaps the simple act of writing out the narrative, contextualizing the ethical question, and verbalizing the relevant details can help lead an OP to moral clarity. And AITA readers savor these written stories in the same way they enjoy and benefit from great novels: The narratives help them hone and flex their own empathy skills. 

AITA dynamics also summon thoughts of therapy. In therapy, people are required to present themselves verbally and reflect seriously on their own feelings and behaviors in the company of an impartial clinician. It’s an examination of self that can lead to lightbulb moments and teach a person to live comfortably with uncertainty. 

Of course, AITA isn’t a substitute for professional counseling. In fact, one of the most frequent comments on r/AITA is “You need therapy.” A crowdsourced moral guide (an online forum) and a highly qualified moral guide (a therapist) aren’t equals, but the former is better than nothing. They’re both meant to be neutral, trustworthy third parties. And in many cases AITA has led OPs to pursue therapy, and has helped some readers see their own complex issues more clearly

Both AITA and therapy are arbiters and explorers of self, inspiring us to live better, and to forgive ourselves when we’ve done someone wrong. We’re all a**holes here, occasionally, but we can constantly lower our a**hole quotient by seeking better answers.