The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical exercise, or at least as famous as ethical exercises get. You’ve probably heard of it if you majored in philosophy or, more likely, if you’re a fan of NBC’s The Good Place, which literalized the hypothetical in a memorable episode.
It goes like this: A trolley is careering out of control toward five people tied to the tracks for some reason, possibly involving Rocky and Bullwinkle villain Snidely Whiplash. Meanwhile, you, an innocent bystander, have access to a lever that switches the trolley’s course so it slams into only one stray person. You can stand by and do nothing, letting five people die, or hit the lever and kill that one person, saving five lives. It’s a cosmic, soul-searching inquiry designed to evoke several dicey moral concepts at once. All it really does, though, is force each individual problem-solver to contemplate whether murder is ever justifiable. Once you decide that it is, well, there’s not much left to unpack philosophically.
In one scrupulously neutral corner of the internet, though, every day is a vast gauntlet of ethical exercises drawn from far less lethal—but no less dramatic—interpersonal conflicts. Street-level dilemmas appear in a scrollable stack, each one thornier than the last, while innocent bystanders pull a lever to decide who will be struck, not by hot trolley carnage, but rather the harsh freight of moral judgment, becoming neither shamed nor canceled, just empirically dubbed “the asshole.”
Over the past 18 months, Reddit’s Am I the Asshole? forum has become the go-to place to find out if you’re in the wrong, to tell somebody else they’re in the wrong, or, better yet, to sit back and watch the sparks fly. The coronavirus era has only made AITA more of an essential destination, full of surrogate assholes to sub in for heartless politicians and corporate overlords. As we’re more physically separated than ever, while being cooped up with loved ones for whom enforced togetherness can create unkind behavior, we also have more time than ever to reflect on our own actions and failings—with only the internet to arbitrate.
Simply put, everything happens here.
A father stops paying his daughter’s sorority dues because she went to a “Pimps and Hoes” party in quasi-blackface. A young man breaks up with his cancer-surviving long-distance girlfriend because she withheld the fact that she lost one of her breasts to the disease. An imminent groom wrestles with calling off the wedding because his fiancée’s parents want him to appear in a ball and chain at the reception, as per family custom. Those are just a fraction of the 1,000 entries that materialized on the subreddit this week, as they do every week in about the same number.
Each situation arrives in the form of a question: Am I the Asshole for . . . [fill in transgression here]? Then the poster awaits the feedback of a subscriber base that totals nearly 2 million. Users sound off in the comments, leaving one of the following judgments: YTA (You’re the Asshole), NTA (Not the Asshole), ESH (Everyone Sucks Here), or NAH (No Assholes Here). Commenters then upvote any especially astute summations, and after 18 hours, the one with the most upvotes is cemented as the Final Judgment.
It’s the most democratic method available on the internet for anonymously crowdsourcing absolution or condemnation.
It also just may be the definitive document of our divisive times.
The air conditioner conundrum
The AITA subreddit started back in June 2013 because of an air-conditioning disagreement. Marc Beaulac, a fine arts photographer and dog rescue volunteer based in Rhode Island, was frustrated with his office’s temperature. Preferences always seemed to break down along gender lines. Women, who appeared to have more sartorial freedom than Beaulac, complained whenever the temperature dropped low enough to keep his besuited body cool. Couldn’t they just throw on a sweater, he wondered, if they were so chilly?
Beaulac was savvy enough to suspect the issue had complications he had not yet considered, and he didn’t want to telegraph his ignorance to others. At the same time, he had to know: Was he being unreasonable to wish his female colleagues would bundle up a bit so he didn’t have to sweat at his desk? (Sure enough, this issue has since been argued in many major publications, conclusively in women’s favor.)
“I thought maybe without asking anyone in my social group and embarrassing myself, Reddit could tell me if I’m missing something before I start mouthing off at the office,” Beaulac recalls when I reach him by phone.
He initially went to Ask Reddit, the popular sub for tricky questions, but the forum wouldn’t accept his query. It wasn’t general enough, and yet all too likely to result in a simple yes or no. No matter how many times he rephrased it, the question never got past the mods.
So Beaulac decided, to hell with Ask Reddit, he was going to make his own community and get an answer that way.
Metastasizing with a micropenis
“Am I the Asshole?” was born with the mission of offering similarly stumped people not only judgment, but perspective and helpful context. Once it was live, users got sucked in as much for the rubberneck value of seeing others in awkward predicaments as for the odd bit of wisdom lodged within some comments.
For a long time, AITA would only receive one or two entries a week, the occasional armchair philosopher stumbling upon the sub and rendering a judgment. (Beaulac’s AC predicament, for instance, was resolved by just one person, who ultimately deemed him not the asshole.) Gradually, as the forum jumped from 5,000 to 15,000 subscribers and then beyond, Beaulac recruited some mods to help engage with the users, and expanded the idea of what the sub could be.
In addition to the final judgments (YTA, NTA, etc.), which appear in little flairs on the side of each solved question, the top commenters could now accrue points for leaving the most upvoted comment in an entry. Users with one point ascend to the rank of Partassipant. Those in possession of 20 or more are Certified Proctologists. After that comes Craptain (150 points), Commander-in-Cheeks (200 points), and Prime Ministurd (400 points), all pit stops along the way to the highest station, Galasstic Overlord (1,500 points). Gamifying the judgments helped ensure that the commentariat kept on commenting.
Around Thanksgiving 2018, after five years of steady build, AITA hit the quarter-million subscriber mark. Power users on other, more popular subreddits started regularly cross-posting entries, getting fresh eyeballs on potential a-holes. More and more people would show up and stick around, until an entry or two from the sub began to appear on Reddit’s front page just about every day. An AITA Twitter account, not affiliated with Beaulac, sprang up next spring, serving as a best-of outpost and driving some traffic while building a quarter-million followers of its own. Chrissy Teigen then tweeted about her descent into AITA addiction, bringing some of her massive following on board. Around the same time, the sub inspired a podcast, also unaffiliated with Beaulac, who has not profited from his creation in any monetary way.
But the major turning point was probably the micropenis.
In February 2019, a 27-year-old woman wrote in to find out whether she was the asshole for being upset that her new husband waited until after the wedding to reveal he had the aforementioned genital condition. Commenters stormed the sub in tens of thousands to weigh in. Battle lines formed among the rabble, arguing whether size mattered more than lies, with the sub ultimately deeming the young woman NTA for getting upset.
The micropenis incident rang out far beyond Reddit. It was the first time online press appeared to become aware of AITA’s existence, but far from the last. With the increased attention, though, came other problems.
“After the press started to report on us, we started to get these online hate groups that would try to sneak in fake stories,” Beaulac says. “Sometimes we’d get, for instance, 300 trans stories in a week, trying to suggest that trans people are troublesome or rude or inconsiderate. I think once places like BuzzFeed started covering us for the micropenis story, a lot of those groups started to view us as a place to seed their ideas into culture and create their own strawman to prove that whatever group they don’t like is bad.”
As Beaulac and the mods stemmed the scourge of coordinated fake submissions, the number of subscribers skyrocketed to nearly 2 million.
Almost-assholes check themselves
Before delving any further into assholes, it’s about time we define them.
“The asshole is the guy who allows himself special advantages in cooperative life, out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people,” says Aaron James, an author and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine.
He would know, too. James literally wrote the book on assholes: the national best seller Assholes: A Theory.
“I used to think it was a term of abuse or a way of venting sour feelings,” James tells me over the phone. “But what I tried to establish with that definition is that there’s an actual type of person that we’re referring to when we call someone an asshole: a proper asshole.”
An example James cites is someone cutting in line at the post office, not because of an emergency, but because he personally feels his time is more important than anyone else’s. (And yes, that’s a “he,” because assholes are predominately male, according to both James and the overwhelming number of AITA posts from men.)
On the other hand, one of the major hallmarks of an asshole is brazen effrontery, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to seeking out judgment on Reddit. According to James, just asking whether one is, in fact, an asshole means he or she is probably not one. Or at least, not entirely.
“I think, in some sense, the subreddit is mainly for non-assholes who are sort of worried they’re going off in the asshole’s direction and they’re trying to get help to check themselves,” James says, perhaps optimistically.
Most people walk around all day thinking of themselves as the hero in their story, the protagonist of reality, despite any evidence to the contrary. It’s obvious from some people’s actions that they’ve never once stopped to ask themselves, “Is there a chance I’m wrong about this?”
AITA is a place where people actually do ask that question, although in some cases they might just be seeking to prove the answer is “no,” rather than achieve any real introspection.
What brings in 12,000 commenters on a single entry sometimes—no matter the poster’s intentions—is that this sub provides its users a platform for stuffing some introspection down an obnoxious a-hole’s throat.
Starving for accountability
Last fall, a writer for Vice teamed up with the AITA subreddit and surveyed 15,000 users to figure out their demographics. Among the more intriguing results, the survey concluded that the sub is 80% white, 77% 18 to 34 years old, and 63% female.
The main thing most of those people have in common, though, is that they’re addicted to AITA.
“There’s definitely something obsessive and compulsive about what’s driving people to our sub,” says Beaulac. “Because if you look at the numbers, a big sub like “Ask Reddit “has 20 million subscribers. We’re at about a tenth of that, but we have almost just as much traffic in terms of comments and page views.”
Many theories attempt to explain why people come to AITA in such numbers so regularly. It could be the drama, which plays like something out of a trashy reality-TV fever dream. It could be the ability to punish others for perpetuating one’s particular pet peeves. Pamela Hieronymi, the UCLA ethics professor whom The Good Place creator Mike Schur consulted when putting together his show, thinks it might have something to do with a desire to feel superior.
“People are very interested in how other people see them, specifically as a result of how they’ve treated other people,” Hieronymi says. “That aspect of our social ability is one of the more foundational features of human beings. Also, there’s very little that’s more gratifying to some people than feeling righteous, and so to be able to weigh in on somebody else’s misdeeds would surely satisfy that questionable desire.”
Aaron James has an alternate theory as to why the sub has gotten so popular.
“It could be because [AITA] offers some semblance of accountability in a time in which it seems like assholes are running wild and getting off scot-free and successfully shutting other people down who are trying to hold them accountable,” he says. “Any forum in which there’s some reckoning feels like a blow for justice.”
James may be on to something here. The 2016 election took place at the exact middle in between AITA’s birth and its tipping point. The hunger for accountability in America, since electing a man who neither takes responsibility for any of his actions nor apologies for them, has become ravenous.
And lately, it’s only gotten more so.
White House official Peter Navarro went on 60 Minutes last Sunday to defend the Trump administration’s response to the spread of the novel coronavirus (a topic, by the way, that has become verboten on AITA.) In a viral clip from the episode, Navarro challenges correspondent Peter Whitaker to show him any reporting 60 Minutes has done on pandemics in the recent past. What follows is several minutes of footage highlighting episodes from the past 15 years or so, explicitly warning of the pandemic possibility. This is the kind of thing millions of people living through the Trump era clamor for. The president and his defenders lie so flagrantly and frequently that seeing any of them proven objectively wrong on TV feels like watching your team finally win the Super Bowl, every time.
The only thing that might feel better for certain viewers is if they got to be the ones to show Navarro the error of his ways themselves, which is exactly what AITA lets its users do.
What the people want
The first frequent AITA user I speak with is Kristishere, a Certified Proctologist with 28 points. She has been active on the sub for years, she says, because it offers her something Facebook cannot: a safe space for giving strangers the business.
“I guess I’m one of those annoying Justice Warrior types, because I can’t stand when somebody posts something on Facebook and I disagree with it and I want to debate it,” she says when I reach her by phone. “But in that realm, you’re almost always dealing with friends and family, or friends and family can see what you’re saying, and you just end up getting yourself embroiled into all kinds of personal conflicts. With [AITA], you can offer an opinion about something that may or may not be popular and it won’t have any repercussions in your life.”
The freedom to cancel others without fear of retributive cancelation is perhaps not the most noble drive, but it’s understandable at a time when everyone seems a little unsure of what they’re “allowed” to say anymore. Later in the conversation, Kristi also echoes the thoughts of another AITA user, Juibui, a Colo-Rectal Surgeon with 37 points, who claims that the appeal of the sub is not only that it allows you to speak your mind, but that it might change your mind as well.
“Sometimes your perspective changes regarding a judgment,” Juibui says in a private message. “You read the title and you’re leaning towards a certain side. Then when you read the post, that judgment hardens. Sometimes, though, you read a few comments before replying and it clicks. You notice how different the story can be perceived and sometimes it even changes your point of view because you start thinking about points others are mentioning.”
An entry’s impact, however, entirely depends upon its quality.
Not all AITA posts are created equal.
All four of the commenters I spoke with mentioned that their favorites are often the ones involving weddings. The stakes are higher than usual here, and the experience is ostensibly relatable—although according to the Vice survey, about two-thirds of users have never been married.
What makes for a worthy entry, according to Beaulac, is when it’s not a simple binary and someone is definitely the asshole—especially when it turns out to be the poster himself. (Although the exact percentage changes from month to month, the vast majority of posts end in NTA judgments.) All too often, entries will consist of a laundry list of complaints about some obviously asshole-ish behaviors. These can be fun to read depending on how eccentric an asshole we’re talking about, but they require no true moral inventory. There’s no question about whom the trolley of judgment should hit.
Finding a juicy entry also depends on which format you view the sub through. The most common is the default tab, Hot, which features the posts currently generating the most engagement. Posts under the Controversial tab are often more heightened and more likely to end in YTA or ESH judgments. There’s also a separate sub entitled AITA Filtered, where the mods curate entries they consider the best.
However, the viewing method Beaulac recommends—and the one that user Juibui also endorses—is the New tab.
These moral puzzles have yet to become lightning rods for commenters. The herd has not had a chance to decide whether they pass muster. Here lies the unadulterated primordial muck of humanity: raw, roiling, and awaiting your judgment.
You scroll through and find something that catches your attention, perhaps “AITA for not taking bereavement leave for my gran, and not being there for my mom?” Even though there’s a moratorium on coronavirus-specific posts, the topic is clearly looming over this one.
You click. It’s a 26-year-old of indeterminate gender, diagnosed with dwarfism, who had a strained relationship with a recently deceased grandmother. When the poster’s mother pushed for taking a week of bereavement leave, he or she replied, “I just like working at the moment.”
You see the problem from both sides—why the mother wants what she wants and why the poster is resistant, considering the circumstances.
You look at the comments.
“NAH [No assholes here]. People grieve (or don’t) in their own ways and ultimately it’s no one else’s business, not even your mother’s.”
“Nah, you work from home. You can be very polite about it to your Mom—tell her that you need to keep your mind occupied.”
“NAH. You have conflicting feelings about your gran due to her views on your dwarfism. On the other hand, your mom has taken her mother’s death pretty hard and I think she was looking for support. That’s not uncommon.”
The trolley vanishes.
Nobody is the asshole.
Everyone is okay.