Asshole vs. Asshole, And How To Avoid Starring In It

If you are old enough, you may remember the long-running comic  in Mad Magazine called “Spy vs Spy.” It was kind of a wordless Roadrunner cartoon with a Cold War vibe, and not especially funny, but I just thought of it for the first time in decades. (Incredibly, it is apparently still running in Mad, though the magazine itself is sinking fast.) I was considering this ridiculous story…

…It started small, but disputes over a Kansas man’s alleged violations of his homeowner association’s rules has led to a complex legal battle that is now the most expensive of its kind. Owner Jim Hildenbrand, has been locked in conflict with the HOA of Avignon Villa Homes since he moved there in 2012…

What began with a disagreement over the placement of a satellite dish and a decorative wall has escalated into a legal back-and-forth that has cost both parties at least a combined $1 million. It is the most expensive HOA dispute in the country.

It is also yet another example of the increasingly common societal phenomenon of “Asshole vs. Asshole.” These are ethics breakdowns where two parties in disagreement decide that making the other side pay for daring to have an adverse position overwhelms whatever the original objectives of the two parties were. It is reminiscent of the kinds of disputes parents—the good ones, anyway–arbitrate between siblings. “You’re both right,” Mom or Dad will say, “And you’re both wrong. You have reached the point where the escalation of anger and retaliation is the problem, not what you think you are arguing about.. Work it out. Compromise. See it from the other one’s perspective. And if you don’t, we’re going to punish both of you.”

In the case of Mr. Hildebrand and his fascist Home Owner Association, both sides say it’s the principle of the thing. As any reader hear know, I am a believer in and a practitioner of taking stands for principle, but knowing when this is essential (Do NOT apologize for speaking the truth or bucking the mob) and destructive is a critical life skill. The trick is keeping emotion out of it, and engaging in ethics problem solving. Asshole vs Asshole occurs when hate, and anger, and the desire to teach that jerk a lesson blinds both parties to common sense, the Golden Rule, and the human duty to seek peace, not war.

In the Hildebrand affair, the homeowner says that the Association is unreasonable and a bully, and someone has to stand up to it. The Homeowner says that this is a test of whether rules can be flaunted by whoever digs in his or her heels, or whether there will be order in the community. However, anyone who hasn’t lost their minds should be able figure out that giving happy lawyers a millions bucks over a dispute about a the placement of a satellite dish, a St. Francis statue in a garden, and a decorative wall around some flowers is a stupid waste of time and money. Yet when the Asshole vs Asshole scenario kicks in, they can’t.

This is why it is vital, when the asshole reflex starts tingling,  to go to an ethics decision-making system—any will do–and work it out. Here is the one Ethics Alarms has had a link away from the beginning—originating at the Josephson Institute of Ethics:

An Ethical Decision-Making Model

(Source: Josephson Institute of Ethics. “Five Steps of Principled Reasoning.” 1999.)


1. Determine precisely what must be decided.
2. Formulate and devise the full range of alternatives.
3. Eliminate patently impractical, illegal and improper alternatives.
4. Force yourself to develop at least three ethically justifiable options.
5. Examine each option to determine which ethical principles and values are involved.


1. If any of the options requires the sacrifice of any ethical principle, evaluate the facts and assumptions carefully.
2. Distinguish solid facts from beliefs, desires, theories, suppositions, unsupported conclusions, opinions, and   rationalizations.
3. Consider the credibility of sources, especially when they are self-interested, ideological or biased.
4. With regard to each alternative, carefully consider the benefits, burdens and risks to each stakeholder.


1. Make a judgment about what is not true and what consequences are most likely to occur.
2. Evaluate the viable alternatives according to personal conscience.
3. Prioritize the values so that you can choose which values to advance and which to subordinate.
4. Determine who will be helped the most and harmed the least.
5. Consider the worst case scenario.
6. Consider whether ethically questionable conduct can be avoided by changing goals or methods, or by getting consent.
7. Apply the three “ethics tests”

* Are you treating others as you would want to be treated?

* Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were to be publicized?

* Would you be comfortable if your children were observing you?


1. Develop a plan of how to implement the decision.
2. Maximize the benefits and minimize the costs and risks.

·Monitor and modify.

1. Monitor the effects of decisions.
2. Be prepared and willing to revise a plan, or take a different course of action.
3. Adjust to new information.

We have seen Asshole vs Asshole episodes that have ended in homicide (Martin vs Zimmerman). We have seen episodes that have closed the government (Trump vs. Congress.) We have seen episodes of Asshole vs Asshole that have gone to the Supreme Court, like the gay wedding cake controversy, and episodes that have turned into riots, like the Charlottesville protests. I could make a long, long, list, and I fear that it is growing faster than ever, because we have a leader who revels in being an asshole, and that emboldens and validates assholes in every walk of American life, and especially the young.

“Spy vs Spy” was repetitive and not very funny; Asshole vs Asshole is destructive, ugly, divisive, and stupid. Don’t be part of it.

12 thoughts on “Asshole vs. Asshole, And How To Avoid Starring In It

    • Chris Marschner: “Is there dispute resolution skill that ethical player can use to disarm the “asshole”?”

      Yes, sue them!

      That is sort of serious.

      I have fought a number of HOAs over the years. Usually, they hold all the cards. That is why they tend to act like assholes. And, frankly, they need to, to some extent. Enforcing rules means holding the line, because every “reasonable” exception leads to further ones.

      So, if client comes in with a dispute with an HOA, I generally tell them they don’t have options. However, if they have a leg to stand on, I tell them to fight, because, if the lawyer on the other side is smart, he will advise the HOA to settle.

      But, you know who is smarter? Insurance adjusters. Even smart attorneys want to win in the face of certain defeat. Insurance adjusters only care about the money. When I sue an HOA and they tender coverage to the insurer, I know I am going to talk to a lawyer who is simply looking at the bottom line. Things tend to settle quickly after that.

      Perhaps insurance companies have mastered the Five Steps of Principled Reasoning, but I doubt it.

      On a related note, if a client tells me that it is about “the principle of the matter,” I make a point of explaining how expensive principles can be. I had a client who fought his HOA on principle; he likened the HOA to the Russian mob, and that was the reason he came to the US, to live according to rules and law. I got him his victory, but it cost him.

      Oh, and when a client explains that they would rather pay me money than the other side, that is true. But the dirty little secret is that, often, they don’t really want to pay me either; they would just rather pay me.


      • Jut
        I took from the Jack’s post that litigating on perceived principle, which is actually an unwillingness to give an inch, is something to avoid.

        My query is more in keeping with how to defend your position using ethical principles against an “asshole” who is willing to go to any length to win.

        In short how does one prevail or reach compromise with an adversary who is unwilling to behave ethically.

        I suppose I am looking for a negotiating method similar to that in martial arts that uses the adversaries momentum in a defensive manner. Otherwise, it seems the ethical method would be like carrying a knife to a gunfight.

        • Yes, but I was just suggesting that HOAs are a bad example to use for negotiation tactics. Often, they are bullies. When the law is on their side, do what they say. When it is not, you have to treat them like a bully and punch them in the face. They will learn.

          Short of that, there is almost no reasoning with them.


  1. I think you’ve stumbled on a new Ethics Rationalization: “I’ve come too far to stop now!” or “It’s the principle of the thing.”

  2. The problem is that most home buyers don’t get a copy of the CCRs to take to an attorney before they make an offer on a unit. Then after buying the place , they put up a new screen door without consulting the architectural committee. Then, a letter arrives stating that they have 10 days to take it down. Things then go from bad to worse when the HOA board and the management company tell them that they have no choice in the matter and fines for non compliance start accumulating. At that point, the homeowner is screwed.

    • My parents are in an even worse situation. The written document states that the association is only responsible for maintaining the lake and the park as public access areas (for tax purposes). Instead, they are enforcing property restrictions on the neighborhood and restricting the park and lake to the association only. When this was contested in court, the judge just said that homeowner’s associations have authority over the homes in the association. It didn’t matter what the printed document said. The IRS even said they didn’t care that the asociation was violating the nonprofit rules and hadn’t filed any reports with the IRS for 20 years. Don’t think that a lawyer looking over the rules will help you. HOA’s are immune to the law.

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