“My suspicion is that many of Peterson’s readers feel an affinity to the advice he offers and so don’t look to question his political commitments that deeply. This is problematic because it leads to deep inconsistencies in doctrine that, if applied as stated, would lead to a rather unusual politics.”
In my June 3rd article, I presented the first part of my critique of Jordan Peterson. In that piece, I argued that much of the hyperbole surrounding Peterson, both positive and negative, was overstated. I maintained that he was a talented scholar when he focused on his areas of expertise: namely psychology, and its association with mythology, religion, and literature. This is reflected in the overall quality of his magnum opus, Maps of Meaning. While an overambitious and occasionally grandiose book, it contained many interesting insights into how human beings formulate meaning for their lives. I also observed that Peterson’s recent bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, contained a significant amount of good life advice that seemed to be inspiring to its audience of mostly young men.
However, I also observed that Peterson ran into significant trouble when he stepped outside of his area of expertise and commented on politics. In the last article, I mainly focused on the problems with Peterson’s criticism of Left-wing philosophy and activism. I observed that he did not seem to understand, or know very much about, what he set out to criticize. In particular, Peterson offered very shallow arguments against so-called “post-modern neo-Marxism.” I concluded the article by maintaining that the locus of Peterson’s appeal as a critic of the Left was that many people felt the same way he did about left-wing activism. They, therefore, assumed that he was offering salient criticisms of the philosophy allegedly underpinning this activism. I do not believe this to be the case, which is unfortunate since Peterson has the capacity to be a good scholar when he tries. This makes his unwillingness to engage with the left in any substantive or fair manner disappointing.
In this article, I am going to conclude my critique of his work by dealing with the more constructive dimension of Peterson’s political thought. This consists of his support for “classical liberalism,” meritocracy, and Judeo-Christian tradition. While Peterson is on intellectually firmer ground when invoking these tropes to offer psychological advice, his positions become confusing and even self-contradictory when generalized to the level of politics.
Agency, Hierarchy, and Setting One’s House in Order
Far into Maps of Meaning Jordan Peterson comments on the archetype of the “decadent”: a person who shirks responsibility for their life and assumes that everything that happens to them is the product of social circumstance and bad luck. He characterizes this person, willing to blame others for their lot, as psychologically-fueled by resentment and jealousy towards those who have more than he does. Peterson sees this archetype embodied most maliciously in the figure of the Soviet Communists, who engaged in brutal violence to take from those they viewed as privileged and therefore responsible for other people’s poorer lot in life. Here I will quote Peterson at length since this passage neatly summarizes his political position:
“For example, when I am faced with a frustrating situation I do not ask myself what I am going to do about it. I ask myself who is responsible for it—and I am always ready to conclude that if the other person were to act properly then the problem would not exist. What is evil about that, you ask? Obviously if I am determined to overlook my own part in the failure to resolve my own frustrations, if I am determined to find a scapegoat for my problems, then I am just a stone’s throw away from the mentality that was responsible for Hitler’s final solution, or for the Spanish Inquisition, or for Lenin’s cultural cleansing. What was it you told me when I complained about the flaws in capitalism, about the fact that so many people take advantage of the capitalist system? Something like ‘the fact that people go on consolidating their financial position ad nauseam is another problem, but it is no reason to conclude that there is anything virtuous in refusing to even try to consolidate one’s position in the first place.’ But it is so much easier to crown one’s cowardice and laziness with the accolade of virtue.”
Peterson’s argument effectively seems to be that demands for a redistribution of goods and resources are predicated, first and foremost, on the resentment of some individuals towards those who appear better off. Peterson is, therefore, highly suspicious of arguments for redistribution because he believes that the underlying psychological motivation is not ultimately to make individuals better off. It is to seek revenge against those who have worked hard and achieved more in life. This psychological interpretation of individuals who push for a more egalitarian distribution of goods and resources as proto-totalitarians is also reflected in Peterson’s biographical account of becoming disillusioned with his early socialism. He recounts reading The Road to Wigan Pier and agreeing with George Orwell’s observation that many socialists do not care a whit for the poor. They only hated the rich. This superhero origin story is recounted in both Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life, highlighting the importance of this insight for Peterson’s political inclinations. Interestingly, that primary purpose of The Road to Wigan Pier was to present Orwell’s staunch defense of socialism is ignored by Peterson in his first book and quickly brushed past in the second.
Peterson’s belief that a desire for a more egalitarian distribution of goods and resources is predicated upon dangerous resentment seems to be the basis for his more concrete political positions on hierarchy and distributive justice. These are presented, in a rather scattered way, throughout his two books and many lectures and interviews. Peterson believes that, rather than blaming others or social institutions for our failings, individuals should look to their own efforts. These political beliefs are often linked with his psychological injunctions to, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world” and to “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Rather than blaming capitalism for being poor, or patriarchy for not being admitted into a STEM program, individuals should apolitically focus on what they can do to better their lot.
At times, Peterson connects this to arguments about the natural inevitability of hierarchy and the traditional Judeo-Christian virtues of a meritocracy. Chapter one of 12 Rules for Life opens with a now (in)famous discussion of how even simple lobsters, our genetic relatives, organize themselves into hierarchies based on attributes associated with physical and sexual dominance. Throughout 12 Rules for Life, Peterson suggests that the possession of analogous attributes in humans, such as higher intelligence or competitive/aggressive drive, will inevitably lead us to organize into similar hierarchies. Sometimes Peterson is fatalistic about this, claiming we must simply accept it as the way we naturally are. As he sometimes puts it “life is suffering” and “unfair.” Some people will be on top, and others will not. Other times Peterson invokes the aforementioned meritocratic virtues to suggest that hierarchy is not just inevitable—but desirable. This suggests that individuals should take responsibility for developing the attributes necessary to wind up at the top of the pecking order.
In combination, Peterson rather mysteriously seems to believe these injunctions reflect an individualism consistent with a grab bag of what is best in the Western-and other- traditions. At times, he aligns it with the individualism of Judeo-Christian doctrine, at other times with “classical liberal” principles. Sometimes he’ll invoke Buddhist and Daoist symbology and mythology to buttress the claim that life can be unfair. This erudition is impressive, but it is also extremely confusing. Peterson links doctrines that are not entirely consonant and even in contradiction with one another. Take the example of liberalism and Judeo-Christian doctrine. Liberalism from Hobbes onwards largely emerged as a reaction against traditional Christian doctrine. Liberals such as Locke, Voltaire and others argued that individuals should reason for themselves, be suspicious of tradition, and look to their private happiness. This is in stark contrast to Christian philosophers, such as the Thomists, who argued that reason was the handmaiden of faith, that religious traditions going back to Abraham should be venerated, and that pursuing the “good” was more important than private satisfaction. Unfortunately, this is just the first instance where confusion sets in.
Psychological Advice and Political Theory
It is very difficult to know how to interpret Peterson’s political positions because they are not presented in a transparent and precise manner. As mentioned, they are mostly presented in association with psychological advice offered to hypothetical individuals in need of guidance and wisdom. Now there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and the criteria for what constitutes good psychological advice at any one time is significantly different from what constitutes a consistent and defensible political outlook. But problems arise when Peterson tries to generalize from this advice to defend a certain type of politics.
Debates about hierarchy aren’t debates about whether any hierarchies should exist. They are debates about which hierarchies are morally defensible and conducive to aggregate social welfare. Simply observing that hierarchies are natural gets us nowhere in such discussions.
Take Peterson’s comments about hierarchy. At points, Peterson invokes the idea of natural hierarchy to dismiss the alleged claims of left-wing thinkers that hierarchies are entirely the product of unjust social institutions, like global capitalism. It is difficult to actually make heads or tails of what this is meant to suggest. Firstly, I am unaware of anyone, even on the far Left, who argues that all hierarchies are inherently unjust and must be eliminated. Even proponents of anarchism maintain that certain hierarchies, for instance, speaking order in public meetings, must be maintained to ensure social stability. And the feminist activists who want more female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies are certainly not anti-hierarchy. No one denies either that hierarchy is a feature of human life or that it is needed in some circumstances. Debates about hierarchy aren’t debates about whether any hierarchies should exist. They are debates about which hierarchies are morally defensible and conducive to aggregate social welfare. Simply observing that hierarchies are natural gets us nowhere in such discussions.
For instance, few today would argue that a feudal hierarchy is justifiable, though many thinkers at the time tried to defend it by appealing to natural differences between people as ordained by the Christian God. This is because classical liberal thinkers argued that both the moral equality of individuals and the need to increase aggregate welfare by engaging in market exchanges entitles them to equally enjoy the standard package of liberal civil and political rights. Those, who argue against the stark inequality of contemporary economic hierarchies—most notably liberal egalitarians like Rawls, Nussbaum, and Dworkin—make similar arguments to justify a more equitable distribution of goods and resources. Now one might disagree with the moral arguments for a more equitable distribution of goods and resources, or, at least, argue that a more equitable distribution would not be conducive to the aggregate welfare of all. These are the arguments thinkers like Nozick and Friedman respectively leveled against the liberal egalitarians. But neither the liberal egalitarians nor their opponents claim that their preferred hierarchies are “natural” to defend their respective positions. Instead, they appeal to moral and empirical points to justify this or that given hierarchy.
Peterson’s Politics Applied
So what do we make of Peterson’s position? I think the unarticulated and implicit reasoning seems to be that current status quos are justifiable along the moral and empirical lines I just mentioned, though he offers little in the way of moral argument and empirical evidence. (Angry moralism doesn’t count). As mentioned, his justification for these positions often takes the form of individualized psychological advice with a political undertone. His justifications seem to consist in realizing that life is “unfair,” hierarchy will always exist, and we must simply deal with it. He also argues that we stop resenting those who get ahead through merit and take responsibility for improving our lot. So, on the one hand, we have fatalism about the status quo—on the other, moralism about merit and getting ahead in contemporary hierarchies through effort.
As psychological advice for a person in need, either comment might be valid. The criterion is what the individual needs to hear in order to make sense of his situation and improve it. But when generalized as part of a political theory these two pieces of advice border on being mutually contradictory.
Indeed, for all Peterson’s invocations of being a “classical liberal,” he seems curiously disinterested in liberalism’s historic concern to rectify injustices resulting from the persistence of illegitimate human institutions and hierarchies.
Take his comment that life is “suffering” and “unfair.” If this is true by nature, then individuals are largely fated to wind up where we are regardless of our particular effort and character. The rain will fall on the just and the unjust alike, poor people will work hard and not get ahead, and rich people will be born into advantages they did nothing to earn. In such a context, moralizing to individuals by telling them it is their fault for where they wound up because they didn’t merit anything more would seem strikingly tactless. On the other hand, if it is true that life is “suffering” and “unfair” because of human institutions, not just by nature, this brings us back to the aforementioned problem I highlighted about which hierarchies can be justified. If human institutions are responsible for “suffering” and “unfairness” simply then advising people to apolitically accept this and make the best of it seems strikingly reactionary. Instead one should be making a concerted effort to change things. Indeed, for all Peterson’s invocations of being a “classical liberal,” he seems curiously disinterested in liberalism’s historic concern to rectify injustices resulting from the persistence of illegitimate human institutions and hierarchies.
Peterson is an adept psychologist who offers useful advice to individuals in need of life guidance. In such contexts, drawing on a plethora of different sources, and offering fatalistic advice one day and promoting strident self-effort the next, might be useful. But generalized into political doctrine it becomes a rather confusing mishmash of distinct belief systems that don’t gel into a coherent whole.
My suspicion, as with his critical observations about the Left, is that many of Peterson’s readers feel an affinity to the advice he offers and so don’t look to question his political commitments that deeply. This is problematic because it leads to deep inconsistencies in doctrine that, if applied as stated, would lead to a rather unusual politics. One stressing liberal freedom and Christian moralism, communal traditionalism and hyper-individualism, and one assumes many other good things conveniently wrapped together. Politics may be complicated. But that is no excuse for generalizing anecdotal and individual self-help into a comprehensive guide on how to order society.
Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.