“I very much understand why Jordan Peterson might appeal to many who feel attracted to the kinds of questions he is asking. My problem is with the specific answers he gives at a political level.”
Over the past few weeks, I have received an influx of messages from commentators responding to my three articles on Jordan Peterson. In each of these pieces, I tried to emphasize that his work as a psychologist and literary commentator is first-rate and often very interesting. Part of my motivation for writing these pieces was, qua my fellow author at Merion West, I feel that most critical looks at Peterson’s work fail to give him adequate credit where that is due. However, saying that we should be charitable in our interpretations does not mean that Peterson is beyond criticism. Far from it.
The thrust of my three articles was that Peterson’s extension of his philosophical and psychological outlook to the political realm has been hampered by several significant conceptual and practical difficulties. For the sake of clarity and brevity in presentation, each article dealt with a different aspect of Peterson’s political outlook which I felt were problematic. The first of my articles discussed Peterson’s critical approach to left-wing politics. I argued that he doesn’t have a particularly firm grasp on the positions of the modern Left, and that even where he makes some good points, their impact is blunted by misinterpretations of the figures Peterson is criticizing.
The second of my articles discussed Peterson’s more substantive political positions on meritocracy and classical liberalism. I argued that, while much of the advice he presents concerning the need to work hard and strive for excellence functions well at an individual level, it becomes less plausible when generalized socially. I also presented a few reasons why his understanding of, and justification for, social hierarchies is confusing and in need of clarification. The third of my articles discussed Peterson’s critical observations about modernity, particularly our society’s alleged lack of support for traditional values. I maintained that many of Peterson’s critics are too quick to paint him as a bigot.
But I also argued that Peterson’s critique of modernity is not particularly well developed. This is especially true when one juxtaposes it against other conservative critiques of modernity, many of which stress the problems capitalism poses for the maintenance and stability of traditional values. This last article received considerably less commentary than the former two, which were more narrowly focused on Peterson’s specific claims. This is somewhat disappointing because I think his lack of substantial engagement in political economy and theories of distributive justice is perhaps the biggest gap in Peterson’s oeuvre.
This summary presents the thrust of my arguments against Peterson’s political outlook. To my surprise, the response to these articles from even those who support and admire Peterson was generally very positive. Many of those who corresponded with me expressed appreciation that I had taken his work seriously, and had offered concrete arguments against his positions without simply discrediting the man himself. Given that this was one of my intentions when writing the articles, I found these correspondences gratifying and edifying. They also provided me with an opportunity to dialogue more extensively with his proponents to better grasp their support for his positions. I also received opportunities to discuss what readers appreciated about my criticisms of Peterson, and what they thought I had gotten wrong. Based on these correspondences, I would say that there are three major objections to my arguments against Peterson.
- I misrepresent Peterson as a conservative, when he is better understood as a classical liberal, or centrist, who is rightly concerned about left-wing radicalism and identity politics.
- I have not given adequate credit to Peterson’s defense of meritocracy and meritocratic hierarchies
- I seem to have a personal vendetta against Peterson, which some correspondents disliked since his lectures and writings had personally contributed a great deal to their lives and sense of self
In this brief response, I will attempt to answer each objection in some detail. While I stand by the basic position taken in each of the individual articles, I concede that some of my points were not as clearly articulated as I’d hoped. If this response does not entirely convince Peterson’s supporters that many aspects of his political outlook are problematic, I, at least, hope to clarify why I think they are so.
Peterson and Political Labels
Perhaps the most consistent criticism I received was that I mislabeled Peterson as a conservative (or a big C type Conservative if one happens to be Canadian). These criticisms typically came from correspondents who indicated that they were “generally Progressive” or “Democrats” individuals who have nonetheless found something valuable in Peterson’s lectures and writings. In particular, most of these progressive correspondents empathized with his criticisms of the Left and identity politics.
Before I respond to this specific objection, I would like to note something about the tenor of these correspondences. Most correspondents, as indicated, expressed that they were generally progressive but had nevertheless found something worthwhile in Peterson’s work. This is of course admirable. But I also feel that there is a troubling dimension to these claims, which is indicatory of our partisan times. These correspondents all felt the need to qualify or justify their interest in Peterson, despite otherwise self-identifying as progressives.
This seems linked with their arguments that Peterson is fundamentally a centrist of some sort, since that would bring him closer to their side of the political spectrum. Whatever label one should apply to Peterson specifically, I think that this need to tactically qualify or justify an interest in figures from any side of the political spectrum is an unfortunate symptom of the times. We should take an interest in intriguing or challenging ideas wherever they come from—perhaps especially when they make us ideologically uncomfortable. Indeed, as I made clear in my third article, I wish Peterson was more prone to doing exactly that in recognizing the arguments of great conservatives who argued convincingly that markets may well be responsible for undermining the traditional values he holds dear.
Now to the point at hand: is Jordan Peterson a conservative? I do not think there is a clear answer to this question for two reasons. Firstly, it is difficult to pin down Peterson’s specific ideological convictions. He has certainly identified as a classical liberal. But, as the quote below shows, he also holds many views that are more consonant with the conservative liberalism of Edmund Burke than the revolutionary impulses of classical liberals like John Locke and Immanuel Kant:
“Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people…. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous…. Altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth…is likely to produce far more trouble than good.”
Classical liberalism, it is worth noting, began life as a radical and revolutionary ideology. And it has maintained many aspects of this down through the anti-traditionalism of J.S Mill and the libertarian experimentalism of Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, and others. If Peterson is a classical liberal in this vein, his support of traditionalism and emphasis on stabilizing social institutions situates him very far from the ideological norm. These ambiguities persist when one interrogates his arguments about redistributive justice. Peterson has expressed some concern with moderating the impact of inequality on the least well-off, while also expressing skepticism about modern market-friendly mechanisms to do so such as implementing a universal basic income—a favorite proposal of Milton Friedman.
What is one to make of all this when it comes to ideological labels? The reality is that I am not sure that Peterson has an entirely well thought out and consistent political ideology that fits neatly into any box. But given his support for both individualism and stabilizing social institutions, his moderate concern for helping the poor aligned with his skepticism about any radical efforts to do so, and his appreciation for religious and cultural mythos against hyper-rationalist scientism, he seems to fit most comfortably with the Burkean label. Peterson wants individuals to enjoy a broad swathe of classical liberal rights, have the radicalizing tendencies of those rights be tempered by social respect for tradition and culture, and is willing to accept modest efforts to redistribute wealth so long as they do not go too far.
As Ian Shapiro nicely puts it, this Burkean position tends to be less a consistent ideology and more of a personal outlook on life and the world, which meshes nicely with Petersons’ own tendency to interpret virtually everything through a psychological lens in the last instance. So I think it is correct to call him a conservative with a Burkean outlook, so long as one understands that this is not to say Peterson is an ideologue or partisan for any of the particular political ideologies out there today.
Peterson and Meritocracy
The second major objection I received was that I was too uncharitable in my arguments against Peterson’s defense or meritocracy and meritocratic hierarchies. Many of these correspondents claimed that our society is becoming increasingly prone to rewarding those who do not merit it, particularly because they belong to a given group identity that receives special privileges due to left-wing agitation. This included claims that women and ethnic and sexual minorities were given undeserved advantages in competing for jobs and social positions. Correspondents in this vein argument that these advantages should be eliminated and replaced with a meritocratic system that allocates jobs and social positions purely on the basis of dessert.
There is no space in this brief article to rehearse all the varied arguments made for and against meritocracy. I will simply make two points. The first is that my primary purpose was to demonstrate that Peterson’s philosophical positions were inconsistent on the issues of meritocracy. At points in 12 Rules for Life Peterson appeals to a Daoist or Buddhist metaphysics to suggest that life will inevitably consist of suffering and be unfair. This problematizes arguments that it is possible to create a society that rewards merit, since the implication is that the rain falls on the hard working and the slothful alike. At other points, Peterson implies that we are able to rise above the unfairness of life to merit greater rewards acquired through our labor and efforts. This is where my second point came in.
For a self-identified classical (or as I put it Burkean) liberal, Peterson is curiously unaware that very few modern liberals believe it is possible to philosophically defend meritocracy any more. This is largely due to John Rawls’ innovative argument in A Theory of Justice that the distribution of both natural talents and social advantages is largely arbitrary from a moral point of view; it has nothing to do with our character. Let us take a favorite example of Peterson’s. He often claims the IQ is underappreciated by those on the left as a determinant for where people end up in the social hierarchy. The implication is that the rewards acquired from having a higher intelligence are merited.
But such a claim would be rejected by most post-Rawlsian liberals, including those on the right such as Nozick and Hayek. This is because if meritocracy is justified because rewarding merit, in what sense can we be said to have “earned” or “merited” a higher intelligence. Higher intelligence is the result of a genetic accident for which we can claim no personal credit. So arguing that the rewards which flow from higher intelligence and other natural talents are merited is increasingly regarded as an illiberal standpoint.
From the perspective of left-wing liberals like Rawls and right-wing liberals like Nozick, that would be allowing morally arbitrary features for which no individual person can claim credit to determine the distribution of goods and honors in society. And this, of course, says nothing about unearned social advantages, such as being born into a wealthy and educated family, which are also very strong determinants of one’s later social status. None of this is to say that any liberal supports strict equality of outcome in the distribution of goods and honors. Certainly, right-wing liberals like Hayek and Nozick do not. But they reject meritocratic arguments because by now they are simply too slippery and problematic to justify inequalities.
So my position on this point is two-fold. Firstly, Peterson’s own philosophical positions around meritocracy are in tension with one another. Secondly, he does not sufficiently engage even the modern liberal arguments against meritocracy to make a convincing case for its normative salience in the 21st century. There are other arguments for inequality which may be convincing, and I have discussed them elsewhere. But the case for meritocracy is far weaker than it once was, and therefore sophisticated proponents tend to heavily constrain and qualify their arguments for it in the relevant literature.
Peterson and Inspiration
The last type of criticism I have received comes from those who express sadness that I have taken it upon myself to “attack” Peterson when he has had a positive influence on their life. At worst, I have been accused of having a vendetta against him. More charitable correspondents typically try to rebut my arguments by pointing out that he has personally inspired them and helped them make sense of their self-identity, while expressing sadness that I did not seem to appreciate his insights in the same manner.
Such claims are difficult to rebut since they stem from an intensely personal place. If one finds a writer or speaker inspiring or provocative, that is simply the effect they have on you. As Peterson himself might observe, it is as impossible for any critic to ameliorate that effect as it is for the original writer/speaker to artificially demand it. So I will simply make a more personal aside here that indicates my own affective reaction (or lack thereof) to his work.
Much like Peterson, I grew up in a pretty conservative Canadian town while professionally and academically engaging primarily with political and cultural radicals. I was also raised as a Roman Catholic before losing my faith and engaging in a long sequence of difficult existential questions early on. Finally, while completing my Ph.D. I often found myself frustrated at the myopic fascination of many with post-modern theory and identity politics. It was impossible to suppress a longing for a more meaningful outlook on life and politics.
So in many senses, I appreciate the emotional basis for what Peterson is trying to achieve. I also very much understand why he might appeal to many who feel attracted to the kinds of questions he is asking. My problem is with the specific answers he gives at a political level. It is one thing to want answers to difficult questions and social problems. It is another to accept that anyone with the tenacity to ask such questions with any degree of sophistication must also have reached the right conclusions about a broad swathe of issues. Here I think Peterson often falters. As a psychological insight, much of what he has to say is rewarding. But it fails when generalized as a political outlook because it is hampered by considerable tensions and an unwillingness to look beyond a personal quest for meaning to provide more concrete and consistent theorems to deal with what are ultimately social problems that transcend our individual concerns and outlooks.
Matt McManus recently completed his Ph.D. 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.