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What I Learned from Corresponding with Jordan Peterson’s Supporters

Image via the Los Angeles Times

“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.

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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.

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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 garion9@yorku.ca.

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Norman Singfield
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Norman Singfield

Too many words. The aurhor is lost8n self omportamce and adds next to nothing about an underetandong of Peterson that one can’t get by directly listening to Peterson!

Benjamin Weber
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Benjamin Weber

I guess having a PHD makes McManus’opinion matter more than points of falsity or alternative ideas to Peterson’s. Right? Also, where exaxtly and how does Peterson contradict himself? Guess we have to take Mr. PHD’s word for it. Oh ya… Peterson has a PHD too, so who’s PHD is mightier? I think not McManus’, because he doesn’t have quite the following.

Benjamin Weber
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Benjamin Weber

Has the original article been edited? In rereading the article, I see bullet points, and citations. Originally, the substance was not there, but this article has something to it now.

Eric
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Eric

Your myoptic response speaks volumes about Peterson and his fanboys.

Benjamin Weber
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Benjamin Weber

Eric, you don’t know anything about people who may agree with some of the ideas of Peterson. They may agree with the ideas of others too, including you, grouping all the people who agree with an idea into a fanboy label runs the risk that that label may fall upon you if you ever agree with an idea that someone shares.

Jonathan
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Jonathan

Trolls be transparently trollin’ up in here with way too seriously sloppy spelling.

Matt
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Matt

I am not sure what my having a PhD or not has to do with the content of my analysis in any of these articles. Moreover, appealing to the size of someone’s following to vindicate their ideas seems deeply in conflict with the individualism and Enlightenment values Peterson himself promotes quite consistently

Benjamin Weber
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Benjamin Weber

Jonathan, Anyone with a different opinion is a troll these days, and why can the human mind read misspelled words and still understand the sentence? Perhaps listening is more important than observing correct spelling.

Nate
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Nate

Difficult discussion of meritocracy.. I don’t think Peterson is using the word in a moral sense–or in a technical sense. It’s very difficult to divide up a superior ability into what is handed to one at birth and what one has done with what was handed to one. In some sense, a “meritocratic” approach can be indifferent to this. The point is not make moral judgments. The point is to incentivize competence wherever it comes from but that will contribute to the greater good. There is a bit Rawlsianism in this, but not of a strict sort as in a… Read more »

Jon
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Jon

The author is this article appears to have zero understanding of what a meritocratic system even is. A meritocratic system is not about distributing resources based on how hard someone works, it’s about distributing resources based on how much an individual CONTRIBUTES. IQ plays a major role in that since IQ determines how quickly someone can learn something new and apply it. As a result people with a higher IQ are typically able to produce more than those with lower IQs with the same effort put in. Here is an example. Say you were paying people to lay bricks for… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

That is actually well addressed by the authors I mentioned, not to mention implied in my piece. If i am better able to lay the 80 bricks because I am stronger and bigger, this raises significant questions over whether it is fair for me to receive greater compensation because I merited that through any efforts of my own. Take the following example. Say I can only lay 40 bricks to your 80 because I possess a significant physical disability, while you were born exceptionally able. I might work twice as hard as you, but only contribute half what you can.… Read more »

jeff
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jeff

What kind of argument is this? So when you are building your house, you are going to hire all the subpar contractors because that will make it fair?
Maybe I should petition the NBA to allow me to play as it was not my fault to be born short? or maybe petition NASA that it is unfair that astro-physics is too confusing for me.
Life is unfair, if you cannot lay enough bricks, go do something else.

Matt
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Matt

Sure but then you are arguing for an entitlement based account of distributive justice, not a meritocratic one.

Michael Rivlin
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Michael Rivlin

When referring to meritocracy and inherited talent (IQ for example) the author fails to take Prof. Peterson as understanding that there can be a synthesis between the two (and
many of his other views as well). Instead you claim that somehow he understands Peterson to say that IQ is merited! Way to build a straw man to tackle. The author clearly takes Prof Peterson’s words as if he put as much thought into as his own i.e. none.

Matt
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Matt

My point isn’t that IQ is merited or not. It is, as I said in the article, a concern about whether the “rewards” that may stem from having a higher IQ are warranted.

Benjamin Weber
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Benjamin Weber

Mr. Mcmanus, maybe your mordern liberalism needs to be adjusted and not his stances. Why should he and any of his admirers be criticized for not believing in your modern liberalism? How about presenting both points of view and let the better idea win? Don’t expect everyone to just accept your modern liberalism without comparing it to other ideas, or just because you named a vast number of ifeas as a single group.

Matt
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Matt

Liberalism is indeed a complex tradition, and I pointed to two authors (Nozick and Hayek) who hold different views than my own more egalitarian position. My point in this article wasn’t to adjudicate between different sophisticated variants of liberalism to saw which is better or more consistent. My point was to observe that Peterson’s articulation of liberal principles isn’t especially convincing when you compare his arguments to present debates, most of which concede that meritocracy, or the “workmanship ideal” as it is sometimes called, is outdated. And they do so for good reasons.

Mark
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Mark

“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”. That’s an interesting opinion, and in my opinion you failed to lay out an argument in the following two paragraphs. Making a comparison to classical liberalism as it was founded also didn’t persuade me. Unfortunately this kind of [guessing what other people think] analysis is very common nowadays. If I had to guess, I’d say Matt is far closer to the alt-left than classical liberalism. This kind of analysis is very common on the… Read more »

Mark
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Mark

To follow up, Matt, the fact you think you can quote Peterson once (on his political ideology) to make an argument is laughable. You’ve cherry picked one example from thousands of hours of video footage and Peterson’s two books. Given the large amount of hitpieces written about Peterson, you need to do better. Most of us who follow Peterson’s work are used to defending the media’s continual lies about his opinions — from Bill C-16, to enforced monogamy, to the gender pay gap (i.e., the Newman interview). Based on this alone, the work required to convince me Peterson is wrong… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

I would say you ignored the other three articles, which elaborated upon each of these topics in far more detail. There are links in the summation at the top of this piece.

Matt
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Matt

Moreover, kindly refrain from inferring my own political beliefs and propensity to arrogance before reading those pieces. This article did open with a sentence indicating this was a reply to commentators on those articles.

Bernard Hill
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Bernard Hill

An interesting and constructive series of articles thank you Matt. I think your conclusions are correct, that what JBP says fails as a generalised political outlook, with consistent theorems to deal with our social (and economic) problems. What’s more, I suspect JBP himself would likely agree. Perhaps you should ask him. From my 30 plus years of professional experience in economic development and implementation, (in the public sectors of three different countries, as well as in private practice) generalised political outlooks seem to be
the cause of, not the cure for, public policy and political dysfunction.

Matt
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Matt

I am fascinated by your last comment. Could you elaborate. Thank you for your kind words as well.

Bernard Hill
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Bernard Hill

Well Matt, the manifest the harm from the prevailing generalised outlooks is: (with acknowledgement to Confucius, Voltaire, and Churchill amongst others), their ideal negatively impacts the real. So we get sensible regulatory policy and administration being hampered by small government ideals from one end of the outlook spectrum, and sensible but sensitive management of immigration being frustrated by ideals of compassion from the other. Which is why I think JBP is right to criticise ideology per se, and to refrain from articulating an abstract political manifesto. That wouldn’t contribute to progressing anything. The somewhat dispiriting conclusion I’ve come to is… Read more »

Caleb
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Caleb

Peterson has spoken several times at length about the unfairness of the Mathew Principle (Perdido Distribution) as relates to IQ. He uses the problem to challenge the far left to take the issue seriously from a moral and political perspective. The reality of Perdido Distributions is one of his favorite talking points. Is his argument solid? I don’t know, but he recognizes that a strict meritocracy equals death as would any other utopian ideology.

AudreyA
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AudreyA

Your view of meritocracy doesn’t follow with what most people understand a meritocracy IS. A meritocracy doesn’t say “you have earned this reward because we admire your ethics, determination, and hard effort” rather, it says “You have earned this reward because you have produced well.” It differs from other societies in which rewards follow your station in life (were you born in the aristocracy?) or are distributed due to family or political connection, not individual productivity. I am quite certain that the left and academics don’t like this because social mobility due to high IQ and superior performance is really… Read more »