An investigation of how Jordan Peterson engages with the idea of “equality.”
It should come as a secret to no one that political ideologies on the political right, including libertarianism and conservatism, have views on equality which differ substantively from those on the Left, such as socialism and liberal egalitarianism. It is important to stress, before going any further, that most ideologies, no matter where on the political spectrum they are on, value equality. I say most because there certainly are anti-egalitarian thinkers, such a Joseph de Maistre or Julius Evola. But it is not true that there is no place for equality in laissez-faire capitalist ideology.
To borrow the structure of his own claim, then, we can say that Peterson cannot dismiss left-wing conceptions of equality—and even less left-wing conceptions of equal opportunity—unless he can contend with the fundamental thinkers and arguments on the matter.
Here I want to focus on conservative critiques of leftist views of equality, particularly those in the public discourse. Ben Burgis recently argued in a piece in Quillette that Marx deserves better critics. I would go further and say that the Left, Marxist or otherwise, deserves better critics. The particular critique I want to engage with is the charge made by some conservative commentators that a major problem with left-wing thought is that it advocates equality of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity. Sometimes they go a step further and associate this line of thinking with Stalin or make apocalyptic forecasts such about how such policies lead to tyranny and mass murder. My contention is that this an inaccurate characterization of left-leaning views on equality, and that the idea of equality of outcome is meaningless when analyzed closely.
The most prominent exponent of this view is perhaps Jordan Peterson, though he is not the only one. Ben Shapiro, for example, has made similar statements. I want to focus on Peterson’s critique because, while often bombastic, it is much more articulate and in better faith than Shapiro’s. For Peterson, advocating equality of outcome is not only a problem but essentially the original sin of the left. In one interview with Joe Rogan, Peterson even called it the left-wing equivalent of racial supremacist ideologies—in the sense that, in his view, it should be immediately shunned without further consideration.
Peterson articulated his full view on the matter during a speech at Carleton Place in 2017. His basic argument is that conservatives favor equal opportunity whereas those on the Left advocate for equality of outcome. He points to policies such as affirmative action. Instead, Peterson proposes what he calls, “just hierarchies of competence.” This is a system in which a basic level of equality of opportunity allows the people who excel in different areas to rise to the top. This, he says, is bound to create material inequalities, since those at the top of the hierarchy will naturally be better compensated than those in the middle, or the bottom. However, we should have an interest in this happening because we gain something by having the best people perform essential functions of society. We are better off if the most competent people are doctors and lawyers because we often depend on them for our life or security. The trade-off we make is that those people will receive higher compensation, and we will end up in a society with unequal outcomes. But if these hierarchies of competence based on equal opportunity are the cause, then the resulting inequality will be justified, even if they are imperfect, as he acknowledges. For Peterson, these kinds of hierarchy are natural and impossible to dismantle without the immoral uses of force. And even if we were to abolish these hierarchies, the nature of human relations would ensure that they would quickly return.
There are two fundamental problems with this view. The first issue is that, while many on the Left would object to a political system that strictly followed Peterson’s suggestions, their disagreement would just be a matter of degree. There would be disagreements about what constitutes just compensation, for example, but the fundamental principle that those who work harder or perform more useful social functions should be compensated accordingly would not be contested. In the aforementioned article, Ben Burgis explains how, in Marx’s post-capitalist society, people who work harder would receive higher compensation, as would those with greater needs. I will not go further into Marx since Burgis already does an excellent job. A more recent thinker with a clear influence on today’s Left is John Rawls. Unlike Marx, he did not advocate exclusively for a post-capitalist economic order. Interestingly, he saw what he called liberal socialism as one of only two arrangements that satisfy his principles of justice. So it is fair to say he had a positive view of socialism even if he was not, strictly speaking, a socialist himself.
The central aspect of Rawls’s view is what he calls the two principles of justice. These are first introduced in A Theory of Justice. The argument for how to arrive at the principles is worth reading, but it is beyond the scope of this essay. For our current purpose, a description of the principles and their relation to each other should suffice. The first principle states that every individual is entitled to the greatest liberty that is compatible with equal liberty for all. The second principle states that—and this is quite relevant for the purpose at hand—social and economic inequalities should be such that they offer the greatest benefit to the least advantaged of society. To put it another way, primary goods, which include things like civil liberties and income and wealth, are to be equally distributed unless there is an alternative unequal distribution that works in everyone’s advantage. This is called the difference principle. Under the difference principle, the sources of inequalities ought to be attached to positions and offices open to all under fair equality of opportunity.
Rawls analyzes the relationship between the first principle and other interpretations of the second principle. I want to focus on one which interprets the statement about greatest benefit as a principle of efficiency, instead of the difference principle. Furthermore, the provision about equal openness is taken to mean openness to talents rather than openness to fair equal opportunity. The principle of maximum equal liberty together with this interpretation of the second principle gives an arrangement that he calls natural liberty. It is easy to see that this is equivalent to what Peterson refers to as equality of opportunity. Peterson places great value on natural talent, and his rationale for why inequality can be just is that when those talents rise to the top, essential social functions are performed to the highest possible standard which will maximize the overall welfare. Now, even Rawls acknowledges that under natural liberty, formal (as opposed to fair) equality of opportunity exists. So, none of this is meant to imply that what Peterson advocates cannot be called equal opportunity. What is an issue, though, is that he does not acknowledge that the concept of equality of opportunity is a more complex than what he presents—and that his own interpretation requires a justification that sets it apart from others.
Peterson often argues that one cannot dismiss the view that morality is inevitably tied to theism unless one can contend with the fundamental thinkers on the matter such as Jung, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky. (Why these are the fundamental thinkers and not, for example, Spinoza, Aquinas, or Kant probably requires justification as well, but that is an entirely different matter.) To borrow the structure of his own claim, then, we can say that Peterson cannot dismiss left-wing conceptions of equality—and even less left-wing conceptions of equal opportunity—unless he can contend with the fundamental thinkers and arguments on the matter. To my knowledge, Peterson does not appear to engage frequently with liberal egalitarian concepts. This is a problem because Rawls does have an argument for why his own interpretation of the second principle of justice is superior.
His reasoning is as follows. Under natural liberty, social and economic inequalities still obey a principle of procedural justice, as there are institutions that establish formal rules that apply equally to all. However, this means that inequalities will be too dependent on biological and social attributes. One does not have a say in the biological and historical processes that determine such matters, so the negative consequences of these ought to be mitigated. It must be stressed that none of this implies that everyone is owed the same probability of becoming a respected lawyer. It only suggests that someone who is blind and poor could be as good a lawyer as an able-bodied wealthy person, but the former has an unfair disadvantage predicated on morally arbitrary biological and social factors, and such disadvantages ought to be nullified. This can be achieved, for example, by making free public education accessible to all and providing necessary accommodations for people with disabilities. Lastly, the principle of efficiency does not distinguish between any arrangement as long as social utility is maximized. When this is achieved, the welfare of one person cannot be increased without reducing someone else’s lot. The principle of efficiency treats changes of this kind as irrelevant. In other words, it cares about the overall welfare but not the individual welfare of each member of society.
As was mentioned previously, while Rawls identifies liberal socialism as one of two arrangements that satisfy the principles of justice, it would be a stretch to call him a socialist, and socialism represents an important portion of left-wing ideology. In this sense, it would be negligent not to discuss socialist conceptions of equality. Gerald Cohen was one of the most prominent socialist philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In his posthumous work, Why Not Socialism?, he discusses a socialist conception of equality inspired, not by Marxism, but by a Rawlsian kind of egalitarianism. He describes this as a radical type equality of opportunity. His socialist framework depends on this and a community principle, which is a kind of solidarity meant to address inequalities that arise from an arrangement based purely on socialist equality opportunity. I will not discuss the community principle since it is not relevant for the topic at hand. It will suffice to say that it is not an institutional enforceable arrangement but a voluntary ideal. This implies that even socialists advocate for institutional arrangements in which some inequality naturally arises, and that, at least nominally, they see equality of opportunity as the organizing principle of a just society.
It is relevant to say a few more words about Cohen’s view, to show that it is a principle of equal opportunity in more than name. He identifies three different conceptions of equal opportunity and the barriers that each removes. First there is bourgeois equal opportunity. This addresses legally recognized social privileges such as nobility. It still leaves barriers like social class and racial biases untouched, which leads to left-liberal equality of opportunity. Its application entails policies such as public education and public housing. But this still allows for inequalities predicated on biological differences. Socialist equality of opportunity seeks to do away with all unchosen disadvantages. Therefore, any remaining inequalities should be the result of voluntary decisions arising from personal preferences.
Interestingly, one frequent charge against the Left made by Peterson and other conservative commentators is that it ignores, for example, that men and women have different preferences—and so something like the wage gap can never disappear. This suggests that many of the kinds of inequalities that Peterson describes as anathema for the Left are far from that. In the same speech in which he lays out his views on equal opportunity he mentions the fact that, in Scandinavian countries, where social and economic inequalities have been greatly reduced, women more frequently take stereotypically feminine career paths. This, according to Peterson, is rooted in human biology, and trying to change it is foolish and dangerous. I make no claim about the truth or falsity of this assertion. But, if we accept it, one of the kinds of inequality that he describes as inevitable is exactly the kind that a socialist would find acceptable. There are valid criticisms against Cohen’s argument. It might be fair to say that it is utopian (and even Cohen might agree), but it is still a possible conception of equal opportunity because it allows for unequal outcomes, provided that they are the result of voluntary individual choices.
That should be enough to cast doubt on the claim that the Left is hostile to equal opportunity—and even more so on the idea that equality of opportunity is a straightforward concept. The second problem with Peterson’s critique is probably more fundamental because it shows a lack of complete engagement with the concepts involved in a very long and probably unsolvable problem. Perhaps the central question around equality in contemporary political philosophy is “equality of what?” Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen wrote about this in a paper entitled with this very question. In it, he explores three alternative answers, equality of utility, equality of marginal utility, and Rawlsian equality. He dismisses these three and presents his own alternative: equality of capabilities, which has also been championed by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. A school of thought, often referred to as luck egalitarianism also has alternative responses, such as equality of resources, equality of welfare, or even equality of opportunity for welfare. But note that, out of seven, none is “equality of outcome. Of course, I could just be nitpicking and hiding the theorists who advocate it, but just a bit of analysis easily shows that there is a deeper reason for why this is the case: the idea of equality of outcome is completely meaningless. Presenting it as a left-wing position is not even a straw man, because a straw man has to stand in for something else.
It could be argued that when Peterson uses it, he refers to a particular kind of outcome. But this is not entirely satisfactory. Given the examples that he uses and his references to Soviet communism, we could interpret it as material equality. But it is not even clear what material equality would entail. We could say it is equality of resources, but the whole point of the disagreement between different luck egalitarians is that those who advocate equality of welfare would argue that individuals have different needs and preferences, so material equality implies unequal resources. One might reply that these two are not all that different, and this is just linguistic pedantry. But the use of the word “outcome” implies a final overall state of affairs. And here lies the central issue: equality, in the way that it pertains to this discussion is a kind of empty vessel. One cannot speak of equality alone. It always begs the question “equality of what?” Yet, “equality of outcome” suggests precisely that there is no “what.” It is everything. Peterson brings up the gulag as an example of how, when everyone is stripped of all liberty, property, dignity, etc., everyone is fully equal. But I doubt that Peterson is truly positing that the gulag is an actual left-wing policy goal because that would be a bad faith characterization, and he should know this. If that is not the goal, then surely that is not what Peterson refers to by using this term. This implies the possibility that he does consider full equality of outcome as the ultimate goal of the Left, which brings us back to the senselessness of this proposition. We saw earlier how it is not possible to have equal welfare and resources simultaneously. Adding other variables will only complicate the matter. It should be obvious to anyone who has thought carefully about this issue and engaged with the theory that this is the case, and that no one who has done the same would take an idea like equality of outcome seriously.
Finally, in the interest of fairness, let us consider the possibility that when Peterson speaks of equality of outcome all he really means is material equality. And let us further assume that there is one accepted definition of this idea, so we will ignore debates of welfare or resources and call it simply “material equality.” I said before that in a certain sense almost every thinker, save for a few extreme ones, believes in equality in one way or another. I also stated that equality is a kind of empty vessel, which begs the question “equal what?” The answer to this must necessarily come from another value. For a libertarian, this is liberty; for a conservative, it might be security. For a socialist, it could be material well-being. But if equality on its own is accepted by all, then it cannot be the source of the disagreement. Everyone will agree that all human beings have the same intrinsic worth, whatever the source of that worth may be. It is those other values that determine what each person is entitled to based on that intrinsic worth, and in so doing, answers the question “equality of what?” So, a socialist and a libertarian do not disagree about equality but about what is owed to each. For a libertarian that is freedom, and for a socialist, it is material well-being—because that is the idea to which each assigns the highest value.
So, if we accept that Peterson only means material equality, what he needs to say is not that equality of opportunity is just and equality of outcome is dangerous. He needs to identify what is the principle to which he assigns the highest value and then make an argument as to why it ought to be pursued over material well-being. I cannot say what that value is for Peterson, but it may very well be liberty, which is not unreasonable. The question of whether liberty or well-being is more fundamental to people is not a trivial one, and one cannot dismiss the idea of material equality unless one can say why material welfare is less essential than any other value. Peterson is not a political theorist; he is a clinical psychologist, so he does not need to engage with any of these debates. But if he is going to act as a political theorist, then he ought to do it by all means.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be followed on Twitter @nestor_d or reached by email at email@example.com.