“This is why Peterson genuinely believes in Dostoevsky’s eminent saying in The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Without God all things are permitted.'”
t has now been just over two years since the first, now-renowned debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, having taken place on June 23, 2018. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of Sam Harris and was not overly familiar with his arguments and ideas. However, Peterson was certainly not unfamiliar to me. Like most fans of Peterson’s during that period, I was well-versed with his ideas, books, and lectures. However, I should admit that when I say well-versed, my understanding of his ideas, at the time, was—it turned out—actually rather superficial. Upon reflection, I see now that I was drawn to Peterson as a character, more than I was drawn to him for his actual ideas.
My interest in Peterson led me to pay a substantial amount of money to see him in my hometown of Amsterdam in 2019. I will say clearly, though, that I do not regret at all this purchase—or the time I have spent interacting with Peterson’s material. As I hopefully made clear in my previous Merion West essay (which I will refer back to again later in this essay), there is no escaping the fact that many of Peterson’s ideas resonate with a great many people . Indeed, his ideas hold merit, despite the considerable degree of critique they receive. However, what many of Peterson’s dedicated fans, I believe, fail to understand is that it is not necessary for Peterson’s ideas to align with their own, personal philosophy. This is to say that, as a fan of Peterson’s, one is not required to—all of the sudden—agree with his thoughts on every matter.
With that said, we should bear in mind that—for many—Peterson has become the entry point or introduction to various academic subjects, including psychology and religion. As I discovered myself, it is crucial for Peterson’s critics not to underestimate or overlook this point.
Nevertheless, my superficial engagement with Peterson’s philosophy at the time led me to view this first debate between Harris and Peterson with a particular bias against Harris. In fact, when it came to any debate that included Peterson, I tended to view Peterson’s opponent as a hostile contributor to the discussion. To some extent, however, this attitude contradicts Peterson’s own Rule 9 in his 2018 book 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos: “Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”
Many of Peterson’s fans also react towards his interviews as I did towards his debates. After watching dozens of terrible interviewers interrogate Peterson, his fans developed a prejudice towards all of his future interviewers. Nearly all of these interviews, though, have something in common; as Peterson describes in 12 Rules, many conversations concerning politics and economics move towards a particular target: hierarchical status. Peterson refers to this kind of conversation as a “dominance-hierarchy conversation.” This refers to a discussion in which one of the participants has the sole objective of “establish[ing] or confirm[ing] his place in the dominance hierarchy.” Peterson continues:
“Almost all discussions involving politics or economics unfold in this manner, with each participant attempting to justify fixed, a priori positions instead of trying to learn something or to adopt a different frame (even for the novelty).”
To this point, some commentators might argue — and have argued (including Peterson himself ) — that Peterson rarely discusses politics. Although I do not believe this to be true, I would argue that his conversations about religion are equally susceptible to the very phenomenon he describes above. As such, just as how a political causes “conservatives and liberals alike [to] believe their positions to be self-evident,” it would be, likewise, the case for theists and atheists. For this reason, I will next discuss the effect Harris—and others—has had on how I presently view some of Peterson’s ideas and why some of Peterson’s absurd ideas (yes, they exist!) lack the qualitative attention and critique they deserve.
Sam Harris: Facts and Values
In Peterson’s opinion, the “new atheists,” such as Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, take our moral rules for granted and do not give credit to the transcendent forces that—for Peterson—gave rise to these ethical systems. Peterson, of course, argues that without the mythological narratives he describes, our ethics (which are, in part, predicated on these stories) do not stand up. In contrast, Harris’ theory touches on David Hume’s “is/ought-problem,” which, in turn, relates to the “fact/value-distinction.” The is/ought-problem suggests that an “ought” cannot be derived from an “is.” This means that a statement about how something is has no bearing on how one ought to behave—or how the world ought to be. An example that is often used to illustrate this is the following: Just because it is possible to murder someone right now should not mean that we ought to murder someone right now. Essentially, Harris is suggesting that the aforementioned “problem” is not an actual problem. Therefore, irrespective of this distinction, Harris sought out to bridge the gap between facts and values, which he describes in greater detail in his 2010 book The Moral Landscape.
In The Moral Landscape, Harris makes clear that his philosophical theory revolves around the concept of “well-being.” Early in the book, Harris outlines three ways by which he believes the fact/value-distinction can be bridged:
- “whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures — which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value — must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large.
- the very idea of ‘objective’ knowledge (i.e. acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.).
- beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains.”
Much like Peterson’s moral philosophy, there have been many criticisms of what Harris proposes. Criticisms include that the first and second ways to bridge the fact/value gap contradict one another. Harris’ first claims that well-being is “the only thing we can reasonably value,” while also suggesting in his second point that “objective knowledge” presupposes values that lack the mark of “well-being.”
Since Harris’ theory focuses on the concept of well-being, one might presume that a consensus exists on what “well-being” entails.
Besides, we should mention that Harris proposes a naturalistic perspective of morality. This term refers to a morality that can be obtained from empirical science and from observing the world around us. Harris has acknowledged that this perspective of morality is susceptible to the naturalistic fallacy: that what occurs in nature is good. But these are the least of his issues. Since Harris’ theory focuses on the concept of well-being, one might presume that a consensus exists on what “well-being” entails. However, this is not the case, and, furthermore, Peterson believes that the term cannot be defined at all. If that were to be the case—and I do not believe it is—it would substantially affect Harris’ thesis.
Many of these issues related to Harris’ moral theory—and more that I have not mentioned—surely hold merit. As such, I would conclude that Harris is partially correct—at least in the sense that well-being can be used to guide our morality (so long it is well-defined). This takes place not objectively but, rather, in a practical sense. For instance, Youtube philosophy commentator Alex O’Connor, who primarily focuses on atheism and animal rights, argues that we can treat our morality as if it is objective, provided that we are aware that its actual base is subjective:
“As long as we can find a point of subjective agreement (however we make that agreement), we can still make practical usage of ethical statements…as long as we bear in mind that they have a little asterisk.”
So, for instance, we can all subjectively agree that avoiding pain would be better for our well-being (and, thus, treating it as if it is an objective moral claim), while keeping this subjective character in mind, in order to be “philosophically consistent,” as O’Connor argues. In other words, we can mutually agree upon the notion that pain should be avoided to improve our well-being. However, this is (and will stay) a subjective claim. Despite this, we can all regard it as objective, such that we can make practical use out of this notion of pain avoidance. Privately, we can agree that any claim about our well-being is, fundamentally, subjective. However, by all agreeing on its subjectivity, we can, hypothetically, treat it as an objective claim with the purpose of using it on a practical level and, in turn, improving our overall well-being. This way we can still apply Harris’ moral theory without suggesting that it is objectively grounded. By this, I mean that we cannot make the assertion that claims concerning well-being are, in and of themselves, objective. We can only treat them as such once we collectively agree on their subjectivity. Bear in mind that this hypothetical approach to morality is certainly not perfect, but I believe it is preferable to relying upon a mythical or religious foundation.
“No, You Are Not An Atheist”
Many may have heard Peterson say that atheists are not what they claim to be (e.g. here or here). Peterson quickly dismisses the actual existence of atheists by arguing that “real atheists” are psychopathic murderers such as the main character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov. In contrast, Peterson portrays the new atheists as still having some sort of God, as well as a religious foundation ; they just will not “admit” this to be true in Peterson’s view. Peterson is essentially making a similar — if not identical — argument to his disagreement with Harris’ Moral Landscape theory. This argument is that a religious or mythical basis for morality arguably has much more influence on Western moral thinking than Harris and his fellow atheists might believe . Furthermore, this foundation cannot easily be dispensed with.
Harris points out, however, that Peterson regularly makes absurd statements (such as the one where Peterson dismisses atheists for what they are) with an equal amount of confidence as when he advertises the “good” statements. This point directly relates to the criticism I laid out in my prior piece on Peterson: that the confidence by which Peterson espouses his ideas—including his bad ones—might cause people to follow him purely on the basis of his personality traits, rather than for what he is arguing. This is different from, for example, Peterson suggesting that women should maybe stop wearing make-up in the workplace in response to the #MeToo movement. The statement was not only presented (and edited) in a deceitful manner but, as Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying observed, Peterson was “thinking, and considering options.” As long as Peterson’s arguments are accurately formulated, I would suggest that we can excuse his “thinking out loud.”
With that said, I might argue that this was not the case when Peterson repeatedly denies the existence of peaceful atheists as a means to substantiate his claims related to the indispensability of our religious and mythical stories. In any case, Peterson keeps highlighting the relationship between Raskolnikov and “atheists”—and how this stance towards religion (as well as morality) could result in the same outcome: committing a murderous crime. For this reason, it is the actions, for Peterson, that characterize the atheist or, rather, the person who is not truly an atheist As Peterson puts it in 12 Rules:
“You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs — those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge.”
In other words — almost literally, since Peterson makes up his own definition of the word “religion” — our actions are, according to Peterson, always backed up by implicit religious axioms. Therefore, according to Peterson, Harris has unknowingly embodied the transcendent values and morality, seeing that Harris is not a psychopathic murderer. This is why Peterson genuinely believes in Dostoevsky’s eminent saying in The Brothers Karamazov: “Without God all things are permitted.” It is as if Peterson assumes that Raskolnikov completely unanticipated the psychological penalty for his actions by “taking his atheism with true seriousness,” as described in 12 Rules.
However, in chapter five of Crime and Punishment, we learn how Raskolnikov was self-informed in some sense, prior to his murder. During a conversation with Porfiry, an official of the investigating department, about crime in general, Raskolnikov learns his article on crime had been published two months before. This article is basically what Raskolnikov used to justify his criminal act.
As Raskolnikov says, “Let’s see now, my article was about the psychological state of a criminal’s mind throughout the entire process of committing his crime, wasn’t it?”
Porfiry responds: “Yes, sir, and you insisted that the enactment of a crime is invariably accompanied by illness. Most, most original, but…that wasn’t actually the part of your little article that interested me so much…”
As opposed to Porfiry, I find this first “principle” of Raskolnikov’s theory the most interesting part. In particular, this is because it suggests that he could have foreseen the illness he would acquire by committing that murder — seeing that he became ill shortly after committing his crime . This can, of course, still mean that he did it for purely selfish reasons; I will grant Peterson that. However, what is to say that we should attribute Raskolnikov’s crime to his atheism? As Harris explains in a conversation with the political commentator Dave Rubin, “atheism is not a philosophy; atheism is nothing.” You could probably say with certainty that some people who commit crimes are, coincidentally, atheists. But generalizing this by implying that Raskolnikov-like crimes have been committed in “the name of atheism” is simply untrue. And, for someone in Peterson’s position, this is a careless thing to say.
On another note, many—including myself—are glad that Peterson made a recent appearance, which might indicate he will soon be healthy enough to refute some of the critical claims that have been made during his absence.
To be clear, I am not asking anyone to disavow Peterson , and I have not done this either. I am merely asking his fans not to idolize him to the point where they do not criticize him when need be. Strangely enough, I received numerous comments on my previous Peterson-related piece, suggesting that there are no “fanatical followers of Jordan Peterson.” But to suggest this is naive. Just as Peterson acquired the title “intellectual rockstar,” he has also acquired the fanbase, with fanatical followers. This, in and of itself, is not an issue—so long as these followers accept concrete feedback about the person they so admire.
Lastly, I would like to discuss Peterson’s approach to the definitions of certain concepts such as truth, religion, belief, etc. Definitional matters have become — or always were — a specialty of Peterson’s, to the extent that he uses them to his benefit during debate. Many—especially his critics—are familiar with this tactic to the point that it became an actual meme where Peterson frequently answers a certain question with: “Well it depends on what you mean by [the concept or term in question].” This particularly applies when Peterson tries to outline his ideas related to religion, as we have seen earlier in Peterson’s rejection of atheism. This is not to take away from the fact that prior to a debate, definitions have to be agreed upon; however, it is something else entirely to alter a definition to one’s own liking.
On another note, many—including myself—are glad that Peterson made a recent appearance, which might indicate he will soon be healthy enough to refute some of the critical claims that have been made during his absence. This does not mean I want to be wrong; rather, it could, undoubtedly, be the case that some of the issues that have been discussed related to Peterson’s philosophy are merely trivial. However, that really depends on what one means by trivial.
Alessandro van den Berg is an economics teacher in the Netherlands.