Ethics of Individuality
A Review of ’12 Rules for Life’ by Jordan B. Peterson
Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand. — Karl Marx
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. — Matthew 7:1–2 ESV
Where the good begins. — Where the poor power of the eye can no longer see the evil impulse as such because it has become too subtle, man posits the realm of goodness; and the feeling that we have now entered the realm of goodness excites all those impulses which had been threatened and limited by the evil impulses, like the feeling of security, of comfort, of benevolence. Hence, the duller the eye, the more extensive the good. Hence the eternal cheerfulness of the common people and of children. Hence the gloominess and grief — akin to a bad conscience — of the great thinkers. — Nietzsche, from The Gay Science
The original review can be found on Goodreads.
If you are reading this most likely you’ve head of Jordan B. Peterson. For many, he is a divisive figure. For many, he shines a light towards a golden future, one which lends itself to hope and social renewal. For others, he signifies a betrayal for society, excusing fascists and other bad behaviors.
In light of this book being pulled from shelves following the recent mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, this book does need some examination since there is nothing in this book that states one should go out to kill anyone.
I’m not here to judge Peterson as a person, but I do want to give an honest assessment of his work, which means being as balanced as I possibly can in consideration of what Peterson aims to say, what he does say, and what he doesn’t say.
If I had read this book 18 months ago, I would have formed a different initial opinion of Jordan Peterson.
However, given his lapses in how he connects things, I believe I would came to the same conclusion as I have now.
Here’s a brief roadmap of this view.
I agree with his foundations on authenticity. I find problematic his exploration of ethics, which can be better explored through why he rejects postmodernism and Nietzsche. Lastly, I contextual Peterson in relation with postmodernism.
I agree with how Peterson advises us to align our inner reality with our outer behavior. He wants us to find emotional and behavioral alignment which requires telling the truth (Rule #8), keeping our house in order and so on (Rule #6).
This kind of guide for authenticity is good because it enables us to develop genuine relationships with others. Only when we know why someone is behaving, when we have an “in” on their lived reality, and they on ours, have we a chance at having an authentic relationship with each other. This is the first requirement to developing relationships — that we interact with who someone is — rather than who they pretend to be. After all, relationships, friends and family, which are what creates for many the meaning of life.
From this point on, I find problems with Peterson, mainly with how he deploys what the self is, who others are to us and how we should interrelate.
After we are authentic, then what is the protocol we should strike to reach with others? What is Peterson’s ethics grounded on?
Peterson equates God with Being. This is not terrible. But, like many Christians, he can’t seem to conceive of an ethics that doesn’t stem from God. God must be the source; that is Peterson doesn’t found this ethics on the other. The only rule that seems to address others, and how to treat them, is Rule #9, which is about listening to others. The rule justifies itself by claiming that we should listen to others because they may know something we don’t. This justification suggests that the value of others is what they know that we don’t, implying that the value of others is their knowledge, not their person, which I find kind of horrific.
Overall the rest of the work speaks mostly about the self, about self-conduct, about self-humility, about self-perception and self-awareness. Peterson justifies this self-driven view of behavior by citing nature. Peterson reduces us lobsters. Peterson claims we are stuck in hierarchies of dominance and submission. While Peterson argues that this hierarchy — which also includes sexual characteristics and other inequities, is natural and therefore wholesome — he also argues that we can transcend this hierarchy if we try (Rule #1). That by cleaning our room and straightening our shoulders we can fool our brains into thinking they are Alpha and then thus, create scenarios of success for the self.
There are two consequences of this. In one motion Peterson reveals that for him, the self and its goals — success — seem to be external markers, such as getting the girl and being recognized as being Alpha. The internal experience is one founded on ancient feelings of pride, dominance and forthright character.
I am simplifying quite a bit. The second consequence is that Peterson grounds his ideas to a deterministic world which he then claims can change.
How does he come about to this conclusion? Well, he’s a practicing clinical psychologist. So I am sure he has helped many people. He is aware of the narcissistic and co-dependent realities of some of his patients, which is why he urges us to find authentic alignment with ourselves and others. Part of developing authenticity requires that we genuinely grapple with the world. He advises us to develop this by standing on our own and taking destiny by the horns. We should seek to strive for a relationship with Chaos, one that is founded on a balance with consciousness.
So far so good. But what seems to be missing is an ethics of the Other. Much of Christian writing requires that we be authentic but also reach out to others. For instance, in the writings of Hegel, who by today’s standards is racist, finds that the the point of Spirit is finding concordance with others.
One doesn’t simply discover that there is a God. For Hegel, God is necessary because only through the mediation of Spirit does one find way to relate to others. Slavoj Žižek adds that this meditation doesn’t need God but it does need some central signification. For Kant this central signification is nationhood. For Levinas, that ethics is founded on an experience of the Other. Regardless, Peterson doesn’t seem to find a need to found any ethics on others, only on God and the self. In fact the word church comes from ecclesia, which refers not to belonging to God but to the collective peoples. As Jesus often put others before him, washing their feet, so Christianity’s message has often been about the impoverished and outcast others.
This is where things become problematic. Why doesn’t Peterson talk about the other?
There are two alternatives that Peterson addresses and dismisses (there may be more, but I will stick with these two since they seem central). The first is heralded by postmodernism. The second is Nietzsche and nihilism.
Perhaps like Joseph Campbell, Jordan B Peterson wants to ground his understanding in a truth as old as human narrative.
I did not expect Peterson to write in the fashion he did. Nor did I expect him to philosophize about as wide a range of topics as he did. He is obviously classically educated. He takes examples from science, philosophy, history, mythology, religious studies and literature. What I found particularly interesting was his take on postmodernism as that exemplifies his blindspot.
In his chapter on sexuality (Rule #11) in which he argues for letting boys be boys (or kids go skateboarding) he interjects for quite a few pages a lengthy diatribe about what postmodernism is and how abhorrent it is. He decides to characterize postmodernism as some weird Marxist derivative that academics used to destroy the natural categorizations created from our lobster derived brains. This view isn’t completely wrong but what is even more interesting is that he then warns us against those who push for single cause explanations, since they are selling some BS. Peterson obviously refers to postmodernists and class struggle as a single cause explanation. But of course, Peterson’s critique can be applied to Peterson as well, since he is demonizing postmodernists as single cause forces which can be easily dismissed.
To be clear, some of Peterson’s complaints about the “postmodernists”, as he calls them, is reductive. And the group he might refer to as being “postmodernists” is somewhat fragmented as they all have different and diverse agendas, many of which are not in alignment with each other. Yet, when seen as a whole, Peterson’s complaint is reminiscent of the right’s complaint about postmodern conspiracies. Peterson seems to have three complaints against postmodernists.
- They are all about power
- Marxism has led to atrocities
- Postmodern doesn’t account for human nature
If we accept Peterson’s view of postmodernism as being valid, it’s also not clear who exactly is grabbing power (academics, LGBTQ — and whatever other letters you’d like to add or subtract, democrats — who appeal to postmodern minority types, corporations looking to govern through diversity and so on). Despite this in-clarity, the first complaint, shifts in power, are not a legitimate reason to dismiss any political point, including “postmodernists”, since all political points deal with assigning power.
This bring us to the second complaint.
Like many philosophers, postmodern and otherwise, Peterson would seek to throw out Marxism because of the loss in human life that has accompanied totalitarian regimes’ enforcement of new distribution of wealth and labor in the name of Marxism and human equality.
Is this a legit standard to reject an idea? If people have used an idea to justify ill behavior, does that mean that idea should be rejected? People have lied in the name of Good. People have stolen in the name of Fairness. People have killed in the name of Christianity and God. The ideas of Jesus or the ideas of Marx are just ideas. Those ideas may have a greater value far beyond what other people have used them to excuse. We all know that the law is often used to hide the truth or to enable those with ill intentions. Just look at what is currently happening with the Mueller report and President Trump. Regardless of what side you are for, pundits on both sides are claiming that the law is being perverted by those with personal intentions!
Furthermore, Peterson’s rejection of Marx is not based on what Marx says. Peterson’s rejection of Marx is based on totalitarian regimes’ history of mass murder. If we reject Marx because the ideas of Marx have being used to justify people doing bad things then we should also reject the concept of nationhood, the concept of manufacturing guns, or the concept of making junk food for profit. I am not sure Peterson would argue for the elimination of all content that could be used to justify or even hide a bad action (this is a little ironic because a national bookstore in New Zealand recently banned 12 Rules for Life).
To reiterate, Peterson has an additional point about cautioning us against being mislead by those who give us simple solutions as reality is far more complex. Postmodernism’s origins itself are highly complex as is the content of postmodernism. Yet when looking at postmodernism, Peterson only allocates a few pages, giving a simple solution to a complex problem.
I don’t mean to say that postmodernism should be vindicated. There are issues with postmodernism that are beyond the scope of this article. The last complaint is particularly strange but it makes sense when you understand that Peterson grounds ethics on Being/God.
Postmodernism is a study of non-standard narratives. If anything, postmodernism explores human nature in a big way. Perhaps what is most threatening about this exploration is that postmodern presents us a historical account by which human narrative is created. Postmodernism suggests that all cultural narratives have a history that have originated from political and economic exploitation. This conclusion is not mutually exclusive from Peterson’s position, but both Peterson and postmodernists who believe identity is wholly constructed seem, at least superficially, at odds with each other.
Postmodernism says that all identity is constructed by human beings, so we should be able to construct our own narratives.
Peterson seeks to justify his viewpoint on the human psyche, seeing the dominant hierarchy’s traditions as being more or less an Edmund Burke-an way of telling us we can’t stop being lobsters.
What does Peterson mean by this?
Even if we can stand up straight and make our own future, which he says we can, he also argues that we can’t. Because any attempt to make a new future will result in a hierarchy that has the same form as the previous hierarchy.
So in that sense, we can synthesize the two views: the postmodern conclusion that we create our own narratives is essentially Peterson’s hierarchical struggle enacted, although I am sure Peterson would reject this reading!
This takes us to Peterson’s objection against Nietzsche.
Peterson’s objection to Nietzsche seems to be founded on a misreading of Nietzsche. Throughout 12 Rules for Life, Peterson references the chaos and loss of meaning that accompanies losing touch with Being/God. Peterson cites Nietzsche as a prime examine of someone who fell into Chaos because he gave up God. For Peterson, Nietzsche is equivalent to nihilism. Yet philosophically Nietzsche isn’t nihilistic, but rather, existential.
The difference between nihilism and existentialism is that nihilism has no meaning whereas existentialism requires that we create our own.
There does seem to also be a curious parallel between Peterson and Nietzsche’s ubermensch. I won’t go into all the details of Nietzsche but Peterson presents a philosophy that has a strong man (God) at the top, and thus gives as our every day challenge, to find ourselves the strong man, to reap the rewards of being a winner. He seems to think that from that vantage point, we can surmise the wealth of the Earth, which should rightfully be ours, as the Alpha.
The main difference though between Peterson and Nietzsche’s ubermensch is that Nietzsche requires of his ubermensch the ability to create a new ethics for a new era. Peterson doesn’t see a need for humans to create ethics, he believes the correct ethics only comes from God, and that we only need to return to what we already know to succeed.
Nietzsche rejects the Christian God, seeing within Jesus a weakness of the slave morality, full of mediocrity and needless sacrifice.
These rejections presents us Peterson’s values. Nietzsche claims that we should find an ethics based on strength, something postmodernism would find illegitimate. Postmodernism (through cultural studies) claims we should find an ethics based on the recognization of the other, something Nietzsche would reject as a slave morality.
Peterson advocates that we all strive to be strong lobsters. Yet he rejects finding ethics anywhere except on God. Curiously however, Peterson stops at advocating any true acknowledgement of the other.
The key difference here is this gap that Peterson has with the other. By not acknowledging others and insisting the dominance is natural, Peterson advocates morality that justifies it as normal to do violence to others — one that excuses it because we are not able to be fully civil, since we are all fighting lobsters. This natural normality can excuse violence through the guise of Christian morality.
We’ve seen how Christianity and wealth are not mutually exclusive. J. D. Rockerfeller, the oil robber baron of the 19th century, was both devoutly Christian and ruthless in business. He devoted schools and money to his faith while he crushed his enemies, citing social darwinism as justification for the purity of his actions.
Peterson looks to be the latest incarnation of this kind of thought, one that both claims for goodness and truth all while excusing harm as being normal.
Granted, Peterson isn’t advocating harming anyone in particular. But if he seeks to provide an aesthetic guidelines for people to live, he could do better than what he has with 12 Rules for Life. Peterson should do well to remember that living an authentic life doesn’t mean doing so in isolation with God but with God among many other people. Faith isn’t just faith in God but also faith in others, many of whom you may never understand.
I say this because Peterson creates a false dichotomy between his order — Being under God — and Chaos. For Peterson there is no middle ground. Either you are Good or you are Evil.
What’s frightening about this is the false dichotomy Peterson sets up: Being under God — and Chaos with no middle ground. Remember how Rule #9 only mentions others in terms of being valued via they know? If there is no middle ground between Order and Chaos then there is no room for faith in people you don’t understand. In Peterson’s world it seems that there can only be Good and Evil, something each of us struggle with. Either Order is preserved or it is destroyed.
Conclusion: Life According to Peterson
What can be forgiven of Peterson, to some degree, is his lack of coherency. I approached the book like a light philosophy manifesto (once I recognized how it was written). After all, many postmodern philosophers seeking a such an encompassing point of view ramble on and on in a circuitous way. This kind of writing happens as early as Hegel (although many others before him could be accused of this as well), but you find it with Derrida or Foucault. What such a mind struggles with is the attempt to precisely (remember rule #10) characterize what is being sad. As such, Peterson gives us material only to highlight the abstract expression of universal relationships within cultural content.
In other words, Peterson does many culturally critical readings. Now, Peterson doesn’t base his readings off class, like a Marxist would, but he does so from a principled dialectical standpoint reminiscent of Marx.
Cultural criticism is a methodology derived from Marx, originally as a practice to highlight ideology within the context of cultural content. Peterson uses this method to highlight “universal” trends in Disney films, like the feminine chaos vs patriarchal order. Not having read Maps of Meaning but having been told in the introduction to 12 Rules for Life that 12 Rules for Life is the easy introduction, I would assume that Peterson uses this methodology often in his exegesis.
Peterson, as a contemporary academic, uses postmodern tools. This is not a surprise. What might be a surprise is that he does so in a generally retro-active manner, one that is structuralist, Christian and Modernist all at the same time. Peterson, however, isn’t without his postmodern liberalisms. He doesn’t find multicultural standards incoherent. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with race or post-colonialism as he doesn’t mention either. Yet he does seem to find postmodern constructivist standards incoherent, in particular, he doesn’t seem to understand the distinction of sex with gender.
Peterson argues that the fixed relationships of male and female throughout history and religion is a sign that male and female relationships are not completely constructed but instead are necessary to a functioning society. In fact, it seems as necessary to Peterson (given his constant reprisal of Chaos and Order, female and male) as a benevolent Christian God whom we must struggle and fight to be dominate under.
This strange lapse in sophistication seems to be central to Peterson’s main rejection of postmodernism. Seeing identity as constructed seems, at least superficially, antithetical with his naturalist God ethos, even though as I have mentioned before, natural and constructed are not mutually exclusive.
Essentially, Peterson can be seen as a academic trained in the tools of postmodernism even as he rejects the postmodern frame. Instead, Peterson seeks to de-validate the postmodern recognition of non-standard narratives as being legitimate. This doesn’t come as a surprise as Peterson only seems to see one narrative as being legitimate, that is, the narrative he constructs in Maps of Meaning.
At this point, the odd thing is, Peterson, as a clinical psychologist, must have seen this kind of behavior before. As his expertise is in clinical psychology, why does not he not return to his expertise to show us how he came to his conclusions? Perhaps he does this in Maps of Meaning. In this work, however, he only seems to find concepts and stories that support his conclusion and he cherry picks these as justification for his conclusions, which is what an ideologue would do. The readings he gives are not self evident. If his purpose is to convince us of his conclusions then he would do better to present a more direct means to convince us.
The only thing I wish Peterson was, was more cognizant of his own assumptions. His ideas, regardless of how useful they are to everyday people — regardless of how his justifications and philosophizations are sophomoric — are also useful to people who don’t care about others. I don’t follow up on the latest news, but if Peterson cared about people as much as he cared about his message, then he should address how people seek to use his philosophy for their own purposes against whatever he wants them to use it for.
It is for this last reason that I think Peterson should be corrected. Not condemned. He is on the right track for many of the things people need to learn to do for themselves, such as self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, self-acknowledgment, emotional self-development and creating greater self-awareness so that we can tell our truth when we are brave enough to find it.
But that isn’t the same as having a real ethics of the other, because a society of selves is not a society at all.
If you are interested in a more emotional dive into Peterson’s work, you can go to my previous article, Status and Society in Jordan Peterson’s Ethics. If this article is of interest, by all means leave feedback (comments, claps, shares and so on are always welcome).