Jordan Peterson’s Flimsy Philosophy of Life
Peterson’s claims about morality, reality, and the meaning of life are dubious.
Posted February 14, 2018 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is on the bestseller lists, despite the commonplace nature of his rules, which boil down to: stand up for yourself, take care of yourself, make friends, don’t compare yourself to others, mind your children, set your house in order, pursue meaning, tell the truth, listen to people, be precise, give children freedom, and enjoy pets. Part of Peterson’s appeal comes through lively stories from the Bible, fairy tales, his personal life, and his practice as a clinical psychologist.
But many people take Peterson to be wise, not just entertaining, with profound things to say about the nature of morality, reality, and life. These are philosophical topics, so we can ask how well Peterson’s views stand up to philosophical scrutiny.
Peterson’s rules for life are intended to tell people what they ought to do, not just what people actually do. They concern morality, which raises the important philosophical question of the basis of ethics. Peterson’s answer looks to religion, in particular Christianity, as shown in these quotes:
“Even older and deeper than ethics, however, is religion. Religion concerns itself not with (mere) right and wrong but with good and evil themselves—with the archetypes of right and wrong. Religion concerns itself with the domain of value, ultimate value. That is not the scientific domain. It’s not the territory of empirical description.”
“The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). …The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.”
This connection of morality with religion justifies his frequent use of Bible stories such as Adam and Eve in his discussions of how to act.
But philosophers since Plato have recognized many problems with basing ethics on religion. First, different religions have different prescriptions, and Peterson gives no argument why Christianity is morally superior to Islam, Hinduism, or dozens of alternatives. Even within Christianity, there is much disagreement among Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. For morality to be based on religion, you need to be able to make a reasonable decision concerning which religion to choose.
Second, even if one religion could be recognized as superior, it is still legitimate to ask whether its rules are moral or simply arbitrary and odious, like the rule in the Bible’s book of Leviticus that children who curse their parents should be put to death. The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) trace their origins to the horrible story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham could reasonably have inferred that God is evil, or that he himself was hallucinating.
Peterson seems to assume that the only alternatives to religious morality are totalitarian atrocities or despondent nihilism. But secular ethics has flourished since the eighteenth century, with competing approaches such as David Hume’s appreciation of sympathy, Immanuel Kant’s emphasis on rights and duties, and Jeremy Bentham’s recommendation to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. My own preferred basis of ethics is human needs, including both biological needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare) and psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, competence - Ryan & Deci, 2017). Such vital needs are much more crucial to life than subjective wants, and you can be moral by acting to meet the vital needs of yourself and others. You don’t require religion to be a good person.
Moral behavior in a social context demands adjudicating between the rights of individuals and the pressures of groups and organizations such as families and nations. Peterson consistently emphasizes the individual:
“It is possible to transcend slavish adherence to the group and its doctrines and, simultaneously, to avoid the pitfalls of its opposite extreme, nihilism. It is possible, instead, to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience.”
His second rule, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, inverts the Golden Rule in many cultures, which advocates treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.
Peterson’s individualism was evident in the actions that first brought him fame in September, 2016, when he posted a video to YouTube complaining that a new Canadian law would force him to use special pronouns for transgendered people. Bill C-16, which was passed in June, 2017, added the terms “gender identity or expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Code. As a result, hate speech directed at trans and gender non-binary people can be treated in the same way as hate speech concerning race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Legal experts reply that not using preferred pronouns does not constitute hate speech, so Peterson’s objection that his individual freedom of speech was being restricted by Bill C-16 was ill-founded. More threateningly for Peterson, the Ontario Human Rights Commission does say that refusing to refer to a trans person by a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity will likely be discrimination when it takes place in employment, housing and services like education. The justification is that the words people use to describe themselves can affirm identities and challenge discriminatory attitudes.
The deeper issue here is the general question of limitations on free speech. Since the nineteenth century, law and society have recognized that one person’s freedom ends where another’s freedom begins. You do not have the freedom to infringe someone else’s human rights by harassing, threatening, or discriminating against them. Bill C-16 acknowledges that gender identity is as wrong a basis for hateful treatment as race, religion, and sexual preference.
Where do human rights come from? Early views took human rights to be God-given, but the American and French revolutions tied them to human nature. Brian Orend (2002) makes the plausible connection of human rights to the vital needs that people require to function as human beings. Looking after the needs of others sometimes requires people to limit their own, individual freedoms of speech and action. Peterson’s protests about political correctness make it sound that critiques of gender-based mistreatment are artifacts of postmodernism and neo-Marxism. But expanding equal treatment to larger and larger circles has been a valuable part of philosophical and social thought since the eighteenth century. Recognition that transgender people have been subject to harassment and violence justifies extension of human rights protections to them.
A major part of Peterson’s defense of the individual is an argument that inequality and dominance hierarchies are rooted in biological differences, from lobsters up to human men and women. But humans have much bigger brains than lobsters, with 86 billion neurons rather than 100 thousand. In recent centuries, people have been able to recognize that human rights apply across all people, not just to one’s own self, family, race, sex, or nation. Equality does not have to be across all dimensions such as talents, but should cover vital needs, so that everyone has the capability to flourish. Restrictions of individual freedoms in the form of taxation and limitations on harmful speech are then justifiable.
Peterson’s three major metaphysical categories are Being, Order, and Chaos, all glorified with capital letters. By “Being” he does not mean existence, but rather the “lived experience” of existence. He is less interested in the objective world of things studied by science than in the subjective world of experiences and meanings that he thinks is the province of literature, religion, and mythology. Although he cites scientific studies when they support his views of gender, he draws most of his conclusions about the experience of existence from literary sources such as poetry and the Bible.
Peterson says he got his idea of Being as the totality of human experience from Heidegger, but Heidegger did not confuse Being with his more subjective concepts of “Being-there” and “Being-in-the world” (Dreyfus, 1991). Peterson’s use of the term “Being” for the subjective experience of existence causes much confusion, for example when he says that “cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form.” Nature has been around for at least 13.5 billion years, since the Big Bang, but subjective experience has only been around for less than a billion, when animals with nervous systems evolved. Peterson follows anti-science philosophers in assuming that subjective experience can never be explained by objective methods, but progress is being made on developing neuroscientific theories of consciousness. Hence the gap between what exists and people’s experience of it is starting to close.
Peterson’s subtitle is “An Antidote to Chaos”, and the point of his rules is to help people to achieve order. “Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative.” It is “explored territory.” “Chaos, by contrast, is where—or when—something unexpected happens.” It is “all those things and situations we neither know nor understand.” Without justification, he says that order is symbolically masculine while chaos is feminine. Both chaos and order are part of Being in his subjective sense, so they belong to experience of reality rather than to reality itself.
Peterson’s emphasis on order might be taken as part of the traditional conservative emphasis on social order and hierarchy, but he insists he is a classic liberal. His message on order is more personal, that people can benefit by organizing their lives so they are less stressed and anxious. Use of deceptively deep categories of Order and Chaos provides only the illusion of profundity.
The meaning of life is another central philosophical question that Peterson addresses implausibly. He draws on religious sources to insist that “life is suffering”. Even if he were correct that this claim is a tenet of every major religion, it is still implausible. Suffering is unavoidably part of life, because we all have to deal with sickness, loss, and eventually death. But most people also have an abundance of positive experiences such as joy, love, gratitude, pride, serenity, excitement, hope, inspiration, amusement, wonder, and awe.
The major sources of good experiences are love, work, and play, so I would rather identify these as the meaning of life than suffering. These three activities feed directly into satisfying basic psychological needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy, as I argue in my book on The Brain and the Meaning of Life.
Peterson follows the existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard in insisting that the only way to make your life intelligible and avoid chaos is the “act of faith” that “Being can be corrected by becoming”. But there are much better ideas to be gained from philosophy and positive psychology about how to live a valuable life, based on evidence and good theories rather than faith.
Peterson’s allusive style makes critiquing him like trying to nail jelly to a cloud, but I have tried to indicate alternatives to his assumptions about morality, individualism, reality, and the meaning of life. If you go for Christian mythology, narrow-minded individualism, obscure metaphysics, and existentialist angst, then Jordan Peterson is the philosopher for you. But if you prefer evidence and reason, look elsewhere.
All quotes are from the Kindle edition of Peterson 2018.
Dreyfus, H. L. (1991). Being-in-the-world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Orend, B. (2002). Human rights: Concept and context. Peterborough: Broadview.
Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Toronto: Random House Canada.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford.
Thagard, P. (2010). The brain and the meaning of life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Thagard, P. (forthcoming). Natural philosophy: From social brains to knowledge, reality, morality, and beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Fall, 2018.