Review of the review: Dr. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

I disagree with some parts of Scott’s review of Jordan Peterson’s latest book, 12 Rules for Life, but it’s still a good review in terms of providing an overview of Dr. Peterson’s philosophy. I unfortunately have not yet read 12 Rules, but I have watched enough of Dr. Peterson’s YouTube lectures to be an ‘expert’ of all things Peterson-related.

Scott starts by praising Dr. Peterson, likening him to C.S. Lewis, so I expected the rest of the post to follow suit:

But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Jordan Peterson is actually good.

The next three paragraphs continue with praise and is one of the best descriptions I have read of Dr. Peterson’s philosophy, which is both prescriptive and descriptive, and how he defies simple categorization:

The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?

 

About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.

 

Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. This isn’t unprecedented – there are always a handful of cult leaders and ideologues making vague promises. But if you join the cult leaders you become a cultist, and if you join the ideologues you become the kind of person Eric Hoffer warned you about. Twelve Rules is something that could, in theory, work for intact human beings. It’s really impressive.

There are a shared set of fundamental beliefs, or what I call shared narratives, for both the left and right, one of which is that modern society is broken at its core. Despite all this technological innovation and materialistic ‘stuff’, people’s lives are still empty. It’s like, how many Netflix choices do you need? You can choose from one of 50 genders for your Facebook profile, as if such choice is supposed to create the illusion of empowerment, but America’s raging opioid epidemic is evidence of limitations of technology, modernity, and consumer choice to be a surrogate for true meaning and fulfillment.

A recurring theme of Dr. Peterson’s lectures is like life is tragic and full of suffering. He says this numerous times in those exact words. His solution is not exhort people to change society through rebellion or protest, but to change one’s self–what he calls to ‘clean your room’. That’s not to say he is completely opposed to activism, as his own life of as a public intellectual who speaks out against ‘social and biological constructivism’ and left-wing ideological zealotry, demonstrates.

But on another level, something about it seems a bit off. Taken literally, wouldn’t this turn you into a negative utilitarian? (I’m not fixated on the “negative” part, maybe Peterson would admit positive utility into his calculus). One person donating a few hundred bucks to the Against Malaria Foundation will prevent suffering more effectively than a hundred people cleaning their rooms and becoming slightly psychologically stronger. I think Peterson is very against utilitarianism, but I’m not really sure why.

Based on what? What if those 100 people whose lives are improved, as a consequence earn more money and thus are able to donate more to charity than had they not heeded Dr. Peterson’s advice. One can formulate a utilitarian argument for not giving to charity; all utilitarianism requires is that one optimize resources in a way that maximizes quality of life; charity is one but not the only way of doing this.

I worry he’s pretending to ground his system in “against suffering” when it suits him, but going back to “vague traditionalist platitudes” once we stop bothering him about the grounding question.

That’s because philosophy, unlike the ‘hard’ sciences, is vague and provisional. It’s not like one can codify a set of rules that is immutable for all circumstances.

The trolley car thought experiment is a basic example of the difficulty of defining ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Is it evil to sacrifice a single life to save five, or evil to let five people perish?

In a widely-followed debate with Sam Harris, Peterson defended a pragmatic notion of Truth: things are True if they help in this project of sorting yourself out and becoming a better person. So God is True, the Bible is True, etc. This awkwardly jars with book-Peterson’s obsessive demand that people tell the truth at all times, which seems to use a definition of Truth which is more reality-focused. If Truth is what helps societies survive and people become better, can’t a devoted Communist say that believing the slogans of the Party will help society and make you a better person?

That’s not all of what Dr. Peterson says; he says to tell the truth–or–at least don’t lie. So if you don’t know what is true, at the very least don’t knowingly disseminate falsehoods [of course, there's always the possibly one can unknowingly dispense falsehoods, as the Iraq War showed]. I agree that I found Dr. Peterson’s definition of truth in the Sam Harris debate to be sorta wishy-washy, but his argument is that Biblical stories are an approximation of truth that are useful for conducting one’s self in society. Is that the same as a truth in the context of a physical science? No, but Peterson’s argument is that ancient people didn’t have modern scientific methods, so these stories were the best approximation of truth, but also these stories still provide valuable lessons for modern times too.

Peterson has a paper on how he defines “meaning”, but it’s not super comprehensible. I think it boils down to his “creating order out of chaos” thing again. But unless you use a purely mathematical definition of “order” where you comb through random bit streams and make them more compressible, that’s not enough. Somebody who strove to kill all blue-eyed people would be acting against entropy, in a sense, but if they felt their life was meaningful it would at best be a sort of artificial wireheaded meaning. What is it that makes you wake up in the morning and reduce a specific patch of chaos into a specific kind of order?

Part of Scott’s problem is he’s trying to hold a philosophy to the same hermetic rigor as a physical science, so when one takes a philosophy to it’s most logically extreme conclusions, yes, it’s not going to make sense. Mathematical models are designed to handle such extremes; philosophies are not. Scott is possibly falling for the reductio ad absurdum fallacy; the fallacy being that if an argument fails when taken to its most extreme logical conclusion, that therefore the entire argument is invalid. This may be true for mathematics (for example, disproof by counterexample), but I don’t think a philosophy can be falsified in a similar manner.

Also, as a nitpick, given that blue eyes are a recessive trait, eliminating blue-eyed people would be increasing entropy, not decreasing it.

What about the most classic case of someone seeking meaning – the person who wants meaning for their suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Peterson talks about this question a lot, but his answers are partial and unsatisfying. Why do bad things happen to good people? “If you work really hard on cultivating yourself, you can have fewer bad things happen to you.” Granted, but why do bad things happen to good people? “If you tried to ignore all bad things and shelter yourself from them, you would be weak and contemptible.” Sure, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Suffering makes us stronger, and then we can use that strength to help others.”

Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. This suggests that badness is independent of the intrinsic qualities of whomever the badness is inflicted upon. Dr. Peterson acknowledges this unfairness, but this disagreement on Scott’s part, again, is due to fallaciously holding a philosophy the same rigor as a physical science. A simgle counterexample or loose-end is sufficient to disprove a mathematical proof, but not a philosophy.

But, on the broader scale, why do bad things happen to good people? “The mindset that demands no bad thing ever happen will inevitably lead to totalitarianism.” Okay, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Uh, look, a neo-Marxist transgender lobster! Quick, catch it before it gets away!”

This seems like a deliberate misconstruction of Dr. Peterson’s views, almost as a joke I suppose, but it seems really uncharitable. The lobster analogy has nothing to do with sexuality but more to do with social hierarchies and how lobsters supposedly have a dominance hierarchy similar to that of humans. PZ Myers disagrees strongly with this interpretation, and it’s possible Peterson is committing appeal to nature fallacy. Dr. Peterson has nothing against transgender people; rather, he is opposed to the government mandating language use.

If you understand your role in the great cosmic drama, which is as a hero-figure transforming chaos into order, then you’ll do the things you know are right, be at one with yourself, and be happier, more productive, and less susceptible to totalitarianism.

Dr. Peterson says to aim for the highest good. He makes no assurances one will get there. The alternative he argues is hell, so the best option is to always aim for the good. Things may be bad, but at least don’t make them worse.

However, one can also argue that Dr. Peterson’s emphasis on hierarchies of competence can be used to justify sociopathy and deception, which is the opposite of goodness. If one’s position in society is ‘just deserts’, then how one attains their position in the dominance hierarchy is secondary to attaining dominance, because all positions in the hierarchy are purely manifestations of competence and not moral character or lack thereof, or other characteristics.

I think Nietzsche was right – you can’t just take God out of the narrative and pretend the whole moral metastructure still holds. It doesn’t. JP himself somehow manages to say Nietzsche was right, lament the collapse, then proceed to try to salvage the situation with a metaphorical fluff God.

As retold by Dr. Peterson, Nietzsche prophesied that eliminating god would result in great suffering, and was proved correct with the rise of communism. Dr. Peterson argues that Nietzsche gives a compelling argument against god, but opposes his ubermensch idealization as a substitute for god, so it’s not like there is complete agreement.

Overall, Scott is mostly right about Dr. Peterson. But I think at times holds his philosophy to a standard that no philosophy can ever attain. Dr. Peterson’s ideas are approximations of truth, providing a groundwork for how one should behave, which is pretty much what one can expect from a normative approach.