Jordan Peterson on Inequality and Hierarchies

Dr. Jordan Peterson recently tweeted:

Which inspired this heated discussed on the official Jordan Peterson sub

Although it got a lot of up-votes, I noticed some push back in the comments, and many of these dissenting comments got a lot of up-votes, signifying agreement.

Dr. Peterson’s opinion of hierarchies and inequality can be summed as:

Hierarchies are inevitable, immutable, and underpin society. They also arise spontaneously and cannot be attributed only to social processes, which is why hierarchies also exist in nature. Efforts to reduce inequality are predicted on a flawed understanding of nature and economics, and can lead to great suffering and disaster (as the history of communism has shown).

He’s right on all counts. But he’s possibly also creating a strawman. I don’t think too many people, even liberals, deny the existence of hierarchies and inequality. Oprah is beloved by the left despite being a billionaire and very powerful. So it’s not like liberals are categorically opposed to wealth inequality and hierarchies or deny their existence, and even seem content with them. It would seem rather that the left hates rich, powerful people who don’t share their leftist views, not rich and powerful people in general.

The existence of such hierarchies, although self-evident, does not lend itself to a value system. We know hierarchies are inevitable and they are not a social construct. Now what? But Dr. Peterson does not have an answer, as far as I can tell. No doubt it is awesome to make a lot of money, have a lot of influence, and be at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy as Dr. Peterson has done for himself, but if one views everything through the lens of hierarchies, then that may compromise other values such as ethics and morals, which are agnostic to hierarchies and also important. Also, if one’s singular purpose or self-worth is determined by hierarchies, then given that, by definition, only a small percentage of people can ever be at the top of a hierarchy, that is setting one’s self up for disappointment and failure.

As discussed in an earlier post Moral Nihilism:

Jordan Peterson’s lobster hierarchy system can be an apologia for unethical behavior, if one’s position in a hierarchy is of upmost importance, which to Dr. Peterson it is (or very close). In his best-seller 12 Rules For Life, he outlines a social Darwinist view that the dominance hierarchies (which he sometimes calls hierarchies of competence) underpin society, and such hierarchies that are found in nature (like in lobsters) is evidence of the immutability and inevitably of hierarchies. If humans, like lobsters, have no conceptualization of ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’, then that possibly lends itself to moral nihilism (although one can argue that humans are hard-wired with a sort of intrinsic ‘goodness’ that facilitates cooperation and communication).

Of course, hierarchy and morality need not be mutually exclusive. Someone can be at the top of a hierarchy and still be a virtuous person. Warren Buffett, for example, donating his fortune to fight poverty. But if if one makes it their sole purpose to climb a hierarchy, then it’s harder for virtuosity and ambition to coexist. Imagine a button that if pushed would subject your competitors to a terrible fate, putting you at the top of the hierarchy, and with no consequence. There is zero downside and only upside. The rational choice, economically speaking, is to push the button, but this would also be considered unconscionable. Some people would push the button, but we label such individuals sociopaths. Animals have no purposeful behavior, but humans do, and the complexity of human society necessitates balance between ambition and morality. I don’t think it’s possible to “aim for the highest good,” as Dr. Peterson puts it, while simultaneously trying to boost one’s own ‘lobster ranking’. It’s possible aiming for the highest good may fortuitously boost one’s own social ranking, but it does not when such goodness is not reciprocated or appreciated, which it often isn’t.

The stoics say “virtue is its own reward.” Nietzsche says to make your own morality. Hume says people are “slave of the passions,” and that morality cannot be derived from reason. Kant says one must defer to a ‘categorical imperative.’ I don’t think this problem has a good answer. If you’re as brilliant and lucky (such as his C-16 hearing getting him so much attention) as Dr. Peterson, then one can attain high status without compromising virtuosity, but for average people, there is a bigger trade-off, imho.

Also, it’s not like all hierarchies can be attributed to competence. Saudi oil heirs have a lot of status and wealth but are useless. I’m sure everyone can relate to being surpassed professionally or in other domains by those who are less competent. That is pretty much what the the pointy-headed boss in Dilbert embodies and why the comic strip is popular, because people can relate to it. There is, in the aggregate, a positive correlation between status and competence, but also a ton of examples where this breaks down. But if one equates their status as being perfectly isomorphic to their competence, then when one’s expectations fail to align with reality, the result may be disillusionment.