Last week in his Stoicism Today article Justin Vacula (the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast) stated that “there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson”. He was also right in saying that various members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group (led by our very own Donald Robertson) frequently share work from Jordan Peterson and are left wondering if he is a Stoic. In a response to Justin’s article (and the various comments that ensued on this blog and elsewhere in social media), we want to present our take on the likenesses between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy and that of Stoicism.
To do this, we explore some similarities and ask whether they are real or superficial. Perhaps the Stoics were just as interested as Peterson and his followers in antidotes to chaos. Perhaps, any resemblances are merely coincidental.
In order to unpack the parallels and divergences properly, it is first necessary to address an all too common misconception that “Stoic”, with a capital S, is a person that practices or adheres to being emotionally “stoic”. Whilst the philosophy certainly teaches the importance of resilience, the governing of one’s emotions and the value obtained in understanding the role of luck, it also emphasises virtue. In fact, the most fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that virtue, as made manifest in justice, courage, self-control and wisdom, is the only true good. This is because it is, in the Stoic sense, the only path that leads to a harmonious sense of happiness.
So with definitions out of the way, where do Peterson and his ideas fit onto the Stoic spectrum? For evidence, one can certainly point, as Justin did last week, to his cool demeanour in uncomfortable interviews, including the infamously hostile one directed by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman. One could also highlight his sense of calm during politically loaded conversations on national media with his own colleagues, following the C-16 amendment bill and the ensuing gender neutral pronoun scandal.
Leo and I, as two Stoic researchers, would even argue that it was Peterson’s stoicism in the face of an international news frenzy that catapulted him to the highest echelons of fame in the first place. Undoubtedly, his emotional detachment in the face of severe public scrutiny is something that the Stoics would have admired. Likewise, his sense of purpose to connect with and be a model (particularly) for young men intent of getting their life together, and the celebration of their achievements when they do, mirrors certain elements of what we would refer to, in modern times, as the Ancient Stoic pedagogical method.
In terms of his written work, we agree with Justin that Peterson’s widely successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos makes for markedly Stoic reading when it comes to his views on death, suffering, pain and anxiety. As with the Stoics, Peterson balances such realities by reminding the reader to develop character and take responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, instead of longing for superficial happiness. For instance, Seneca says in On Providence:
God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.
Peterson’s criticism of “post-modernist” relativism is also a view that the ancient and modern Stoics would subscribe to. In fact, the Ancient Stoics were very much involved in these kinds of arguments against the relativists of their day – the Academic Sceptics. This philosophical school held that a wise person would never assent to anything erroneously, precisely because they would hold zero beliefs. This absence of belief was necessary, in their mind, because human beings cannot know if anything is really true, nor have any reason to believe something is true. In contrast, a Stoic, similarly to Jordan Peterson, would maintain that some things cannot be mere opinion, because there are facts that correspond to reality. Thus, where there are conflicting views, both may be wrong or one is right and the other wrong but, most definitely, they cannot be both right! Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was recorded to have said as much when he pointed out that the relativist Academics argue one thing and do something else.
Where the Stoics and Peterson’s philosophy significantly part ways is linked to how one identifies and solves inequality. This was not picked up by Justin and was one of the reasons why his article came under fire.
Consequently, we would like to emphasise, to fellow Stoics and Peterson fans alike, that under a Stoic framework, it is not sufficient to state, as Peterson does in his interview with Richard Fidler, that hierarchy and equality is something that our nervous system is designed to deal with and adjusted to.
A simple counter argument of Peterson’s “natural” argument, based on the existence of, and access to, vaccinations and medicine already demonstrates that despite the fact that bacteria and disease has evolved alongside us and that our immune system has been designed to deal with them both, we have learned to override natural processes. In other words, humanity has not consigned matters of health to the “survival of the fittest”. Instead, we have used science to increase our knowledge and reduce uncertainty. We have built in societal structures to help us care for those who fall sick. In short, we have learnt to do better.
Incidentally, this is a view that Peterson will most likely agree with, given his favouring of the more socialistic form of health care available in Canada, over the privatised version operating in the US. So, why not likewise advocate for and develop structural mechanisms that re-address biological factors of inequality, so that more people can prosper?
Stoicism can offer some insight into how we may advocate for the virtue of justice. As a philosophy it is as political as much as it is personal and it does, for example, lend itself well to political activism. For Stoics, the view presented by Peterson regarding the Leftist Marxist agenda versus the Right-wing Capitalist is a false dichotomy. Marxism should not be rejected outright, nor capitalism necessarily preferred. After all reason, or rational thought, has no political wing. As we explained in our Daily Stoic article, the Stoic progressor (and Sage) must always advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, grounded in facts. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. That said Stoics should strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This echoes Cicero’s argument in De officiis that:
for one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions.
Cicero’s viewpoint does not necessarily take away from Peterson’s claims that disparity between groups is natural because it is Darwinian in origin. However, it does mean that a Stoic should promote a more progressive stance because there are other elements at play, including luck. In addition, as we argue (alongside Greg Sadler and Chris Gill) in our open access paper, it is the human ability to communicate and corporate which makes us uniquely capable, among all other living species, of societal development. Others such as Jeremy Lent, in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus also make convincing arguments that it is our cooperative, rather than our competitive, ability that yields a greater Darwinian advantage, as evidenced by our successful (although not necessarily reasonable) domination of the planet.
The gender pay gap, a phenomena Peterson actively denies, can also be dealt with by looking into the nuances of the argument. For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time. What is unclear, and here lies the nuance of Peterson’s argument, is whether income disparity linked to cognitive skills and behavioural traits, should be used to justify women’s lower salaries or hinder their professional progression.
Stoics might reflect on why the capitalist job market prefers “masculine” behaviour. They would also bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour. When women adopt more aggressive strategies they are judged, in a negative sense, to be anti-female and domineering. They are certainly not promoted as archetypal women. A man on the other hand, is typically rewarded and championed for being strong. This kind of language is present in Peterson’s book, where he considers male bravado and daring to be “courageous”. Would he judge a woman by the same standards? If the answer is no, then Stoics would have grounds to suggest that the gender pay gap has more to do with gender, and how children are socialised into a gender role, than any particular given behavioural trait.
Such issues are not easy to address but do, to some extent, explain certain elements of the pay gap. They are also indicative of what needs to change in society, so we can collectively reduce any disparity in pay where it does, or potentially could, occur. One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not.
Likewise, Stoicism’s acceptance that knowledge must be based on science, and not merely conjecture, can be used to demonstrate where Peterson’s dismissal of the possibility of more than two sexes is erroneous, if, for example, chromosomal pairs are used to define if a person is male or female. Seemingly unbeknown to Peterson, there are some individuals that do not, in fact, fall neatly into the gender binary with the common Kleinefelter Syndrome (one or two born per 1000 live male births), resulting in a person possessing two female chromosomes (XX) and one male chromosome (Y). If a biological male possesses XY, and a female XX, then a person with three chromosomes is neither male nor female in the biologically or socially conventional sense. However, it isn’t just chromosomes that determine sex, so ascribing gender in a relative simplistic way, based on what a person looks likes, whilst suitable in most cases, lacks scientific rigour. It also, according to an article in Nature, ignores a lot of biological factors that determine not just physical sex but also gender identity.
Given these facts, it is very likely that a Stoic would advocate for the gender neutral term “they” to address a person who does not have a clearly ascribed sex and who requires time to process their condition. Peterson, in adopting a more Stoic position, would then need to concede the use of “they” on scientific grounds. Furthermore, and as a Stoic aside, if one considers the importance of grammar in the Ancient teachings, Peterson’s issue that the use of “they” in the singular would only generate confusion loses credibility when one considers that the word “they” is used to refer to sports teams (where it does not mean the individuals that make up the team, but rather the team as a single entity). In addition, the word “you” in the English language does not distinguish between the collective (you all) and the addressing of a specific person. It relies on context or the speaker’s clarification. The question for a Stoic, once the issue of being understood is dealt with, comes down to, would a modified use in a pronoun reflect reality and result in progress towards socially just acts? The answer is “yes” on both accounts.
Despite these discrepancies, Peterson’s ideas appeal to millions of people. In our opinion, and as Justin rightly identifies, some of the 12 Laws draw interesting parallels with Stoic thoughts and practices. A great deal of Peterson’s work, although not Stoic in intent, is certainly not un-stoic. His Stoic elements have, undoubtedly, improved the lives of countless individuals by making them more responsible and resilient. They have turned people’s attention away from the pursuit of momentary happiness and directed them towards the search for the life well-lived.
In short, Jordan Peterson has worked hard to change many people’s worlds for the better and, perhaps, if he were more Stoic-leaning, he could open up the invitation to those currently alienated by his ideas. At the same time, the tension between the left and right political agenda would be replaced with more progressive values.
Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable materials and Stoicism. He will be speaking at Stoicon 2018. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting.
Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.
Many thanks to Greg, Justin, Kai and Leonidas for the important debate about Jordan Peterson. He presents an issue that modern Stoics need to confront, given the controversy surrounding him and the striking parallels between his philosophy and ours (right down to the predominantly male following).
The similarity between Peterson and the Stoics is what first drew my attention to him. And I have since delved fairly deeply into his writings, lectures, YouTube presentations, interviews, and the criticism surrounding him. His May 17 interview with the BBC’s Daily Politics program — https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0b3kq88/daily-politics-17052018 — is well worth watching for anyone interested in a calm, reasoned discussion. (Yes, such things still exist!)
For what it’s worth, I came to the following conclusions (after setting aside my reactive mind): Peterson is a traditionalist, who believes the Western canon that created the modern world and its conception of individual liberty have been placed in peril by the intellectual prejudices of our time; he appears to have acquired many of his Stoic strains from Nietzsche rather than from Stoic authors; he thinks that gender differences are biologically based, not socially constructed; and he fears that the identity politics driving much of the incivility in modern public discourse is a danger to freedom of speech. In fact, his position about gender pronouns is mainly an expression of his opposition to the compelled speech requirements that he says are now embedded in Canadian law.
His railings against Postmodern Neo-Marxism spring straight from his rejection of Canadian Bill C-16 and the attacks that he has faced. This opposition to the “Radical Left” made him a darling of the Right. But he has since warned against the danger posed by political ideology of all stripes and has criticized Rightwing ideology in interviews with some of its main practitioners: Glenn Beck, Steve Doocy and … I believe … Papa Bear O’Reilly.
The most highly charged attacks against him are unwarranted. But there is plenty of room for doubt and criticism.
I’ve got two main criticisms.
First, his remarks and his writings don’t always seem to be so well thought out, and so he may be a bit muddled and prone to going off half-cocked. This could account for the substantial number of contradictory statements that emerge from his lectures and interviews. Thus, he might need to take his own advice and get his own house in perfect order.
Second, it’s hard to get past the notion that he decided to pursue fame and fortune by becoming a showman, and that he is deliberately using notoriety to advance his commercial interests. This would not be the greatest of modern sins. But if true, it would not make him an admirable figure, either.
As the frenzy surrounding Peterson dissipates over the coming months and years, I hope that we Stoics find him to be a worthy fellow traveler. But the jury is likely to be out for quite some time.
That was quite a thoughtful and interesting response, David. Thank you!
I don’t agree with the suggestion that it’s wrong for Peterson to use his fame for commercial gain. Peterson is using the money he is donated to further his research and help people. It seems like a very noble cause to me. He is trying to help people as therapists tend to do. By the way, to add in a bit of irony; at the end of this article, modernstoicism.com are looking for a donation to further their goals etc. Maybe Peterson got the idea from the stoics! !
Thank you Kai and Leonidas for this article what raises many issues relevant to modern Stoicism. I think one of the most atttactive features of modern Stoicism is its non sectarian nature, for example it’s ability to encomass both religious believers, atheists and pantheists. I hope this cosmopolitanism can extend to politics and the increasing fractiousness between Left and
Right. However I do think that while a range of political views are compatible with being a Stoic, not all are. Clearly being a Nazi is not compatible with being a Stoic and I would argue that being a Marxist is not either given the latter’s prioritisation of equality over freedom. However, leaving politics aside and focusing just on philosophical issues, it seems to me that the major failing of modern Stoicism is it’s failure to critique the dominant philosophical positions today which are culturally very influential. Specifically I am referring to post modernism and the anti-rational and anti-scientific beliefs that this has created. Unlike the robust debate between schools of philosophy in the Ancient World, in the modern world we see no battle being taken to these positions. Modern Stoicism operates inside its own bubble. I believe that much modern philosophy and popular pseudo-science is incompatible with Stoicism. For example the denial of human nature which science tells us both exists and is largely determined by genetics and evolution. Stoics should make common cause with modernists, scientists and all influenced by the Enlightenment against these nihilistic Western philosophical influences.
Peter, thank you for your comment. The problem at the moment is that the number of Stoic philosophers is small. I myself do my Stoic research in the evenings and weekends, as does Leo because of the limited funding for our research. Since I have become Stoic, I have worked hard to extend what Stoicism means in a modern context and I am committed to making my work open access, where possible. e.g. http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/7/2/39/htm & http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/474/htm
I also make it a point to answer queries and comments on my Sundays :). I get paid to do environmental work, Leo gets paid to teach… I promise you that if there were funding for Stoic projects we would be more active in doing what you request. Unfortunately, that is the nature of academia… any ideas?? 🙂
The definition of male and female in this article is scientifically incorrect (Gender studies does not qualify as science.). Peterson follows correctly the genetic definition that one Y-chromosome defines a Homo sapiens as male independent from the number of X-chromosomes. What is relevant is the presence or absence of the Testis Determining Factor (TDF) located on the Y-chromosome. This gene is present as long as there is one Y-chromosome. The number of additional X chromosomes is irrelevant. Therefore a XXY person is male, not half male, half female. The X chromosome is irrelevant for the determination of the sex. It carries however essential genes for survival. This is why a Y-only embryo cannot develop or survive. It is not the second X that makes a female; it is the absence of the Y chromosome and the TDF.
The pronoun “you” in the English language is actually plural. The correct second person singular is “thou”. The general use of “you” to address even individuals comes from the Middle Ages where the pluralis maiestatis was used to address a nobleman. With the emancipation of the common class this plural form was also used to address commoners in a polite way. Therefore the singular form “thou” fell finally out of use in the 20th century. This lack of distinctions in the English language (just like the differences between yes/yea and no/nay) have made the language increasingly inaccurate. It is certainly not helpful and illogical to contribute to a further deterioration of the English language. If this unfortunate trend continues in vernacular languages they may soon become useless for scientific correct and precise communication, and we might be forced to abandon English for this purpose at all and return to dead languages (e.g. Latin) for scientific and technical use, since they are not subject to modern trends and political correctness that make the language inconsistent and to large parts incomprehensible. The use of proper language is essential for Stoic philosophy and philosophy in general. Peterson has a strong argument here. The article above has not.
Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Mortran!
Los estoicos antiguos cuidaron mucho el estudio del lenguaje (Logos), por lo que les debemos el inicio de la gramática, además de la lógica de predicados. El Logos, para los primeros maestros de la Stoa, tiene poder creador (no olvidemos que los primeros maestros son fenicios, y su concepto del Logos es distinto del concepto griego).
Hola Carlos, muchas gracias por enviar un comentario en español. Es bueno ver pensamientos de personas diferentes a la lengua inglesa. El “logos” en el cristianismo es la palabra, dado que en “el principio fue el logos y el logos era con Dios y era Dios” según el evangelio de Juan. El logos en el estoicismo hace referencia a “la chispa de Zeus”. Explicamos este concepto en el siguiente artículo de acceso libre: http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/7/2/39/htm
En caso que necesites más información, puedes responder aquí.
Thank you Mortran for reading and commenting. The definition here is not from gender studies and I am rather surprised that you come to that conclusion. Rather, our definition, reflects biology, advancements in genetics, endocrinology and psychology. Did you read the article in Nature that we referred to: https://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943 ? I am wiling to discuss definitions if you refer me to a scientific journal article or medical piece written by an expert in the field. I agree with Peterson that gender studies is not a science, so it’s a straw man argument to attack our piece on such grounds.
I am not contributing to a deterioration of language, I am reflecting the reality of modern usage. If we use Latin to express ourselves we might struggle in modern scientific fields that contains words that a Latin speaker never needed to communicate. Are you against using the word “selfie”? We already had a way to express the taking of one’s own portrait. Language is simply a way to convey meaning and we should not preserve it for historical purposes. Also why Latin? Many of our words in science stem from Latin anyway. I really do not see the validity of your argument. I appreciate your concern though, and I know for example that Iceland is very careful with the way language is introduced, as are the Spanish speaking countries and France. Unfortunately, perhaps, English is the world’s working language and “they” has become acceptable. I think we were sufficiently able to communicate our reasoning for Stoic purposes…
That’s easy. Not much. The Stoics respected Socrates as one of their sages, who when declared the wisest of men by the Oracle of Delphi his response was ” I know one thing that I know nothing”. Paterson is a media created “guru”celebrity arrogant and full of his own self-importance. A social media “influencer” perhaps. A stoic, well no, not even close. But to be fair to him perhaps he doesn’t care to be one. That is because he lacks the stoic virtues. I highly recommend “In praise of folly” for him by Erasmus.
Hi Edward, did you see Massimo’s follow-up to this article? http://modernstoicism.com/nope-jordan-peterson-aint-no-stoic-by-massimo-pigliucci/
Does it align closer to your thoughts?
Dear friends, Important to point out that, firstly, scientific principles do not have any application in many of the areas where we need to reflect on what constitutes virtuous action and even in those areas where its principles do have use in terms of our reasoning process those principles will inform us as regards understanding of the process or outcome of any action rather than its correctness.
It is very common for those wishing to claim correctness of an action to utilise science to support it in some way. Most humans stop thinking at this point because most of us will not have expertise in the often complex scientific field involved. This will often achieve the outcome desired by the speaker or author, assent to their position, on the basis of what (given that the scientific method is value neutral) can only be a deliberate falsehood which remains unexamined through “lack of knowledge”.
This system of argument (referral to an authority beyond the understanding of the listener or reader) such as religious doctrine, national interest, scientific reasoning, has been used by despots, theologians of all stripes, politicians and diverse authority figures to justify their moral positions on all kinds of nefarious nastiness over recorded history.
Please do not align our philosophical doctrine of interrogating appearances carefully and quietly by all means at our disposal to the scientific method or “science” as this is only one of the components of our multifaceted reasoning process. More concerning still, please do not misapprehend such devious referral to unknown authority of any kind as a valid system of argument as it often is not.
Firstly, I do appreciate your concerns regarding the misuse of science or the use of science to justify all means. Just think of the atomic bomb and the issues raised by Rachel Carson in her excellent book Silent Spring.
I think the problem is not science itself but rather (as with economics or politics or even say “love”) is how we use it to create and communicate meaning. This is why Leo and I have personally committed to putting our Stoic material in open access, in blogs or in newspapers where we can all read together and debate in a Socratic fashion. If I were against philosophy and the meaning it provides me to navigate the world, I would not have become a Stoic researcher. My main work is environmental science, sustainable materials and energy. I do realise that if we do not understand philosophy than our science can cause problems. If you want to know my more typical work, see here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/plastic-waste-carbon-emissions-pollution-manufacturing-everyday-products-a8366071.html
In this sense, I think we are in agreement – I don’t imagine you are against science per se but rather against a Sam Harris view regarding the values we can derive from science.
Industrial hemp is making a comeback! And so is Stoic philosophy! Great times we live in, though let’s not make fortune our guide.
The most problematic thing about Peterson, it seems to me, is that he has been consumed by the tribalism which has lately begun to drown all reasonable and rational debate. It’s fair to say he’s not entirely responsible for this, being overcome by the zeitgeist to a certain extent, although it’s also fair to say he has identified an opportunity to profit from it (as most people would, and do, in similar circumstances). It’s increasingly difficult to separate Peterson the individual from Peterson the cultural identifier, and this is problematic because cultural tribalism relies on fixed absolutes which are not conducive to debate or growth. The object of tribalism is not to learn from others and improve upon existing ideas, but to defeat and ultimately destroy or assimilate all enemies. Ideological followers and opponents of Petersen tend to be unaware of their own ideological leanings, in many cases, but might think to pause at the burning sense of emotion which rises in their gut upon reading an article such as this. Step back from the ludicrous notion that an individual is either right or wrong, good or evil, the bringer of remedies or ills. This seems to me a road to madness, this need to “win” the revolution of ideas and labels and personalities. We imbue these personalities with totemic significance and a purity of purpose which far outweighs their human fallibility and ignorance. They are our anointed champions in the ultimate struggle to be “right” about everything which matters. But we are all fallible, we are all ignorant, and everything we know may be wrong. Of course, as John Lennon said, every revolution seems to end with a cult of personality, so perhaps we are nearing the end of this one. Good.
Thank you Bob for this well-thought out comment. I could not agree with you more :). Maybe we are brothers!! I would love your opinion on this piece released in Canada’s Star: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/2018/05/25/i-was-jordan-petersons-strongest-supporter-now-i-think-hes-dangerous.html
Once I read your mew comments, I will share you mine! Naughty I know :). Thanks in advance!
A very insightful read. Fair criticism and praise where it needed to be.
On a side note, the gender pay gap could easily be solved via a tiered, transparent pay system such as is used with some , if not all, federal jobs. But that might be too much for society to handle in this day and age…
Thank you Dennis. We did try to be as balanced as possible. I agree with you completely that we could solve any potential or perceived pay gap overnight with a tiered and transparent pay system such as they use in public jobs, including the military and teaching positions. Many people who deny the existence of the gender pay gap should at least concede that even the perception of one can be very damaging to social cohesion. If we can avoid a problem with such a simple practical procedure, then why not? 🙂
Thank you for this article. It was one of the few attempts I’ve seen that actually assesses Peterson’s ideas. I do have a number of critiques, however, stemming primarily from my concern that his views have been quite substantially misrepresented or misunderstood. (Granted, the details of his views are somewhat difficult to pin down, because they’re largely unwritten, and because they do seem to evolve and become more refined over time.)
First, I think Peterson’s claims about hierarchies have been misunderstood (and not just here). He has said many, many times that hierarchies are inevitable because whenever something is regarded as valuable, there will inevitably be a natural distribution across individuals in the capacity to attain or do (or whatever) that valuable thing. Of course, there are many things we consider valuable. So it follows, which he has likewise said on multiple occasions, that there will be many different hierarchies. In other words, there is inequality within hierarchies (by definition, really), but people will likely occupy different places in all the different hierarchies in which they are a part.
However, this article discusses “inequality” rather than “inequalities”. And I assume, from both the context and the nature of most public discourse on the subject, that we are talking primarily, if not strictly, about economic inequality. I want to raise two concerns here. First, it strikes me as deeply un-Stoic to be concerned about economic well-being above all else. (Granted, they might have something to say about this as a matter of justice, but then they might be quick to point out that virtually all people in the Western world occupy the global top 1%, and so excessive concern for the Western working class might, from a global perspective, be seen as deeply unjust.) I would think they would be more concerned about wisdom and courage, of which, they might add, greater wealth seems to be more a hindrance than a help.
Second, and closer to Peterson’s point, it’s not at all obvious that where one places within one’s variety of hierarchies is determinative of where one places within the larger economic hierarchy. So, at the very least, I don’t see how the authors can leap to the claim that Peterson is unconcerned with redressing inequality. Importantly, he has also stated on numerous occasions that he thinks income inequality is a much bigger problem than the political left thinks; it’s not, in his view, an issue of unfairness per se, but rather that it indicates that too many people are unable to climb their various hierarchies, which leads them to becoming resentful and distrustful of the system(s), which historically leads to political instability and violent conflict.
His critique of the goal of “ending income inequality” seems to be twofold: first, it risks disrupting the reward structures of hierarchies, making those hierarchies dysfunctional with respect to identifying and incentivizing skill and competence, and leaving all of us worse off as a result; and second, because our emotions are in part regulated by our movement towards and accomplishment of goals, eliminating hierarchies risks disrupting our emotional regulation, with all the downstream effects on mental and physical health that that entails.
In other words: A certain degree of inequality is necessary because it allows us to form goals and work towards them. This is good for us as individuals (it makes us feel good to accomplish something) and good for society at large (our skills are utilized for the benefit of others). Too much inequality indicates that too many people are unable to climb hierarchies, which is bad for them (since they do not have goals or cannot attain them) and bad for society (since competent people are unable to provide their services). Eliminating hierarchies altogether addresses neither of those problems. The correct solution is to reduce (but not eliminate) inequality, which, especially for a crucially important public policy measure, should be done wisely.
This is why Peterson favours public healthcare: It is one of the few public policies that reduces inequality (since the worst off always have that safety net), strengthens the functioning of hierarchies (since it correlates with higher levels of entrepreneurship, presumably because taking those risks does not also risk the loss of health insurance), and is economically sustainable (since it is actually cheaper for society than private health insurance). It is also one of the only forms of income redistribution where the rich benefit, since they too have access to the healthcare, but also benefit from a healthier workforce.
So, to claim that maybe Peterson doesn’t think we can overcome our nature is just terribly uncharitable; it’s rooted in a complete misunderstanding of his arguments. In the context of his work as a whole, it begins to verge on the absurd. His whole body of work could be summed up as an effort to teach how to develop one’s character in order to overcome all the terrible parts of one’s nature.
Most of the above is also relevant to the discussion of the “gender pay gap”. But I should add a few additional points. First, the article suggests that Peterson’s view is that women earn less because of differences in cognitive skills and behavioural traits. This is very misleading. To begin, he’s stated correctly on multiple occasions that men and women have the same IQ on average, and that while the range is larger for men than women, this alone couldn’t have any bearing on average salaries. So much for the cognitive skills issue. Now on to behavioural traits. We need to make an important distinction here. Behavioural traits are relevant with respect to what fields a person pursues, and also how one fares and is rewarded in the workplace itself.
On the first issue, Peterson has correctly pointed out that women score significantly higher than men, on average, on trait agreeableness, which largely explains why women dominate in fields where close interpersonal relations are crucial (e.g. medicine, nursing, education, social work). In a recent interview, when asked why those professions are typically paid much less than fields where men dominate (e.g. finance, engineering, computer science), he suggested that interpersonal skills, unlike skills involved in working with objects, are not scalable. That is, you can sell certain goods and services to more and more people, but there are only so many one-to-one human connections you can have in a day. That might not be a complete explanation, but it strikes me as at least a plausible partial explanation.
The second issue is what traits are rewarded in workplaces. This article correctly notes that certain “masculine” traits are most readily rewarded. In particular, Peterson has claimed many times that women are often at a disadvantage in salary negotiations, in particular, due to the higher trait agreeableness. (As an important aside, he has also discussed at length how much work he has done in his clinical practice in assertive training, which he says has helped his female clients triple their salaries in less than two years. So if women are, on average, disadvantaged, they can certainly overcome their nature, so to speak, to level the playing field.)
This article suggests that perhaps more “masculine” traits, like assertiveness, should not be better rewarded. Ironically, this is what James Damore argued in his infamous Google memo, and he was fired and widely condemned in the popular press for “promoting harmful gender stereotypes.” Go figure. In any case, I have not heard Peterson say anything about this particular suggestion, though he was extremely supportive of Damore and his memo, so perhaps some inferences may be drawn.
As an aside, I should also point out that the Huffington Post article referenced on the matter of double standards between male and female behaviour is not particularly helpful here. It ultimately refers back to this study (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281393958_One_Angry_Woman_Anger_Expression_Increases_Influence_for_Men_but_Decreases_Influence_for_Women_During_Group_Deliberation) which looks only at displays of anger in group settings in jury deliberations. There’s no evidence that these findings would hold for workplace settings, one-on-one communications, and/or displays of other emotions. A plausible, non-identity politics hypothesis is that gender-stereotypical behaviour is more accepted or rewarded than non-stereotypical behaviour. For instance, apparently 41% of women cry at work (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/03/lean-in-to-crying-at-work/474075/). Perhaps women are treated worse; but perhaps it’s simply more acceptable than for men to cry at work.
Okay, now on to the matter of intersex. I haven’t actually heard Peterson say much on this, so I will limit my comments to a response to what is claimed in the article. First, how we categorize the sexes is a philosophical matter, not a scientific one. One could reasonably decide to say that sex is determined by chromosomes, as suggested here, but of course, trans people would not be too happy about that. I also think it is also an arbitrary criterion; why chromosomes? Whatever case could be made for this, I doubt it has any more fundamental principle it could rest on. Biological taxonomy tends to lean more toward capturing statistical regularities (as the male-female sex dichotomy does) than capturing what are typically considered genetic abnormalities. We wouldn’t, for instance, insist that humans aren’t really bipedal simply because some tiny percentage of people are born without two legs.
Peterson is well aware of the existence of people with neither XX or XY chromosomes. I think he’s not interested in revisiting how we conceptualize biological sex because, as a clinical psychologist, he is extremely skeptical about how such efforts could do anything to improve the lives of intersex people (if that’s what this is even about). I think this is actually very Stoic of him. What would the Stoics counsel to an intersex person who was bothered about their lack of recognition of society at large? Try to change how everyone thinks, or focus on building one’s inner strength?
I think his take on the gender-neutral pronoun issue is perfectly Stoic for the same reason. What would they counsel to a trans person who was bothered about other people “misgendering” them? I think this is fairly obvious. Yet the activists in Canada (who, we should remember, do not speak for all trans people) have sought not only to change other people, but to change the law to force people to change. And this is where this article makes another critical error. Peterson has literally never said he opposes gender-neutral pronouns. (Though this is an understandable mistake to make, given that this claim has been made falsely in virtually every news story about this.) He has said, probably dozens of time, that what he is opposed to is the use of the law to mandate speech.
I would like to dwell on this for a moment. This is not some minor distinction. Let me make an analogy. Suppose the government wrote a law that said that, every day, parents must tell their children under the age of 18 that they love them. Failure to do so would be punished with a fine, and failure to pay the fine would result in a jail term. Now, I would hope that everyone can see what is wrong with this law. The state should not be in the business of forcing us to say certain things–no matter how nice and pleasant and loving those things might be. That is Peterson’s argument. His argument has always been about the use of the law to mandate speech; it has never been about transgender people.
Now, on the grammatical merits of using “they” as a third-person singular pronoun, I would simply say that it is pretty contentious among grammarians. There is a longstanding debate between prescriptivists (who think we ought to design the rules of grammar in a kind of idealized way for people to learn and adopt) and descriptivists (who think grammatical usage should be left to develop naturally, with rules only as explanation of how people actually do use grammar). Bill C-16 can be seen as a particular manifestation of radical prescriptivism; not only should the grammar between prescribed, but should be prescribed by the state through the law and education system. Peterson is a descriptivist; he probably wouldn’t be too happy with even just dictionaries and grammar texts picking up gender-neutral third-person pronouns unless it was common usage. I suspect the Stoics would have been descriptivists too.
Finally, I want to address the concern that Peterson is doing all of this to make money. First, what Peterson would say: He’d probably point to this as evidence of the influence of Marxist thinking; why is it bad to make money? He’d also question what motivates this critique; jealousy perhaps? Now, what I would say: First, most of the money he makes is voluntarily donated to him through Patreon. Second, all of the money he has made has been done by providing services (e.g. posting lectures, doing public speaking tours, selling books, and selling online psychotherapeutic exercises) that improve people’s mental health. In a time of rampant mental illness, isn’t this something we should celebrate?
Third, he doesn’t seem to be using the money for any kind of selfish or nefarious ends. He used a chunk of money he made early on to rent a theatre and hire a videographer to film a lecture series on the psychological significance of the stories in Genesis. He has, more recently, hired a small team of programmers to develop an online humanities university in order to provide free high quality education in the classic texts of Western civilization to people around the world. Fourth, whatever efforts he made to monetize his notoriety came as a direct response to his reasonable fear that he would be fired from the University of Toronto. He had been sent two letters from the university’s lawyers, and was basically forced to take a sabbatical. What would anybody do if they thought they were about to be fired?
Finally, and most importantly, it’s hard to believe that he somehow planned all of this. (That smacks of conspiracy theory thinking, in my view.) He has been featured on public television in Ontario for over a decade. He had been posting lectures on YouTube for three years prior to gaining any kind of public fame in Canada. What he talks about in his TV interviews and public speaking tours is basically identical to what he’s been saying in the psychology classes he’s been teaching since the early 1990s. Even if he planned to try to become a public figure, or to monetize his notoriety, nobody “plans” to write the bestselling non-fiction book of the decade.
I should clarify one thing I wrote: “Peterson has literally never said he opposes gender-neutral pronouns.” I admit, he has indeed said he “despises” the gender-neutral pronouns. But he has never refused altogether to use them. He has said that he would never use them if forced by the state; that he would decide whether to use them for a particular individual depending on the context and the relationship he had with that individual; and that he has in fact used them with some individuals in the past.
He has also pointed out, quite rightly, that one never actually uses third-person pronouns when speaking directly to another person. This apparently minor detail has been totally neglected, though it is crucial. When speaking to another person, we use the second-person “you”. The only time “they” (or any other gender-neutral third-person pronoun) would arise is when speaking about transgender people. I could see how a trans person could be offended if they read something that “misgendered” them, but I can’t conceive how that could arise in speech. (I suspect that this is part of what leads him to think that this debate is less about advancing the interests of trans people and more about implementing social constructivism into the law.)
Thanks Eddie for your detailed reply. Before I address anything else, could you please clarify to me the issue regarding how Peterson makes his money? If you hit “ctl and f” you will find that the word “money” is not mentioned in the article once. Nor do we make any mention as to how JP makes his money or gets his funds. So I don’t understand where your final three paragraphs come from. “Finally, I want to address the concern that Peterson is doing all of this to make money…”. I don’t mind what Peterson does with his money, other than it should be for the propagation of virtue rather than vice, if one is to take a Stoic perspective on the matter… please explain why you mentioned this and I will address your other points… at the moment I am wondering whether Jordan Peterson’s income is someone else’s concern…
Regarding economic equality and wellbeing I address it with Leo here: https://dailystoic.com/stoicism-beyond-the-self/ and in greater detail here: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/474 but please get back to me once you have read these pieces with more questions or comments 🙂
You’re entirely correct. I included those comments only in response to some of the comments made in this thread. I didn’t mean to suggest it was a response to your article directly. I should have been more clear about that.
Thanks again for your reply. People like you make me a better Stoic researcher and I am now starting to do research on the Stoic opinion on social hierarchies and especially dominant social hierarchies. I am also looking into populism, as people can link the two. Thus, it may take me some time to get your a proper answer, which I will do in a paper (I try to make them all open access) or a blog piece. I would rather give you a Stoic grounded answer than a “Kai grounded” answer. As for inequality, it is not specifically economic issues we were talking about but rather access to and distribution of resources, which JP is also concerned about. The paper we wrote will explain our position from a Stoic perspective:
As for gender not being ascribed on a biological basis, I invite you to watch this Ted talk by one of the world’s leading endocrinologists Norman Spack:
Happy for you to get back to me on my short message here. I will need some time to get back to you on the hierarchy stuff :). You can follow me on Twitter, if that suits you, in the meantime. It might take me a few weeks… it is a lot of work!
Hi Kai, thanks for your response. I appreciate that you are taking my arguments under consideration. I don’t recall anything in the Roman Stoics on hierarchies. One way you could look at it is through the dichotomy of control; you can’t control the way your society is organized, the skills/abilities/luck of others, but you can develop your own skills and abilities (i.e. to climb hierarchies), and you can develop your peace of mind (e.g. don’t be resentful of others). And I think that’s precisely what JP would recommend.
Thanks for sharing a link to your article. I haven’t read it yet, but I will, and I will save my comments for later–perhaps in response to whatever you have to say about hierarchies. Fortunately (for me, not you), I don’t use Twitter. I’ll have to follow your work in the more old-fashioned way.
And thanks for the link to the Dr. Spack talk. There are a couple of issues I want to point out about it. I should start off by admitting that I found it incredibly creepy. I know that, these days, one is likely to see it as a compassionate doctor trying to help suffering teenagers. And I saw that. But I also saw an overconfident scientist using experimental drugs to alter teenagers’ bodies so they fit his definition of “normal”. That said, I have a few critiques in particular.
He claims that he “wouldn’t be able to guess better than chance” about somebody’s sexual orientation on the basis of their gender identity; the two are “unrelated and the data show it.” That’s actually quite obviously false. The vast majority of people who identify as men are straight; the vast majority of people who identify as women are straight. And that’s because the vast majority of people are straight. This is not a fact in dispute. The statistics are overwhelmingly clear about this. It sounds like he is simply drawing an incorrect statistical inference (which even experts routinely do; see Daniel Kahneman’s work on this) from the (correct) biological claim that gender identity (or biological sex) does not determine sexual orientation, or vice versa. That the two factors have no (known) causal mechanism connecting them does not mean, however, that they’re statistically unrelated. So, the fact is, he could indeed guess one’s sexual orientation on the basis of one’s gender identity; he just wouldn’t be able to say how that came to be in the person’s biological development.
He is quite right to point out the distinction between gender identity and biological sex. But he doesn’t do much to explain why the two should necessarily “match” in the traditional way (i.e. biological males with masculine identities, biological females with feminine identities). He also says that some people claim they are in the “wrong” body, but, try as I might, I cannot make much sense of this claim. Not having the body one wants is not the same as having the “wrong” body. Biology doesn’t get things “wrong”. (Opening up that line of thinking strikes me as somewhat dangerous in terms of its proximity to eugenics thinking.) So this isn’t a biological claim; one’s biological development did not literally “go wrong”. I think it has to be a (hyperbolic?) claim about one’s desires. Indeed, Dr. Spack says that the people he’s treated insisted on doing so to “affirm” themselves. That sounds like, as a doctor, he’s simply following his patients’ wishes, and their wishes are that their biological sex and gender identity should “match” in the traditional way.
But why should they? He says that it matters enough to these patients that they’d lose family over it, or otherwise kill themselves. And then he points out how high the transgender suicide rate is. But he doesn’t mention the fact that the suicide rate among post-transition transgender people is about 9 times the population average. So it can’t be that their “untreated” status is a complete causal explanation for the high suicide rates. This, I think, should lead one to doubt the stated importance of “affirming” oneself. Perhaps, whatever underlies the high suicide rate (e.g. rates of severe mental illness or addiction) also underlies the particularly strong felt need to “affirm” oneself (i.e. seek out medical intervention to alter one’s biological sex).
On this suggestion, it’s not the unmet need to “affirm” oneself that causes the high suicide rates, but rather that the need to “affirm” oneself and the high suicide rates correlate because of some other factor (e.g. mental illness) that causes both. (A classic example of the same sort of reasoning is the observation that increased ice cream sales correlate with increased number of drownings. Ice cream sales obviously do not cause drownings. Rather, they correlate because they share the same underlying causal factor, namely, it being the summer.)
All of this applies at least as much to the issue of gender reassignment procedures among adolescents. But there are some additional issues in this case. I think he is right not to advocate for hormone replacement or surgery among pubescent adolescents, but rather focus on hormone blockers. Nonetheless, he skims over some relevant issues. First, morally, we don’t think 10-14 year-olds can consent to all manner of things, e.g. marriage, sex, employment contracts, consumption of alcohol, etc. Why do we think they can consent to preventing puberty? Could this really be informed consent? Do they, or could they, really know what the consequences of this choice will be?
And this brings me to my second (psychological) point: Are there seriously no psychological and social consequences to these kids by not going through puberty? He points out that for many of them, developing a body they don’t want is distressing; but I would strongly suspect that not going through puberty (with all the physical, psychological, and sexual changes that that entails) while all of one’s peers and friends do would be extremely alienating and isolating. At the same time, I would suspect a similar kind of alienation and isolation as they begin to go through puberty (at Dr. Spack suggests, beginning at age 16) while all their peers and friends already have. It seems to me that we’re simply replacing one kind of distress with another kind. (I’ve not seen any research on this issue though.)
Given that, as he outlines in the first half of the talk, there are procedures that allow fully biologically developed adults to undertake sex reassignment, failing to provide hormone blockers to adolescents would not preclude them from sex reassignment as adults. Though they would presumably endure the distress of developing the body they don’t want, this process might actually help to better meet an appropriate standard of informed consent; that is, having actually developed that previously unwanted body, they would likely be able to say with a much greater degree of confidence, and with a much better understanding of the consequences, whether they do indeed want sex reassignment. Though, as Dr. Spack notes, most pubescent and post-pubescent adolescents who express a wish to be the other sex do not change their views about this (compared to 80% of pre-pubescent children, who do change their minds). Nonetheless, not all transgender people seek or want sex reassignment procedures. So allowing adolescents to develop bodies they don’t want, and thereby, if I’m right, better achieving informed consent, could be extremely beneficial for those individuals who ultimately choose not to pursue sex reassignment procedures.
I don’t have particularly settled views on this; and none of this is coming from Peterson. But I do think it is worth raising what should be rather obvious questions. There seems to be so much panic around anything to do with transgender people; it makes it very difficult to even ask questions. And not asking questions, especially about novel problems, is almost certainly a guarantee to get things wrong.
Thank you for making a criticism of Peterson without being an ideologue and calling him alt-right which everyone seems to do.
You are most welcome Nathan. As we state, as Stoics we are called to follow reason and not specific ideologies.
Hi Kai: This is a little of the topic, but this is the advice that a good friend gave me. What is a Stoic perspective on this?
In many interaction, you have a choice to be indifferent, cruel, or kind.
In many choices of activity, you can focus purely on self-interest, purely on altruism, or a balance.
For example, in preparing to be a lawyer, you can focus on how to be the best you can be or just get by, to take the career off-the-shelf, or adapt it to your strengths and to doing as much net good as possible.
Hi Andy, thanks for trusting me with this question.
The Stoics both ancient and modern see that it is our human nature to be virtuous. If we act viciously (unjustly, cowardly, greedily or ignorantly) then we have become unaware of or transitioned away from our own nature. We discuss various aspects of this here: https://dailystoic.com/stoicism-beyond-the-self/
and http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/7/2/39/htm (open access)
Once you have read both, please get back to me… furthermore, there is no altruism or egoism in Stoicism, as we explain here: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/474/htm
Regarding your lawyer question, it is about social roles and career, which is dealt with by Stoics but I let you do the background reading and ask me more questions before I answer your last question. The recent podcasts I have been on (Stoic Solutions, Practical Stoic, Sunday Stoic plus this one https://www.influencedbynature.com/episode25-26) should also inform you. I give you the information like this to make you a better Stoic and to enhance our discussion :). So let’s speak here again soon!
Also: What is the difference between progressive values and being an egalitarian?
Hi Andy, in Stoicism there are no rights. We operate according to obligations… see the papers I link you to below (which I co-authored) for assistance. Egalitarian is the belief that we deserve equal rights…
A very interesting discussion.
But: What’s the problem with having a pay scale for private business that matches the military and government schools’ pay scales?
Really? You don’t see any problem with A) Using the power of government (force, threats, fines, ultimately prison for the non-complying) to B) mandate that every private business define a pay level for every job, C) thus forcing on private individuals the model of the military and government schools? which D) some of you consider so exemplary in terms of efficiency, fairness, and productivity to serve as the mandated model for every private business? The army and PS 108 will now be imposed on private business as their models? You think that sounds practical and good and just? You think that sounds compatible with freedom?
I find that hard to believe. Please think a bit more about this part before you come up with another universally benevolent bureaucracy as your solution to a rather dubious problem. Because “everyone should be forced to imitate the military by categorizing every single job according to military-like pay grades, or face legal consequences, because I think it would be better that way” is far, far below the quality of virtually everything else in this discussion.
I recommend that you read Thomas Sowell’s “Knowledge & Decisions.” Because some of you seem to think that excellent decisions about other people’s lives can be made and enforced by people who have rather tiny amounts of knowledge about those lives, and that this will probably work out rather well, at least as it runs on some sort of military model.
And that’s wrong.
Hi Nathan, thanks for commenting. My concern is to ensure that gender pay gaps do not exist for people who do the same job and have the same level of experience. Otherwise, this is very unjust. How we get there is up for discussion and perhaps the army’s model is not the best. How would you ensure that external characteristics such as gender or ethnicity, which we Stoics see as indifferent to moral character (and thus the ability to flourish) do not affect people’s progress? As justice is a virtue in Stoicism, how do we ensure that we do not give one group an unfair advantage? As Stoics, we have a cosmopolitan duty to take care of ourselves and others, so I am certainly open to your contribution. However, saying that something is plain wrong but not offering a viable alternative does not help us all move the conversation forward. So please do let me know your thoughts on how we remove gender pap gaps where they are found to exist, what should we do about them?
Let’s say 2 people have the same job and same level of experience but one sells far more products the other. Should the better performer get paid more? In the real world , yes. In the public service they get paid the same !
Hi Maurice, could not agree more when it comes to sales, I should have distinguished that I am not talking about the commission part of the contract, but rather in that particular case the base salary, which should be the same between two individuals if everything else is the same re: experience etc.
I’m principle I agree with equality of say but we all know of people who are paid the same but don’t do equal amounts of work. This is not fair either but it’s an injustice we all live with, especially in the civil service. The private sector would try expose the discrepancy between employees’ productivity.
I think your ideas about the capitalist job market are naive. It’s far more likely that capitalist bosses couldn’t care less what gender you have. They just want the job done as cheaply as possible. They are blind to what gender they exploit for labour. Peterson claims that men are better at negotiating wages and wage increase than women. He’s correct. He also says that absolute equality is impossible to attain because of various other abilities .I agree with him that equality is a theoretical concept only.
Gender pay gap analysis is based on the differences in median wages between men and women. I would make the bold claim that the vast majority of people on the radical left haven’t a clue what the concept of ‘median’ means. They are blinded by their ideology.
Can you tell me what ‘median’ means without looking it up ?
Maurice, please read the comments policy for this site as you continue your conversation
many thanks for making this argument. I run a small business – I have invested my capital, my time, gave up my youth to obtain postgraduate & professional qualifications and made a few sacrifices along the way. Yet apparently I don’t know how to run my business and should hand over the fruits of my labour to someone else who “knows better” how my company should be organised and whom I should employ.
As you point out, this is invariably someone who knows very little about me or my industry. How could they without a similar background and experience?
[…] A Response To “How Stoic is Jordan Peterson?” by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos […]
[…] But there are a lot of people who think political correctness has run amok and want to be able to say whatever dafuq they want without fear of consequences. Peterson made it seem like refusal to use “zhe” or “zher” pronouns (the above Globe and Mail piece states: “In their lifetime, the average Canadian will encounter no one who uses a neo-pronoun.”) could land someone in prison. Like I said, it’s bullshit, but “stoic” Peterson was stoic in his resolve to show bigotry against transgender people. […]