Jordan Peterson’s straw man egalitarianism

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At the urging of a couple of friends, I’m working my way through a three hour interview with Jordan Peterson, the controversial University of Toronto psychologist, by Joe Rogan, a comedian who hosts a popular general interest podcast. It’s slow going, because Peterson is frankly a massive blowhard, and although many of his key claims are unsupported or easily rebutted, the sheer volume and the lack of a clear argumentative structure linking those claims — together with Rogan’s obsequious interview style — makes for a tedious and unrewarding listening experience.

Here’s one example that serves as a good illustration of Peterson’s sloppiness. Somewhere around the twenty-five minute mark (during the segment from 14:50-16:50 in the Youtube version of the podcast), Peterson argues that “social justice warriors” (a phrase he has not given any determinate content) are motivated by a concern for equity, which he defines idiosyncratically as strict equality of outcome. But the goal of equality of outcome (as opposed to equality of opportunity) is misguided, he says, because:

the reason anyone strives to better themselves, or to develop a skill, or to move forward in life at all is to produce inequality. You’re trying to rise above the mediocre masses every time you make an effort at anything. And so everything that we associate positive movement forward or positive motivation [with] is actually an attempt to render the world more unequal.

But that’s obviously not true. Sometimes people are motivated by concern for their own survival, or well-being beyond survival. If I’m dying of thirst, for example, the fact that I will die without water gives me sufficient reason to go looking for water; I do not need to check how much water anyone else has before deciding that this would be a worthwhile use of my time and energy. Similarly, as someone who enjoys eating cookies, the fact that baking cookies would provide me with many delicious cookies to eat gives me a reason to bake some cookies, regardless of how this would affect my cookie holdings (or cookie eatings) relative to any other person’s.

Even when people do have relative status on the brain, they may be motivated specifically to reduce inequality. Consider the civil rights movement, for example, or the labour movement, or the feminist movement. No one could deny that people involved with these movements went to great effort to accomplish their aims. But all three of these movements were and are aimed at reducing various inequalities, even to the point of elimination. The conjunction of these facts is impossible on Peterson’s view of the nature of human motivation, so because the conjunction is manifestly true, Peterson’s view must be false.

Peterson is right about one thing, though. I agree that strict equality of outcome is not a feasible goal. Perhaps that is why virtually no one actually thinks we should be aiming at strict equality of outcome. In years of research, the political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has found only one figure in the history of egalitarianism who holds this view, the French revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf. In other words, to make his case against egalitarianism, Peterson has built the flimsiest of straw men and then utterly failed to knock it down.

Even if strict equality of outcome across the board isn’t worth pursuing, though, it doesn’t follow that inequality of outcome is of no concern. Rawlsian egalitarians, for example, argue in favour of a defeasible presumption in favour of strict equality of income and wealth. On this view, deviating from strict equality is permissible only if it would benefit the least advantaged group in society. This principle gives us good reason to be concerned about inequality of outcome, because the degree of inequality in our society is actually harmful to the least advantaged. Moreover, unless there are some constraints on inequality of outcome, equality of opportunity itself may be threatened.

Peterson doesn’t delve into any of this, of course. As soon as he’s finished attacking his caricature of egalitarianism, he’s off to give another subject the same treatment. This goes on for another two and a half hours, and I’m not sure I want to bother.

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4 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson’s straw man egalitarianism

  1. You have an argumentative error in your rebuttal against Jordan Peterson’s quote. The quote “anyone who strives to do better…” is different from survival because survival doesn’t make you better, it just makes you keep existing. You’re comparing apples to oranges and so the comparison isn’t correct.

    However, your cookie one actually supports his quote because you made “delicious” cookies which then implies your cookies are better than other cookies (Peterson: “rising above mediocrity”). The reason you baked cookies would be that you bake better cookies than others or else you wouldn’t bake cookies and would just eat any ole cookie quality disregarded.

    Also with your civil rights example. Peterson’s quote deals with the individual/micro and the civil rights movement deals with macro/societal issues. The civil rights essentially was to level the playing field so that black people had the same chance of the opportunity to strive to be greater (hence produce inequality) and not be suppressed into not even having such an opportunity. Game theory really. So again comparing Peterson’s quote and the civil rights movement is another apples to oranges comparison.

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  2. Hello Thuan, thanks for the comment!

    I’m not convinced that the survival/betterment distinction really matters here. If you’re without food and water, your circumstances are bettered by acquiring food and water. And in order to acquire food and water, you may have to better yourself in other ways — by learning to hunt and to identify edible plants in the wild, for example, or developing the strength to build a well. The motivation to do these things seems to me to be a positive motivation, the source of which Peterson explicitly states is *always* a desire to make the world more unequal.

    Regarding the cookie example, I’m not clear on how this supports Peterson’s point. The motivation I imagined for myself in that case was just a desire to eat good cookies. Perhaps I find baking enjoyable, or perhaps baking the cookies myself just happens to be the most expedient means of acquiring tasty cookies. While the quality of other people’s cookies *could* figure into my decision to bake the cookies myself, the point is that it’s perfectly conceivable for the quality of other people’s cookies *not* to enter into that decision.

    I think your interpretation of the civil rights movement’s aims is off the mark. It seems clear that many of the people who participated in the movement hoped that it would improve their condition and bring everyone to “the table of brotherhood”.

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  3. I think it’s how we decide to interpret the situations be it survival or the cookie. Because though survival example is a positive thing for a person it also makes the world unequal by the idea of scarcity and survival of the fittest. The cookie is also under those two ideas but more first world problem as it includes quality. I think it depends on what we prioritize of outcomes and whether one has a more cynical view of the world or a more positive view.

    Though I will respectfully disagree with you on the civil Rights example because in my opinion the minority group is looking to improve their situation to the level to be able to have fair play in the game of Life, the have and have nots, instead of being the have nots simply by an arbitrary and unchangeable aspect of themselves whether it’s skin color, sexual preference, etc

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    • This is a nice illustration of the difference between internalism and externalism. From the outside, sure, you can interpret people’s actions in all sorts of ways, including making the world less equal. But if you want to understand why people do things, a good way to start is to ask them. I don’t bake, but if you were to ask me why I cook, my reasons would include: because I enjoy trying new recipes; because I enjoy the process; and because even if the result doesn’t meet my expectations, I still feed myself and learn something in the process.

      Now, If I somehow managed to cook and serve you a meal that is better than what you might buy, you might believe I’m trying to become a great cook, i.e. a cook that makes better dishes than other people. But if that was your interpretation and you ate everything I cooked, you would quickly think me deluded or wasting my time on a goal I’ll never reach. Fortunately, becoming a great cook is not my reason for cooking; nor, I suspect, is it the reason most people cook.

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