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.