We should be careful in our embrace of Jordan Peterson

I believe that I like Jordan Peterson for the same reasons that most libertarians do. His wonderful defence of freedom of speech (though it should extensively be considered freedom of expression) in the debate about gender pronouns was necessary. Free speech has received an avid defender, and an articulate one at that. In his first podcast appearance of the Joe Rogan Experience, Peterson not only laid out his eloquent defence of free speech, but also accurately described the horrors of communism and its crimes in the 20th century. I’ve listened to many hours of his lectures, to the “12 Rules For Life” audio book on a return flight to Washington D.C, watched his interviews and read the articles about him, both the ridiculous character assassinations as well as the measured portraits. I believe that I cannot be accused of not having weighed the pros and the cons.

Jordan Peterson isn’t very controversial in the libertarian movement. He has been invited to libertarian events to speak about the virtues of free speech (and that’s a good thing), and many liberty-minded websites praise him on a regular basis. He considers himself a “classic British liberal”, and talks about the importance of individualism. So where exactly would I then advocate carefulness?

In a recent interview on the BBC’s daily politics, a show which has guests on for their specific expertise, but which lets all of the guests weigh in on all of the issue, Peterson discussed the issue of gambling. As a psychologist, he discusses the issue of addiction, but on the question about the legitimacy of a ban on gambling, the conversation took a different turn:

Peterson is willing to take a pragmatic point of view on gambling, since its effects would be more damaging if it were outlawed, but other than that the psychologist does not only not make a liberal defence of an individual’s freedom to gamble, he also provides the reason why an individual wouldn’t have the right to gamble. The “social good” is usually something that makes us shudder when politicians and administrators throw it at us, whenever they overtax or completely ban an activity. Mark Littlewood from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) makes the relevant point that would be defended by an actual classical liberal: it’s fun. A more Students For Liberty-type approach would probably be: “It’s fun! Mind your own business!” Since when do I have to justify myself as an individual for my action in front of a collective set of morality? Even if it doesn’t do my neighbour any good, I’m not hurting him, so who is he to judge?

Surely, Jordan Peterson’s opinion on gambling is not necessarily the most definite indication of why we should be careful in our embrace of him. However, the “social good” idea extends across many of his viewpoints. Peterson is a staunch defender of monogamy as an important aspect of the fabric of society. He rejects casual sex, he believes that enforced monogamy (as in socially enforced) is to the benefit of reducing the violence committed by angry men, hethinks that atheists don’t exist because all of their humane beliefs are based on christianity, his best defence of the legality of gay marriage is that it is “a means by which gay people could be integrated more thoroughly into standard society, and maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe that would decrease promiscuity, which is a public health problem”. Him dismissing Ayn Rand as “not a great mind” and “more of a fiction writer” certainly doesn’t help his claim of being purely an individualist. Little surprise, given that many of his premises on the necessity for traditional relationships are based on the idea that there is an obligation for individuals to act according to his conservative agenda.

To Peterson, the world is a dark and dangerous place, and that we should be content with that which is given to us already. To him, happiness should in fact not be a pursuit, but in fact it is a gift, born out of the circumstances of the continuous suffering of our existence. This is an inherently religious argument, and much in the line with his religious approach to meaning in life, Peterson rejects the concept of self-interest. He believes that human interaction necessitates self-sacrifice as a structural rule. No wonder he does not regard Ayn Rand as an important thinker, as he didn’t understand any of her moral philosophy.

We can learn a lot from Jordan Peterson about rhetorical skills, and making an articulate case for free speech, but if we are to look up to people, we should aspire to invite voices with more intellectual consistency. People who reject the concept of self-sacrifice, no matter where it occurs, and who don’t believe in the necessity to establish a moral judgement on people’s behaviour in order to have an informed opinion about society. This movement did not start because we tried to be virtuous in the eyes of a conservative philosophy, or, for that matter, virtuous in the eyes of a left-wing philosophy. We created a big tent movement precisely because we united people not in their view of how society should be run, but in the belief that it is not the government that should dictate how it is run.

I sincerely believe that we should be careful in our embrace of Jordan Petersen, both for the mentioned examples and to protect us from the personality cult that has arisen around him. Our ideals stand above that.

This article was first published by SpeakFreely.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

1 Response

  1. Hi, you’re right about this. I think that people, young males, are so amazed by Jordan Peterson because he wants to give them confidence back, he celebrates masculinity, in today’s world where the genders are becoming blurry, and women are more and more powerful. He has a severe look which confers a sense of paternal authority, also a figure which is weaker nowadays. It’s easy to look at him as the new defender of men. You are right, no cult of personality is good, it doesn’t serve the person or the followers. Thanks for the insight.

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