Oh, I know, many of you think I have already written too much about Jordan Peterson. So you can skip this post. And I promise this will be my last one on Peterson.
These videos show Peterson presenting his interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God as creating a problem for morality--particularly, the Western morality of natural rights or human rights as founded on the sacred dignity of all individuals. Peterson claims that this shows that morality is impossible without a grounding in a transcendent religious metaphysics. Even those who think they are scientific atheists--like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example--are actually acting out their implicit practical belief in Christian metaphysics, because they embrace a Christian morality of natural individual rights. This shows that "we're running on the fumes of Christianity in the West." Or to use another metaphor, we're living inside the corpse of a whale (the dead God), and there has been plenty for us to eat; but we don't realize that soon there will be nothing left for us to eat.
People like Dawkins and Harris think that their morality can be based on pure rationality--the rational science of the Enlightenment. But in fact, as Dostoevsky shows in Crime and Punishment, there's nothing irrational about choosing to become a psychopathic murderer (like Raskolnikov): It's perfectly rational to choose to take whatever you want whenever you want it from others without any concern for their welfare, as long as you can escape punishment. Dostoevsky is showing us that this is what we would do if we truly were atheists.
This is the Ring of Gyges argument in Plato's Republic: if I could make myself invisible, so that I could steal, cheat, and murder for my pleasure, without ever getting caught, why not? As Dostoevsky declared: If God is dead, then everything is permitted. This explains why Peterson thinks he has to appeal to a Nietzschean/Jungian religion--an atheistic religion--to solve the problem of morality collapsing into nihilism if there is no religiously grounded morality.
As indicated in his lectures and in Maps of Meaning (6-7), Peterson's two favorite passages from Nietzsche are from Twilight of the Idols (ix.5) and The Gay Science (sec. 125). In the first passage, Nietzsche ridicules George Eliot and the English generally for thinking they can deny the existence of the Christian God while keeping Christian morality, without realizing that Christian morality must be a command of God--its origin is transcendental--and therefore the death of God must bring the death of Christian morality.
The second passage is Nietzsche's first statement of his famous declaration that "God is dead." What is notable about this passage, as Peterson points out, is how Nietzsche laments this as a disaster for humanity: "What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continuously? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose." Peterson goes off on Nietzsche's suggestion that the death of God means that there is no longer any up or down--without God to command what is right or wrong, there are no standards of higher or lower for us.
But then even as Peterson agrees with Nietzsche's claim that human morality depends on transcendent standards--a moral cosmology--Peterson also says that his whole position is embedded in a Darwinian evolutionary science that would seem to view human morality as founded on empirical standards--a moral anthropology. This contradiction in Peterson's reasoning actually coincides with a contradiction between the early and later writings of Nietzsche showing a longing for transcendence and religious redemption and the middle writings of Nietzsche showing a Darwinian science that explains morality as rooted in evolved human nature. (I have written about this in a series of posts in January to April, 2013.)
That Peterson agrees with the middle Nietzsche in seeing morality as grounded on a Darwinian moral anthropology is clear in 12 Rules for Life. Agreeing with my principle that the good is the desirable, Peterson writes:
"Think about it like this. Start from the observation that we indeed desire things--even that we need them. That's human nature. We share the experience of hunger, loneliness, thirst, sexual desire, aggression, fear, and pain. Such things are elements of Being--primordial axiomatic elements of Being. But we must sort and organize these primordial desires, because the world is a complex and obstinately real place. We can't just get the one particular thing we especially just want now, along with everything else we usually want, because our desires can produce conflict with our other desires, as well as with other people, and with the world. Thus, we must become conscious of our desires, and articulate them, and prioritize them, and arrange them into hierarchies. That makes them sophisticated. That makes them work with each other, and with the desires of other people, and with the world. It is in that manner that our desires elevate themselves. It is in that manner that they organize themselves into values and become moral. Our values, our morality--they are indicators of our sophistication" (101-102).Here Peterson seems to agree with me (and with Philippa Foot) that morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives that depend on human interests and desires. Morality is informed desire. The good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires over a whole life, which often requires settling conflicts between desires by judging how one desire fits with others in some deliberate conception of a whole life well lived. Hypothetical moral imperatives can be understood as following a given/if/then structure: Given what we know about our evolved human nature and our individual circumstances, if we want to live a flourishing human life, then we must organize the satisfaction of our desires into a coherent plan of life, which requires the moral and intellectual virtues.
But then immediately after the passage just quoted, Peterson says that we need to move to a deeper level of morality to see how the "ultimate values" depend on religion, which is what Plato meant by the transcendent "Idea of the Good." So all of our morality depends on our religious beliefs. And if someone objects, "But I'm an atheist," Peterson will answer:
"No, you're not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You're simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs--those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don't know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself" (103).Although Peterson offers this as some profound insight, it's really quite ridiculous. The only reason we don't commit murder is because we believe that God commands us not to murder. So if we believed that God was dead, we would commit murder. Therefore, if we don't commit murder, our actions show that we are not atheists. But then, eventually, as modern atheism becomes such a deeply felt belief that it becomes expressed in our actions--once we have consumed God's corpse, and there's nothing more to eat--we should expect that we will all become murderers.
If this were true, we would expect to see empirical historical evidence that religious belief is correlated with a low homicide rate, and declining religious belief is correlated with a high homicide rate. But as we've seen in many previous posts, there is a lot of evidence for declining violence over the past centuries, with some of the steepest declines in the less religious countries.
In fact, even Peterson cites Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature as supporting this conclusion: "The probability that a modern person, in a functional democratic country, will now kill or be killed is infinitesimally low compared to what it was in previous societies (and still is, in the unorganized and anarchic parts of the world)" (58). Oddly, Peterson does not notice how this contradicts his prediction that the modern death of God must necessarily turn us all into murderous Raskolnikovs.
It's surprising to me that in all the commentary on Peterson that I have read, no one has pointed out this fundamental contradiction in his arguments.
There is another aspect of this fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, Peterson insists that the domain of science as the study of objective facts is completely separated from the domain of religion as mythic storytelling about subjective values (34-35, 188). On the other hand, he accepts the "social brain" hypothesis of evolutionary psychology as explaining the evolution of religious belief as expressing the "hyperactive agency detection device" in our brains (38-40). Peterson doesn't recognize that this evolutionary theory of religious belief was first proposed by Darwin in The Descent of Man and by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human (as I have indicated in posts here and here). Nor does he recognize the contradiction in asserting that science both can and cannot study religious belief.
I have elaborated my criticisms of the claim that the death of the Christian God means the death of morality here, here, and here.