Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Darwinian Aristocratic Liberalism: The Cathy Newman Interview

If you are one of the few people on the planet who has not heard about Jordan Peterson, you should look at some of his YouTube videos.  There is also a good article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that surveys the story of how the Jordan Peterson phenomenon has developed over the past two years.  The fullest statements of his thinking are his two books: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999) and 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018).  12 Rules has become such a runaway bestseller that Peterson is likely soon to be come the bestselling Canadian author of all time.

One of the videos viewed by millions of people that reveals his philosophic understanding of human life is his 30-minute interview with Cathy Newman on the UK's Channel 4, in which Peterson criticizes the feminist social constructivist theory of patriarchy as contrary to the facts of evolved human nature.  After this interview occurred on January 16th, the YouTube video of the interview attracted millions of viewers within a few days; and the sales of 12 Rules jumped to the top of Amazon's rankings.

What I see here and in his books is what I have called "Darwinian aristocratic liberalism."  This is the term that I have applied to Friedrich Nietzsche's writings in his "middle period"--particularly, Human, All Too Human--as opposed to the "Dionysian aristocratic radicalism" of his later writings.  (Some of my posts on this are here, here, and here,)  Nietzsche is the one philosopher that Peterson cites and quotes from more than any other.  And he says that when it comes to the deepest questions about existence, Nietzsche "thought more clearly about such things than anyone in history" (12 Rules, 347).  But since he concentrates on Nietzsche's later writings, Peterson is unaware of how close he is to the Darwinian psychology of Nietzsche's middle writings.

Peterson's position is Darwinian, because he explains human nature through evolutionary psychology.  It is aristocratic, because he sees that the hierarchical structure of human society is rooted in evolved human nature.  It is liberal, because he argues that a liberal social order conforms best to that evolved human nature.

That Darwinian aristocratic liberalism puts Peterson in opposition to the leftist ideology of social constructionism, which denies the reality of evolved human nature in arguing for socially constructing human beings so that they could live in a socialist utopia of absolute equality.  And, thus, Peterson is opposed to the feminist theory of sexual differences as socially constructed by a capitalist patriarchy for the oppression of women, which assumes that overturning this patriarchal social construction could create a socialist utopia of absolute sexual equality.  Since Newman is a proponent of this feminist theory, this explains her aggressive attack on him in the interview.

After the interview, Peterson has publicly warned that the conflict displayed in this interview shows the deepening ideological polarization in Western societies that is dangerous insofar as it could easily lead to physical violence.  For that reason, he has argued for the liberal norms that secure peaceful societies--for protecting freedom of speech, for trying to have honest conversations about our differences, and for seeing all human beings as individuals rather than as members of groups in tribal competition.

Through her questioning, Newman divided the interview into four parts.  In the first part, she asked Peterson to explain why so much of his teaching was directed to helping young men with their troubles  In the second part, she asked him to agree that the gender pay gap was unfair to women.  In the third part, she challenged him to justify his refusal to accept a Canadian law requiring teachers like himself to call transgender students by their preferred personal pronouns.  Finally, in the last part of the interview, she asked him to justify his account of hierarchical dominance among lobsters as showing the natural basis for hierarchy among human beings.

Newman's questions and her quotations from Peterson's 12 Rules suggest that her reading of the book was concentrated on only two chapters: "Rule 1/ Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back" and "Rule 11/ Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding."

Newman began by asking Peterson why so much of his speaking and writing is about telling young men that they need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives.  Peterson responded by claiming that many young men today in Western cultures are not receiving the encouragement and the guidance that they need to become mature, competent men.  If these young men don't grow up, they become resentful, angry, sullen, and even nihilistic, in ways that make their lives miserable and of no use to others.  And the fact that many thousands of these young men have told Peterson that his video lectures have saved their lives from chaos and ruin indicates their need for such instruction.

Newman asks, what's in it for women?  Peterson responds: Do you want a partner who's an overgrown child?  Women want men who are competent partners, and such competence requires that they take responsibility for their lives.

But then some women, a minority, want a weak partner whom they can dominate, although this cannot sustain a successful marriage.

Newman objects here that Peterson is making "vast generalizations" about men and women.  To which Peterson responds: I'm a clinical psychologist.  Newman then says: So you've done the scientific research to support your generalizations?

Here at the beginning of the interview, one can see a fundamental difference between Peterson and Newman.  She assumes the feminist theory of patriarchy based upon the social construction of sexual roles that allows men to exploit women.  Peterson argues that the empirical science of evolved human nature as manifest in human behavior contradicts this ideological theory.  So for Peterson, it's science versus ideology.  But one might also say that the persuasiveness of his appeal to science depends on the credibility of his appeal to scientific research as supporting his position.

I would say that Peterson is implicitly appealing to what I have called the biological ethics of human nature: the good is the desirable, and the fullest satisfaction of the natural desires of evolved human nature over a whole life is the natural standard of the good.  So, here, Peterson is pointing to the natural desires of men and women for sexual identity, familial bonding, friendship, and social status, which allows him to judge the development of young men and the marriages of men and women as more or less successful in satisfying those natural desires.  This principle that the good is the desirable is implicit in various passages of 12 Rules (40, 101, 121, 143, 209, 213, 292, 299, 303, 320, 259).

At this point in the interview (5:23), Newman initiates a discussion of the gender pay gap that goes for about 15 minutes, which is about half of the entire interview.

Newman quotes from Peterson's book: "There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.  These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women" (12 Rules, 302). 

Then she cites the evidence of a pay gap in the United Kingdom--women being paid on average 9% less than men for the same work.  And she says that for this reason, many women do feel that they are being dominated and excluded by men, which is the patriarchal oppression that Peterson has denied in the quoted passage.

In response to this, Peterson argues three main points.

First, Peterson agrees that male bias against women is one factor contributing to the gender pay gap. But his claim is that this is only one of many factors, and that the multivariate analysis of the data by social scientists has shown that male bias is not the most important factor.

Second, he argues that equality of opportunity is eminently desirable for both individuals and society.  And, therefore, an inequality of outcome, such as the gender pay gap, is not necessarily unfair if it arises from equality of opportunity, with men and women exercising free choice in their decisions about their work life and family life, so that men and women on average will make somewhat different choices because of their evolved natural sex differences in personality and preferences.

Third, he argues that if gender equality means equality of outcome, it is almost certainly undesirable, because achieving an absolute equality of outcome would require an oppressive tyranny suppressing individual liberty, as happened in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

Running through all of this reasoning is Peterson's Darwinian psychology of evolved sex differences, his aristocratic assumption that these evolved sex differences will create a social hierarchy in wealth and status, and his liberal principle that a social hierarchy is fair if it arises from the equal liberty of individuals to sort themselves out.

In support of his first point--that gender bias is only one of many factors explaining the gender pay gap--Peterson insists that "the multivariate analysis has been done" (6:50), and that it confirms this conclusion.  But he does not cite any particular example of the "multivariate analysis" that he has in mind.  Nor does he survey the debate among researchers studying the causes of sex differences.

A few months ago, Jonathan Haidt wrote a useful survey of this research that shows that some researchers support Peterson's position, and some don't.

Now one might say that we can't rightly expect Peterson to lay out this research in a short television interview.  But in his book, he had the chance to do this.  And his book does have many endnotes citing empirical research on sex differences and the gender pay gap.  But the reader who looks at these notes and reads the publications that he cites will see that his citations are skimpy, and they don't demonstrably support his conclusions.

For example, Peterson claims that one of the factors explaining the gender pay gap is that women tend to be higher than men in the personality trait of "agreeableness," which makes women less inclined to the aggressive self-assertiveness necessary for winning pay raises.  As one of the Big Five personality traits identified by psychologists, "agreeableness" is manifest as politeness and compassion, and it tends to be higher on average for women than for men.  The problem is that insofar as women tend to be too agreeable for their own good, they don't stand up for themselves, and thus they accept lower wages than the men who are less agreeable and thus more assertive.

For women to compete with men, Peterson explains, they need to adopt some masculine traits in being less agreeable and more assertive.  He says that he has used "assertiveness training" to teach women in high powered law firms in Canada how to advance themselves in their firms.  To compete with men, women need to be formidable and not be pushed around.

Peterson addresses Newman herself in suggesting that she has had to be less agreeable and more assertive to be as successful as she has been in British TV journalism.  Newman responds by saying yes, I'm not very agreeable.

What predicts success in the workplace at the highest levels of status and wealth is personality traits such as conscientiousness and intelligence.  Women on average are equal to men in these traits.  But, again, their greater agreeableness makes them less successful.

Peterson agrees with Newman that companies could decide to promote the feminine traits of agreeableness, but Peterson argues that there is no evidence now that this would make companies successful, because the market tends to reward the more masculine traits at the higher levels of professional achievement.

Peterson's reasoning in the interview is that agreeableness is negatively correlated with the highest level of success in the professional and business world, women tend to be more agreeable than men; therefore men on average will have higher pay and status than women, but women who learn to be less agreeable can be as successful as the men who are less agreeable.

The problem, however, is that the research cited by Peterson in his book about the personality traits associated with success do not support this conclusion (12 Rules, 313, nn. 188-89).  Some of the best research on the correlation of workplace inequality and the personality trait of agreeableness comes from Timothy Judge and his colleagues (see T. A. Judge, B. A. Livingston, and C. Hurst, "Do Nice Guys--and Gals--Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 [2012]: 390-407.)  Surprisingly, Peterson never cites this research.  Judge has summarized his research in some PowerPoint charts, which show that the agreeableness of women does exacerbate the gender wage gap with men, as Peterson says, but they also show that there is still a wage gap between disagreeable women and disagreeable men: women can increase their pay by becoming disagreeable, but they will still be paid less on average than disagreeable men, which contradicts Peterson's implicit claim that the gender gap can disappear between men and women who are aggressively assertive.  As far as I know, Peterson never responds to this research.

Peterson is more persuasive with his other two points--that equality of opportunity creates inequality of outcome, and that enforcing equality of outcome would require a tyrannical suppression of liberty. The evidence around the world in more liberal societies, where women are close to having equal liberty with men, clearly indicates that women on average will choose different careers and different tradeoffs between career life and family life.  The best evidence, as Peterson indicates in his interview, is that in the Scandinavian countries, where the promotion of sexual equality has been pushed farther than other countries, women still prefer more typically feminine careers (like nursing) over more typically masculine careers (like engineering).

This does not mean that men will dominate every high-level profession.  On the contrary, as Peterson indicates. professional fields like law and medicine that were once closed to women are now predominantly female; and most of the academic disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences are dominated by women.

Moreover, as indicated by Peterson's effort to save young men from a life of miserable failure, many men are falling behind the women in a world dominated by successful women who cannot find men competent enough to be good marital partners.

Although Peterson here shows his opposition to the feminist theory of patriarchy, he does not have the opportunity to explain his alternative theory.  For that, one must turn to his book, particularly this passage:
"Here's an alternative theory: throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity.  Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength.  In addition to the filth, misery, disease, starvation, cruelty, and ignorance that characterized the lives of both sexes, back before the twentieth century (when even people in the Western world typically existed on less than a dollar a day in today's money) women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burdens of too many young children. Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill.  At least such things might be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism."
"It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease, and drudgery. . . ." (12 Rules, 303-304)
Peterson then surveys the history of the invention of tampons, the use of chloroform to make childbirth painless, and the invention of the birth control pills as examples of technological innovations by men that don't oppress women but rather free them.  His point seems to be that the economic and technological progress brought by liberal capitalism over the past two centuries has liberated women to have a fuller range of choices than was ever possible in human history.  So, for example, women today can choose to have fewer children, invest extensive parental care in those few children, pursue higher education, and also have a professional career outside the home.  Women still have to make difficult choices about how to balance the goods of family, education, and careers; but still they have more choices available to them than women in past history.  So, rather than scorning liberal capitalism as patriarchal oppression, women should celebrate it as the source of their liberation.

To be continued . . .


Anonymous said...

I wonder if these posts on Peterson are going to attract more readers than the one about incest. What do you think Mr. Arnhart?

Regards from The End of the World,


Larry Arnhart said...

I'll be shocked if that happens!

Treg Loyden said...

I Love Jordan Peterson... He is truly a great man and thank gawd we've found him. Dr Peterson is not only a defender of the Enlightenment (which gave us Natural Law theory and John Locke the founder of Individual Rights and all of Western Civilization), Jordan is single handedly taking on the evil Postmodernists, Feminists and Cultural Marxism and he is standing up squarely for Freedom of Speech. As if that was not enough, he has been pointing out to unChristian atheists how very Christian they actually are. He points out how deep the West owes the Enlightenment's dedication to Reason & respect for the Sovereignty of the Individual all to Christianity itself and not the other way around. Who could ask for more from a professor???? Yes I absolutely love this man!

Larry Arnhart said...

Your expression of love for Peterson make him sound like a leader of a cult.