Book Review: 12 Rules for Life

Disclaimer: I recognise that a lot of people have strong views about Jordan Peterson. I don’t have a strong opinion about him as a person, and I’m not interested in his personal controversies. But his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is light on politics. This is my response and review. His new book Beyond Order: Another 12 Rule for Life just came out, but I have less to say about it.

My favourite of the cutesy illustrations

12 Rules for Life is a weird book. It can be read in a lot of different ways. It revolves around twelve rules to live your life by, accompanied by cutesy illustrations, based strangely enough on a Quora post. Much of it is ambiguous. The single biggest strand is theology, particularly Biblical hermeneutics (Peterson is a Christian) but it’s also about philosophy, psychology (Peterson is a psychologist) and mythology. Scott Alexander’s review is excellent and sums up a common view about the book among secular analytical types:

“Jordan Peterson [is] a mildly competent purveyor of pseudo-religious platitudes. But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.”

The forward to the book was written by a doctor I hadn’t heard of named Norman Doidge, but it pre-empts some of the themes so it’s worth talking about. He argues that, while few people would profess to the label of moral relativist, its influence has seeped into many strands of elite thought. This is so much the case that words like ‘virtue’ and ‘sin’ are anachronisms. He writes:

“The decent thing to do—once it becomes apparent how arbitrary your, and your society’s, “moral values” are—is to show tolerance for people who think differently, and who come from different (diverse) backgrounds. That emphasis on tolerance is so paramount that for many people one of the worst character flaws a person can have is to be “judgmental.” And, since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live.”

This is a curious use of the word ‘judgemental’, because in other respects modern society is very judgemental, like the ubiquitous comparison on social media. But if I can steelman his view, it’s that modern society is highly permissive of macro choices in lifestyle, and making bad choices, or at least thoughtless ones, is less of a transgression than judging people for doing so. He’s saying that society is sending you a message that the real problem is not with single motherhood, but with sexist conservatives judging other people’s non-traditional lifestyles, etc.

The subtitle of the book might seem a little weird: an antidote to chaos. One gets the sense that Peterson thinks that society is always on the brink of unimaginably horrible catastrophe. This book is about pulling yourself out of rut, taking agency over your life, and building discipline. His new book is more about ambition and going from a merely average life to extraordinary accomplishments (or, at least, to not be counterproductive in your attempts to change the world).

Despite his religiosity, there’s one respect where I view Peterson more in the intellectual tradition of the new atheists. His previous book, Maps of Meaning, seems to be really complicated and I don’t particularly intend to read it, but he summarises one of its goals as trying to work out how ideology could be so important to people that they’re willing to die for it. And this is in many ways the problem of interpreting religious fanaticism. There is something deeply mysterious about how someone can believe in something which is obviously wrong and believe in it so strongly that they are willing to blow themselves up on a bus for it. Peterson’s answer, in brief, is that people who live by the same code, or belief system, are mutually intelligible to one another. The actions of people who have the same conceptual framework as you at least make sense, even if you don’t agree with them. The simplification of the world that systems of belief provide is crucial. This fits with some of the literature on religion, which seems to find that the social and performative aspect of it are more important than the specific beliefs.

The self-help philosophy Peterson has built is something like this: Life is really brutal, and to the extent that it isn’t brutal, this is because of recent fragile progress we’ve made as a civilisation that we need to treasure. Not only are you not going to be happy all the time, but you may well plunge into depths of misery you didn’t even know existed because of things you couldn’t have prevented. And the brief moments when things are going well can easily be thwarted by your own malevolence. So, the question of having a meaningful life, not just a merely pleasant one, is core to Being (a word Peterson uses repeatedly, in reference to Heidegger, which refers, I think, to something like the entirety of conscious and unconscious human experience). Your problems often really do come from your own malevolence and flawed character. All the time, there are things that you know are wrong, but you still do. The line dividing good and evil passes through every heart, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said. 

One of the impressions I got from this book is that Peterson thinks that a lot of self-help is very politically correct. I don’t mean politically correct in the sense of adhering to any specific political sensibilities; I mean, more in the sense of being very afraid of offending anyone. Telling people that it’s their fault that they’re depressed is a dangerous business and probably makes them feel worse most of the time, even if it’s true for some subset of them.

Peterson, to my reading, is sick of this enlightened disbelieving-in-free-will ultra-compassion that is popular among academics. Unbelievable depths of evil exist, he says, and these people really are evil, rather than a victim or their circumstance. One facet of Peterson’s project seems to be elevating the concept of sin as central to Being. Sin has an etymology that goes back to the Greek hamartia which means “to not hit the target.” Sin, he says, is a function of not aiming in the right place, and not having the discipline to execute on your shot.

When people talk about how the youth are lacking in moral instruction and things must be set right, they are often cult leaders. But Peterson says the youth really are lacking in moral instruction. This is something I’m sympathetic to. Sometimes when you’re listening to advice from an elder, it’s to listen and scrutinise and participate in the inner philosophical struggle required to live a meaningful existence.

In the more critical appraisals of him, Peterson is frequently analogised to a prophet, or his followers described as cult members. Even if this description is accurate, there are a lot of good things about religion. As far as I’m concerned, people listening to elders to gain moral clarity is one of the good parts. What’s bad is believing things without evidence. I fear that ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘religion’ have become catch-all terms to discredit one’s opponents. The patriarchy is a conspiracy theory! Veganism is like a religion! If you think these things are dogmatic and not based in evidence, or inspire groupthink, fair enough; you ought to say as much. But describing something as a religion because of the social component is a standard of ‘religion’ which classes just about everything as a religion. Sports are a religion! I vote for a moratorium on analogising things to religion 🙂

Another reason this book is weird is that it will be in the self-help section in many bookshops, but it’s actually incredibly dark. Perhaps there’s an expectation that Peterson will say these positive inspirational things, but he says these other things with an incredible moral seriousness, and that’s disconcerting. Peterson talks a lot about the atrocities of Nazism and of the Soviet Union. Why take a stand against something that is so obviously wrong? Because he wants to communicate moral severity. Catastrophes are an accumulation of personal failures. This isn’t a self-help book, in the sense that you’re not supposed to read it, put its advice into practice, and then feel better. It’s really collected essays about steering away from the worst possible misery for everyone. He writes: “I’m amazed I have been allowed (even encouraged) to teach what I taught first in Harvard and now in Toronto. I’ve always thought that if people really noticed what I was teaching there would be Hell to pay.”

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back

So, this is the chapter with that thing about the lobsters. If I were to summarise his point here, it would be something like: The biological continuity between animals and humans is larger than is often assumed, and one of the ways in which this is manifested is that humans also form a dominance hierarchy. When humans (or lobsters, for that matter) face defeat, they have a higher propensity for negative emotion, and a lower propensity for positive emotion. And so, if you feel depressed, you might blame it on society, or think that your serotonin receptors got zapped by lightning, but actually, you might be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, and you should be cautious complaining about this because the neural mechanism involved is literally 350 million years old. Peterson also makes a deal about how serotonin regulates posture, which is pretty cool. This is, I suppose, why we have an image of a loser (In editing, I misread this as ‘lobster’) as having drooped shoulders, and the reason for the allusion in the title of the chapter. It seems like having low serotonin causes bad posture, and maybe the converse is true? In any case, posture is important, so, uh, moving on. The comparison with lobsters was mocked endlessly, but… it was an analogy. By my reading, he’s making the point that I made above. Am I going crazy? Having said that, the lobster thing is, aesthetically, really weird. The whole chapter is filled with references to lobsters, including on the last page.

I think this is another one of the reasons why people don’t like Peterson. People like to imagine that you if take out the specific hierarchies in our society – capitalism, or the patriarchy, or whatever – then what would be left is a state of egalitarianism. But actually, the dominance hierarchy is (he says) a kind of superstructure that is historically, psychologically, and philosophically anterior to these contingent hierarchies. And so, when you get rid of the surface-level structure, you’re still going to be left with some manifestation of the dominance hierarchy, and probably a worse one.

I can see why people don’t like this. “Egalitarianism is a pipe dream and not even desirable” sounds cartoonishly evil. But maybe this is just because this conjures to mind a picture of rich oil barons profiting from the suffering of the working class, and not the more abstract sense of hierarchy that’s embodied in community, family, and maybe even respect for expertise. And it’s this second sense of hierarchy that is in fact desirable and that society would fall apart without.

My second main takeaway from this chapter is that happiness is not the opposite of sadness. Nor is it the absence of sadness. Peterson is irritated by the modern infatuation with happiness, and views happiness as more of a fortuitous by-product that sometimes occurs when you get your affairs in order. Happiness is a gift, not a proper pursuit.

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

Peterson seems to agree with my take that trivial inconveniences are the most powerful force in the universe. Of people who are prescribed drugs, one third don’t even fill the prescription, and half of the remaining don’t take the drugs properly (they either don’t take it at all, skip days, or take the wrong dose). But when people have medication that they need to give to their dogs, they almost always administer it properly. Could we really care so much more about our pets than about ourselves? To answer this, Peterson (of course) goes on a chapter-long digression about the Book of Genesis.

Recall that in Genesis, Adam eats the apple and then he blames it on Eve. Then, when God comes to him, he hides behind a bush because he’s self-conscious about being naked. This is despite the fact that the almighty can presumably see through bushes. I think he’s saying the causal chain goes like this: Self-consciousness leads to understanding of the necessity of work, which leads to a general understanding of human vulnerability, which leads knowledge of how to produce suffering in others, which leads to knowledge of good and evil. So, I think he’s saying that there’s a kind of self-contempt and self-consciousness at the core of Being, such that even sensible people can allow a degree of self-decline that beggars belief, and the story in our culture which elucidates this is Adam eating the apple.

If this sounds to you like a real stretch, you would be correct. There are a couple of perspectives on why people fail to take medication that would dramatically improve or save their lives. One is a signalling story – that maybe we don’t really care so much about ourselves, or about our loved ones, but we still go to the doctor to flag ourselves as considerate and virtuous. Another is that there’s a kind of weird psychological mechanism whereby people are unreasonably deterred by trivial inconveniences. (There are cases where people have the belief that they’ve been misdiagnosed, and presumably sometimes they are correct. But he is talking here about weakness of will, in the sense of people believing deep down that they probably should do some thing but falling to do it.) Peterson offers an alternative vision where our failure to take our meds is a kind of revealed preference for embedded self-hatred.

My sense of the general Petersonian reading of the Bible goes something like this: the fall of man is about the inevitability of human weakness. Genesis is about the organisation of the self, and the sort of superstructure of experience. The rest of the Old Testament is about the escape from evil – Exodus, for instance, having obvious significance as being a morality tale about the escape from tyrannical order (the Israelites in Egypt) into chaos. Peterson repeatedly talks about the (significant) differences between different translations of the Bible, and the fact that famous Bible stories are actually repeated multiple times with contradictory details. So, it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t draw the inference that the stories can’t possibly be as meticulous as he is crediting, and therefore at least some of the insight comes from translators and interpretation, not from the text itself. And this is more believable to me – a multi-thousand-year intellectual tradition including many of the greatest minds in history is unlikely to have produced nothing of value. He writes about Jung on lessons from the Bible:

“I learned two very important lessons from Carl Jung, the famous Swiss depth psychologist, about “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “loving your neighbour as yourself.” The first lesson was that neither of these statements has anything to do with being nice. The second was that both are equations, rather than injunctions. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obliged to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. What good is that? It’s much better for any relationship when both partners are strong. Furthermore, there is little difference between standing up and speaking for yourself, when you are being bullied or otherwise tormented and enslaved, and standing up and speaking for someone else. As Jung points out, this means embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect.”

I think this is probably what Peterson was getting at when he said that many women were making themselves unhappy by choosing weak male partners, which he got a hard time for. Presumably people can prefer having submissive male partners, and freely choose to do so, so it is difficult to see what the issue is. But Peterson probably sees it as something like the Jungian bargaining described above. You may enjoy having a boyfriend who doesn’t Stand Up Straight with His Shoulders Back, but it does a worse job adhering to the Platonic ideal of a relationship, in which he is “bargaining as hard on [his] own behalf as on” yours, and this leads to sub-optimal long-term outcomes.

Peterson writes that you’re morally obligated to help yourself. There are a lot of old ideas that Peterson is trying to revive in this book, and one of them is destiny. There’s this destiny out there for us that we ought to be fulfilling – maybe it’s just being a janitor, but the hospital needs to be clean to run. By not taking care of yourself, you commit a kind of sin that is in a league of its own from object-level sins like stealing, because you’re subverting Being.

A core message of this book is that clichés are often incredibly profound and worth meditating upon. And this chapter is the proper introduction of the idea that life is a balancing act between order and chaos, yin and yang. To straddle the boundary between them involves achieving something like a flow state. There is something conspicuously absent from this discussion, which is whether Peterson thinks most people are too chaotic or too orderly. I don’t know which is true for myself. I often feel anxious, and that I don’t have complete control over my life, and this certainly feels chaotic. But this chaos in part comes from the monotony of life under lockdown. Which am I deficient in – order or chaos? Or is that the wrong question to ask, and it’s all about engineering the appropriate interplay between the two?  

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you

This chapter largely consists of Peterson telling stories about his adolescence in a town incredibly far north in Canada, where his friends were mostly layabouts who never did anything, despite cheap easily available college education. People hang around with crappy friends for two reasons, other than necessity: one, naivete, and two, narcissism. There is a well-worn trope of the teenage girl falling in love with someone “broken” to fix him up. Choosing the right friends is underrated and cultivating a friend group that makes you smarter, more interesting, and better able to achieve your goals should be among your top priorities:

“Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible—and, perhaps, more likely—that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible. Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.”

Following Carl Rogers, Peterson says that if someone really doesn’t want to be helped, you shouldn’t help them. How can you tell whether your alcoholic friend whose life is falling apart truly wants help, or is just saying that despite having decided a thousand times to accept his lot in life and not work to improve it? This sounds harsh, but maybe it’s advisable?

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

People sometimes talk about the depressive realism literature, which is the controversial finding that depressed people have more realistic worldviews. Might happiness really just be sustained by self-delusion? Probably not: this literature has many problems, including that it looks at only moderately depressed people, and it’s certainly not the case that the deeply mentally ill have more sane outlooks on things as healthy people. But still, somewhat in response to this idea, “positive illusions” were recommended by psychologists for quite some time. The Petersonian perspective on comparing yourself to others is that you’re playing this game where you’re sizing yourself up with respect to other people. And when your brain chatters away telling you about how worthless you are, regardless of the circumstances, you should take this as a signal that the game is rigged against you. Saying that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others at all is stupid, because you have to make value judgements to operate in the world.

At this point, Peterson is in the domain of self-help clichés again. The thing that’s important is the day-in day-out habits, not the exceptional experiences like great parties, holidays, and so on. This is true for the prosaic reason that those events don’t take nearly as long as the totality of the rest of your days. But – and at this point I’m reading beyond what he’s actually written – the daily rituals and habits are also important for the more spiritual reason that progress is excruciatingly incremental, and that these one-off events don’t build virtue and moral fibre. This is a conclusion I came to even as a child – that actually, things like holidays, while pleasant, were kind of a distraction from daily existence, and so a lot more effort should go into optimising for that. See also Kahneman on the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

Next, a note of caution on the critique of religion’s insistence on obedience:

“Religion is… about proper behaviour. It’s about what Plato called “the Good.” A genuine religious acolyte isn’t trying to formulate accurate ideas about the objective nature of the world (although he may be trying to do that too). He’s striving, instead, to be a “good person.” It may be the case that to him “good” means nothing but “obedient”—even blindly obedient. Hence the classic liberal Western enlightenment objection to religious belief: obedience is not enough. But it’s at least a start (and we have forgotten this): You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored. You will not know what to target, and you won’t fly straight, even if you somehow get your aim right. And then you will conclude, “There is nothing to aim for.” And then you will be lost.”

People call Peterson a counter-Enlightenment figure, and indeed, he’s a big fan of Nietzsche, who I think is considered very counter-Enlightenment. But it’s not like Peterson thinks the world used to be better and we’re in some kind of unique period of decadence and debauchery. Indeed, he heartily endorses Steven Pinker and his shtick that society has been getting better, with things like violence, hunger, and disease on the steady decline. Peterson isn’t a declinist but a Chicken Little, warning people about how civilisation can collapse into tyranny, and about the chilling effects of their complacency and naive political activism.

One of the biggest problems with this book is that its focus is more on formulating the same key concepts in different ways and not on addressing (often obvious) counterarguments. For example, he writes:

“You might [say] “But I’m an atheist.” 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.”

Hehe, you think that there’s no god, but Jordan Peterson says that there’s really no atheists! This a very silly and esoteric way of using the word ‘belief’. Peterson never says “Yes, I realise that I am using a version of the word ‘belief’ that implies that sceptics who are a little bit nervous sleeping in a haunted house believe in ghosts, despite claiming to the contrary. But I’m going to bite the bullet and say that this is what belief is.” He also doesn’t seem to address the psychological game of cat-and-mouse this would create. Yes, we all believe mutually contradictory things. But when Sam Harris goes away for 30 years and thinks about it and comes to the conclusion that yep, I’m definitely an atheist, I want to live in a world in which ‘belief’ isn’t such a semantically abstract concept that I can say yep, Sam Harris really is an atheist. Moreover, religion might be a kind of special case, because it’s a belief that people actually embody in their behaviour. But most beliefs don’t have associated behaviours! What stance on monetary policy are my bones embodying right now?

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

I’ve long believed that parents spend too much time with their children. The amount of time parents spend with their kids in total has risen since the 50s, even though the number of children per woman has more than halved.  This is at best wasteful, making parenting unappealing at a time when birth rates are alarmingly low, and at worst actively psychologically harmful (see, for instance, the evidence in this book about the effects of ‘helicopter parenting’).

Peterson talks a lot in this book about the parental relationship, and about the sorts of parents that his patients had. These stories sound plausible: he says, for instance, that of patients he’s treated who are highly conflict-averse, a disproportionate number had abusive fathers. But there is also a literature in behavioural genetics which finds that parents seem to have almost no effect on their children’s life outcomes (beyond the effect of passing on their genes). It’s pretty shocking, but decades of studies have consistently shown this to be the case. These studies involve comparing twins raised apart to those raised together, fraternal twins to identical twins, and adopted to non-adopted siblings. So, we should have a prior against parents being the cause of adult neuroses. But also, parental effects (small as they generally are) are much larger among poor and very-deprived people, who have a disproportionate number of psychological problems, so maybe it really is true that his patient is having a tough time at work because his father was very domineering?

I should clarify that this literature is about adult life outcomes, and so Peterson’s parenting advice can apply so long as parents affect children’s behaviour, which is obviously true (indeed, it often makes them entitled and mean). He also sounded extremely sceptical of the methodology on an episode of EconTalk. He writes of a couple he knew: “Because they did not dare to teach him what “No” means, he had no conception of the reasonable limits enabling maximal toddler autonomy. It was a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order (and the inevitable reversal).” In this section, we see Peterson’s general contempt for theories where humans are pure and corrupted by social institutions. How can the society be corrupt, but none of the people who make it up? How would the corruption propagate?

I always thought that, if I have kids, I’m going to take an extremely hands-off approach with them. But after thinking about this chapter, I’m not so sure. Not because it will leave them with worse outcomes as adults (see above), but because it will make them annoying. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s parents’ failure to invite Maleficent to her christening is a metaphor for overprotection. Peterson interprets the spinning wheel whose prick Aurora falls into a slumber from as the wheel of fate. And the prick is the loss of her virginity. This is only one of many great moral lessons he derives from Disney movies.

Par for the course, Peterson proceeds to argue in favour of spanking your children as a disciplinary technique. It makes complete sense for people to say that hitting your children is psychologically harmful, or unethical, or that it’s so hard to figure out which small subset of cases it’s useful in that you shouldn’t even try. But when people say that, if you only treated your child with respect, or gave him a welcoming enough home environment, then he wouldn’t have so many behavioural problems. So far as I can tell, this is total crap, and kids are often nightmares for no particular reason. I know, because I was like this as a kid.  

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

Scott Alexander writes that “Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that social activism is the opiate of the masses”. College students think that all this stuff about “personal responsibility” and “inner spiritual struggle” is a distraction from the excesses of capitalism, and Peterson thinks that grandstanding about capitalism is a distraction from the difficult work of finding meaning and executing on your responsibilities. The book The Coddling of the American Mind offered a similar perspective, in which the meltdown on campuses over political correctness is deeply psychologically unhealthy, and even analogous to the symptoms of depressed individuals (catastrophising, black-and-white thinking, etc.).

Peterson writes about serial killers, and about how this is a kind of extreme case of how people don’t take their medication because they’ve internalised their self-consciousness about being a vindictive human (see Rule 2). And so, when people say things about how oh gosh, it really wouldn’t be so bad if humans went extinct, because we’re messing up the climate so much, they don’t realise that they’re going down a very dangerous intellectual path.

Many of Peterson’s patients believe that humans are bad or a waste of space. He’s talked about one of his childhood friends who fell into this trap and ended up committing suicide. I do kind of wonder how often this actually leads to mental illness, rather than the other way around. This might be related to the growing neuroses around whether it’s moral to have children – it could just be that the economy increasingly penalises having kids, people respond to incentives, but they make up some story about how they’re not having kids because of climate change. Peterson gets suspiciously annoyed about this.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

We’re back to Genesis. In Eden, Adam discovers work, and Peterson equates this with the discovery of the future – the future being something that can be bargained with, because to work is to forego some pleasures now to better achieve your goals later. This calls to mind John Maynard Keynes, who famously credited the Jews with the discovery of the future. This next part is almost in the tradition of The Leviathan, which is to say, a discussion of how society can exist, metaphysically speaking. Tyler Cowen once said that he reads the book of Genesis as having the emergence of the social contract as one of its major themes, and this puzzled me. But maybe this is kind of what he meant? The problem of stable cooperation is the same as the problem of delayed gratification, and the toolkit to solve this is what God bequeaths onto Adam. In modern parlance, many of these Biblical stories are about how to play iterated games. I have to admit that it is kind of weird that the tree Adam and Eve eat from is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Peterson also makes a deal out of the etymology: ‘paradise’ means walled garden and ‘Eden’ means well-watered place. Our ideal of the good is a well-watered garden surrounded by a wall.

Peterson describes an episode of Cartesian doubt he had in the 80s in which he was looking for something to anchor his worldview upon, and he found the reality of suffering to be such an anchor:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.””

Once again, on Jung: 

“Jung observed that the construction of… a moral hierarchy was inevitable—although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what the person acted out. It was what the person believed most deeply. Something enacted is not a fact, or even a set of facts. Instead, it’s a personality—or, more precisely, a choice between two opposing personalities. It’s Sherlock Holmes or Moriarty. It’s Batman or the Joker. It’s Superman or Lex Luthor, Charles Francis Xavier or Magneto, and Thor or Loki. It’s Abel or Cain—and it’s Christ or Satan. If it’s working for the ennobling of Being, for the establishment of Paradise, then it’s Christ. If it’s working for the destruction of Being, for the generation and propagation of unnecessary suffering and pain, then it’s Satan. That’s the inescapable, archetypal reality.”

I suppose this responds to my criticism from earlier about trusting that people accurately report their beliefs but understanding that beliefs don’t propagate completely through the brain. If the brain is a hierarchy, then it wouldn’t be arbitrary to privilege some subconscious hypothesis over another as being your “real” belief. But still, really? God is the apex of our moral hierarchies? This is at least non-obvious.

One idea I liked here is that binding constraint are good. Here’s a passage I’ve been thinking about recently, from David Brooks’ The Second Mountain:

“All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air. It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side—and fully commit to something.”

The mere fact that you’re committing to something, or someone, is valuable in itself. The loss of option value is itself valuable. I’ve had many discussions with my girlfriend about the way that I use constraints. I feel that rules and restraint are absolutely necessary not only to my flourishing, but to me having a life which is not utterly terrible. If I don’t impose specific restrictions on how much I can play video games, (namely: never) I will become addicted, I will fall behind on my obligations, and my life will fall into chaos. I even have to place hefty restrictions on how much I can read blogs!

Maybe my temperamental conservatism is me projecting these personality traits onto the world. If we don’t have proper restraint, and roles, and be extremely humble about what can be achieved, then things will go to hell in a handbasket. And this flows right into a major piece of advice that Peterson gives to young people: just commit to something. If you don’t know what to do with your life, take your best guess, and take your best damn shot. Drifting through life in your late 20s as an investment banker or consultant murmuring about “keeping your options open” seems to be a common failure mode for ambitious and promising young people.

Rule 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie

I basically share Peterson’s intuition that I’m lying constantly. To Peterson, lying is a kind of spiritual crime. Lying by Sam Harris is a short book I recommend, and Harris underscores the extent to which not lying is really hard and is an active process. Even the first part – knowing what the truth actually is, or rather, what you really think the truth is – is hard.

The idea that totalitarian states are propped up the small everyday lies is very interesting to me, and I haven’t read detailed discussion of it. First, you’re telling cavalier lies about your political opponents, then you’re selectively ignoring a few historical events here and there, until eventually you’ve built up a mythology in which Stalin is the saviour of the universe:

“One of the major contributions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, was his analysis of the direct causal relationship between the pathology of the Soviet prison-work-camp dependent state (where millions suffered and died) and the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own day-to-day personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering, and thereby prop up the dictates of the rational, ideology-possessed communist system. It was this bad faith, this denial, that in Solzhenitsyn’s opinion aided and abetted that great paranoid mass-murderer, Joseph Stalin, in his crimes.”

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

Most of this chapter is not about learning things from others directly, but about how we organise our own thoughts through conversation. Appropriately formulating problems is hard. And to this end, the contrasting philosophies can be identified with the specific therapeutic traditions: Freud famously didn’t face his patients, because he didn’t want their free association to be influenced by his reactions and emotions. But most psychologists now are explicitly having a conversation with their patients. From what I’ve read about Freud beyond his reputation in popular culture, people think he’s way more ridiculous than he actually is, because everything that Freud got right, we now take for granted such that all that’s left is the ridiculous stuff. Peterson said in one of his lectures that one of Freud’s big mistakes is thinking that people know what they want to repress. But actually, what we’re repressing is quite opaque to us. In clinical psychology, you’re taking plausible guesses. And then you’re refining these guesses. This is another theme that I’ve become interested in recently: the (un)reliability of introspection.  

Rule 10: Be precise in your speech

You may have heard about the illusion of explanatory depth, even if not by that name. People feel that they understand things they rely on and interact with, but this illusion breaks down as soon as they are asked to explain how they work at the level of detail. The archetypal example of this is a toilet: many studies have shown that people think they understand how a toilet works, but when asked to write down, in as much detail as possible, the exact mechanism, they have no idea. Peterson has a view where life crises similarly break the illusion with perception. Perception, in this view, is all about objects’ purposes – and, by extension, perception is not very objective. This is the difference between being immersed in a film vs. realising you’re sitting in a cinema watching it.

How can modified perception be more accurate than the original thing, and by extension, how can a modified recollection of the past be more accurate than the original impression? I take this to be another intractable philosophical problem at the core of Being where humans somehow square the circle and solve it. We all do six impossible things before breakfast, and all that. 

Finally, he’s saying that the essential virtue of precision is that it collapses the space of possible bad things. It’s like talking to your doctor: “If you talk to your doctor, all those terrible possible diseases will collapse, with luck, into just one terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into nothing. Then you can laugh at your previous fears, and if something really is wrong, well, you’re prepared. Precision may leave the tragedy intact, but it chases away the ghouls and the demons.”

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

Peterson says that, when all else fails, you can sometimes infer people’s motivations from the consequences of their actions. If you really wanted to change the world, you would probably not be so concerned with changing other people’s desires and motivations. Paternalism is often a very ugly impulse. Outrage is another example of a negative and ugly emotion that gets couched in moral language to make it appear just.

You can skip this chapter without much being lost. A lot of it is the tired old rant about campus political correctness. But this part is worth keeping: he says that the boundaries we draw between groups are arbitrary, and group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. Equalising outcomes across gender makes some sense and has some theoretical appeal. But why not equalise outcomes across people whose names start with the letter ‘A’ and the letter ‘B’? Yes, in this case you would infer that any differences are just randomness, but there seem to be a lot of other groups that have different outcomes for unjust reasons, like tall and short people.

Peterson also gives his spiel about gender differences. The gender paradox is a reasonably well-replicated result that finds that in the countries that have the most egalitarian social policies, like Sweden, the personality differences between men and women get larger, not smaller. The best countries in the world for female representation in STEM are places like Zimbabwe and Angola, and the US does better than progressive northern Europe. I admit this is surprising, and I’m not sure what direction the causal arrow in this correlation points in. There are, after all, lots of things that are different between Sweden and Angola. If there are differences in ability or differences in interest between men and women, it is literally mathematically impossible to have equal opportunity and equal outcomes. At some margin, the more equal your outcomes, the less equal your opportunities, and vice versa. And Peterson thinks attempts to fix this are totally catastrophic because of the instances in which this kind of thing has been tried before (USSR, Venezuela, Cuba) literally all of them have been catastrophic. The extent of this exaggeration is not lost on me. To be honest, this whole section was tangential, and I don’t care about it in the context of this book. There seems to be something about correcting people’s misperceptions about gender that is addictive to people; when Peterson incorporates talking about the gender paradox into one of his talks, he ends up going on a very long and mostly unrelated tangent. Which, come to think of it, is what I am currently doing.

Rule 12: Pet a cat if you encounter one on the street

Why does evil exist if God is infinitely good? Proposed solutions to this problem have been so ubiquitous throughout history that they have their own name: a theodicy. This was my favourite chapter, and it’s implicitly a kind of theodicy. Peterson’s daughter had childhood arthritis in forty joints and crippling depression, which he gives an account of. It is easy to forget in the midst of this that Peterson is a really good storyteller. If you find Peterson’s politics so odious that you can’t find anything to like about him, I think you should be able to see a kind of silver lining in the resurrection of a certain kind of oral tradition.

Do I recommend this book? For a certain kind of person, yes. My position is more like this: I can see why this book is helpful to people who seek it out, and I found it somewhat helpful, but I don’t think it’s the kind of book that you’ll get sucked into if you’re not highly self-motivated to read it. Shaming people for reading or liking this book is counterproductive and mean.

Writing this review was of more benefit to me than reading the book. Peterson is bullish on writing as being a useful tool for your life and career, as well as exactly the kind of thing with which to execute the Inner Spiritual Struggle I’ve been talking about. So probably the biggest object-level effect that Peterson has had on my life is to get me to write a lot more, which has had some very positive effects. So, I suppose that is what I leave you with. Pet a cat if you see one on the street 🙂

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