Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson
Part 7, Moral Advice in the Moral Vacuum
In the last couple posts we've focused mainly upon the issue of meaning, where to find and how to ground it. But Peterson's project is also deeply invested in reclaiming morality. In Maps of Meaning he writes:
If we wish to live, we must act. Acting we value. ... It is, traditionally speaking, our knowledge of good and evil, our moral sensibility, that allows us this ability. It is our mythological conventions, operating implicitly or explicitly, that guides our choices. ... This "problem of morality"--is there anything moral, in any realistic general sense, and if so, how might it be comprehended?--is a question that has now attained paramount importance. ... [T]he individual cannot live without belief--without action and valuation--and science cannot provide that belief. We must nonetheless put our faith in something.
Life is inherently a moral drama. We must act, but acting requires valuation, if only implicitly. We are always moving toward "the good" as we conceive it. And yet, science cannot provide us with this valuation. But since we have to act, we have to put our faith in something. We have to possess, or enact, some moral code, some "knowledge of good or evil."
Given this situation, Peterson's project is less about providing us a "map of meaning" than a "map of morality." As he goes on to state his overarching project:
Careful comparative analysis of this great body of religious philosophy might allow us to provisionally determine that nature of essential human motivation and morality ... Accurate specification of underlying mythological commonalities might comprise the first developmental signs in the conscious evolution of a truly universal system of morality. The establishment of such a system, acceptable to empirical and religious minds alike, could prove of incalculable aid in the reduction of intrapsychic, interindividual and intergroup conflict. The grounding of such a comparative analysis within a psychology (or even a neuropsychology) informed by strict empirical research might offer us the possibility of a form of convergent validation, and help us overcome the age-old problem of deriving the ought from the is; help us see how what we must do might be inextricably associated with what it is that we are.
If you want to know what Jordan Peterson is "up to," what his intellectual project is, this is it. Through "careful comparative analysis" of religious and mythological thought (and here he's taking a cue from Jung) Peterson is hoping to investigate the "nature of human motivation and morality" to present us with "a truly universal system of morality." Since this investigation is primarily descriptive Peterson hopes that the products of this analysis would be "acceptable to empirical and religious minds alike" and will prove to be "of incalculable aid" in reducing psychological, relational, and social conflict.
Stated so baldly, many readers might express some skepticism about the ambitions of Peterson's project. Count me among the skeptical. The is/ought problem cannot be overcome through psychologically-informed comparative mythology. For example, it might be true that a comparison of ancient religion and myth reveals common themes, even universal themes, about how ancient peoples engaged in valuation and moral action. But why must or ought we continue to follow those same moral valuations? Maybe we ought to do things differently.
Peterson's answer here is that these systems of valuation have proved themselves to be adaptively effective over evolutionary millennia. These systems of valuation have been tried in the fires of evolution and have survived. That proves their value and worth, and we ignore them at our peril.
Point taken. But why ought we follow evolution-tested advice? Peterson's answer, if you've listened to him, is this: "Because you want to survive, man. You don't want to fall into the chaos. Because there will be hell to pay. This is no joke." Peterson gets you to the "ought" through apocalyptic threats of impending doom. And it's rhetorically quite effective. Sure, you can blow off the ancient myths in your conceit and arrogance, but there will be hell to pay. The moral leverage here isn't deontological, but pragmatic.
Still, there's an issue to be debated here. Yes, evolution promotes survival, but survival is different from the good.
Like I said, this can be debated. Feel free to have at it. But the appeal of Jordan Peterson doesn't stand or fall upon if you think his project is metaphysically coherent, if you think he really can pull the rabbit of "ought" out of the magic hat of "is." Peterson's appeal is, rather, due to the fact that his project is all about reclaiming morality.
As I said at the top, in the last few posts we've been discussing the modern "vacuum of meaning." But what Peterson is really concerned about is our "vacuum of morality." Peterson is a moralist. And you see this most clearly in his popular book 12 Rules for Life. The 12 Rules:
Stand up straight with your shoulders straight.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
Befriend people who want the best for you.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not the useless person you are today.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,
Set your house in order before you criticize the world.
Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
Tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie.
Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.
Be precise in your speech.
Do not bother children while they are skateboarding.
Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street.
Some of these rules are transparent. Some rules are stated so whimsically you'll have to read the book to understand what Peterson means by the aphorism. Some of the rules have moral content, and some are about a philosophy of living. My concern with this list today, however, isn't with the content but with the form. That is to say, Peterson is giving advice, often moral advice. And this advice-giving has found a wide hearing.
Yes, some of this appeal is due to the content of Peterson's moral advice. We'll be getting to that in the Fridays to come. But today I'd just like to note that moral advice itself, as moral advice, has intrinsic appeal. And I think it's important for pastors and intellectuals to pay attention here. Intellectuals have lampooned Peterson's advice, portraying it as childish banalities masking as sagacious profundities. Fair enough, but the point here is that Jordan Peterson is offering advice, concrete moral advice. And this advice resonates, simply because it is advice.
Why? Because Peterson is correct, the modern world is a moral vacuum. Moral norms, much widely accepted, have evaporated. People no longer go to church and families are complete trainwrecks. Young people are lost and aimless. And into that void Peterson says, "Tell the truth" and "Stand up straight." And millions of people listen on YouTube. Advice, in the modern world, is rain in the desert.
Can the church take a hint here? Let me say something quite pointed. There are a lot of pastors with MDiv, DMin, or PhD degrees who sneer at topical, advice-giving preaching. These pastors prefer expository preaching, teaching from "the text." And when they preach "the text" they explain a lot about the Bible and speak in vague generalities about joining the mission of God. The sermon is for everyone and therefore no one. And the young people sit the pews bored, looking at their phones.
Here's the truth. Those pastors who preach advice-giving, practical, topical sermons? People follow them. People listen to them. People go to their churches. And the appeal here is the same appeal as Jordan Peterson's. These pastors are giving concrete moral guidance in a world aching for concrete moral guidance.
Am I saying that pastors need to give up textual, expository preaching to become more topical and practical? No. What I'm saying is this: Stop sneering at the advice givers and pay attention. Do better. Be a more incisive cultural anthropologist. The modern world is a moral vacuum and people are craving concrete, specific and particular advice. You might, for impeccable reasons that got you an A+ in seminary, decide that your sermon just isn't the place to give advice. Fair enough. But don't wrinkle your nose at Jordan Peterson when young people stop listening to you and start listening to him. You can speak into the vacuum. So say something.