Jordan Peterson’s Rules vs. the Gospels (#1)

After giving it much thought, I felt like it was time to delve into Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I gave this a little time because of all the fanfare/backlash associated with Peterson’s name over the last 12-18 months, and I didn’t want my feelings (which admittedly came from one YouTube video, a few articles, and the social media monster) to affect my read of the book.

I am currently on chapter two, but I felt it best to write my thoughts out instead of letting them swirl around in my head. I think I may end up writing responses as I read Peterson’s “rules” in order to better understand the kind of worldview they function under and how that worldview can be compared and contrasted with a more fundamentally Christian understanding of the world and of human beings. Or at least an understanding of these things compared to how the Gospels present them. We’ll see

At the outset, I’ll say that Peterson is much more reasonable than I anticipated. I’m only into the preface and chapter one, but it’s clear to me that he’s touching on something that many people in (post?)modernity are grappling with, even un- or subconsciously. It is unsurprising that people are latching on to Peterson’s “rules” for life, which provide a kind of harbor for creating meaning in a world that seems more and more fractious and fraught with tension than has ever been the case historically.

Peterson’s first rule is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” By this, he means:

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended.

Chapter one jumps between several different concepts — chaos and order, an evolutionary model of human beings and our place in the animal kingdom, and dominance/hierarchy/social structures. He weaves these concepts together into a model that gives a foundation for why “standing up straight with your shoulders back” is a key to human growth, meaning, and existence.

I won’t go into all the details of his examples, but I will delve into the evolutionary model a bit. Peterson uses observations of animal hierarchies and social structures — particularly lobsters — who have been around, according to him, for 350 million years. He seems to think that the age of lobsters in evolutionary terms lends credence to the idea that their social structures feed into human social structures. Perhaps this is a fair point, but I don’t know. It’s certainly a powerful example. Ultimately, he indicates that the lobster social structures of dominance and territorial control explain human behavior.

He writes:

The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental [like lobsters]. It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions. It powerfully affects every aspect of our Being, conscious and unconscious alike.

Because of this, he goes on:

If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter [that places you within your own social hierarchy] that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate. It will render you more likely to abuse cocaine and alcohol, as you live for the present in a world full of uncertain futures. It will increase your susceptibility to heart disease, cancer and dementia. All in all, it’s just not good.

Peterson isn’t dealing with absolutes here, or so it seems to me. He’s speaking in terms of likelihood and statistical probabilities. He’s saying that if we act defeated, it’s likely that we’ll be defeated. When lobsters lose in a battle over territory, they are more likely to be defeated in future battles too, because of the reduced serotonin in their brains. The loss of serotonin leads to some kind of depression, which decreases their likelihood of success in the future, both in terms of gaining territory and gaining access to quality food and mating choices.

The same is generally true, Peterson says, of human beings. If our defeats lead us to droop downward (physically and emotionally), we are less likely to think we can be successful in the future. This may lead to a lack of willingness to take risks for the purpose of gaining greater rewards, which in turn means that opportunity simply won’t present itself. Ultimately, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Peterson quotes here Matthew 25:29 (although I’m not sure that this is ultimately the point of the passage): “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

Peterson is walking a fine line here, and I can appreciate what he’s doing. The ultimate point of rule #1, it seems to me, is that truly living life means facing the challenges that life brings head on. If we are to live (and live meaningfully), it’s important that we “accept the terrible responsibility of life.” I don’t take any issue with this. In fact, I agree that this is part of the human task. Suffering, death, tragedy, and the mundanity of everyday life are challenges we simply must face up to if human lives are to be meaningful in any real sense.

However, the other side of the line he’s straddling is a somewhat implicit affirmation that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, face life head on, and opportunity will more than likely present itself. Further, if we face life in this way, we’re less likely to suffer in tragic ways, less likely to become terminally ill, and less likely to live in squalor and poverty. To that I say: maybe, maybe not. The Jesus I read about in the Gospels has a lot to say about social hierarchy, and it’s not always positive. “The last shall be first” is a hard saying, and is likely a critique of Peterson’s point. Perhaps the reality of social hierarchy is that those who have will be given more, and the strongest (mentally and physically) are the ones who ultimately prosper. But Jesus also seems to be saying that the state of things is not and indicator of how things ought to be. We get it wrong when we think the strongest are the ones who are the winners.

My evaluation of rule #1: it’s a good starting point, although I think Peterson may be fundamentally wrong about why it’s a good starting point. Standing up straight with your shoulders back, in Peterson’s view of the world, is just a little bit different in its aim than Jesus’ call, say, to “Take up your cross and follow me.”