Peterson and Ideology

In “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” Jordan Peterson mentions a tremendously good point. He argues that people oversimplify problems to suit their own needs. And they do so in rather typical ways. People create villains and heroes, they use low resolution categories like “economy” or “elites,” and they identify only one source of causation for the problem. For example, the elites are causing mass harm to the lower class by manipulating the economy. In that example, the causation of poverty is the elites, and their instrument of use is the economy. So, obviously, the solution is to take control of the economy to stop the villains – those being the elites – from their continual use of said tool. That will save the lower classes.

As Peterson points out, however, poverty is not caused by a single variable like the “elites”. Albeit, I am sure there is some truth to the elites contributing to poverty, but in reality poverty is a many variable problem: education, geography, peers, parents, access to food, access to medicine, support systems, government policy on education, substance abuse, financial planning and impulse control, and overall level of resources within a country, to name a few, are also involved with causing poverty.

As Adam Smith noted, America is not successful because of American exceptionalism, America is successful because of the wealth of natural resources upon which it was founded. The geography of America has simply granted them the ability to deal with absolute poverty far more readily than a country like Italy or Bulgaria.

So a problem like poverty is a complex problem that cannot be reduced down to one villain, one cause, and one solution. Simple enough.

Where things become more interesting, and where I somewhat disagree, is when Peterson says we should abandon ideology. For Peterson, ideology promotes this single cause and single solution worldview the most. Terms like environmentalism, communism, capitalism, liberalism, modernism, and so on and so forth have baked into them overly simplistic worldviews. As an example, some environmentalists think capitalism is the problem, the solution is for the government to take control of the markets and hand out harsher punishments, and thus the villains are obviously the companies. Or, for a capitalist, markets perform badly when the government intervenes, so the solution to a poorly performing market is to remove government intervention. Obviously, there are massive amounts of variance between groups of environmentalists and capitalists, but the point is that these words impose simplistic worldviews onto problems that are in fact far more complex. So, Peterson believes we should do away with ideology, since it does not encourage genuine thinking.

But, ironically, that seems like an ideology in itself, does it not? To blame simplistic thinking on ideology alone, as though it were the only cause, seems to be over simplistic. In many cases, a communist will oversimplify because they all read the same sources, live in echo chambers, are average intelligence and so cannot think of new ideas themselves, and so on and so forth. Not because they have an ideology. There are many reasons why the oversimplification of problems can be found in ideology. And many of those causes are outside the nature of ideology itself.

I think the real reason why Peterson is against ideology is for political reasons, as I believe he perceives many of his critics to be ideologues. And so, in some sense, the argument is really a down-talking of those who he disagrees with.

If we are to adjust Peterson’s position to a much stronger position, then we should say that Peterson is against the oversimplification of problems, which can stem from ideology as well as many other sources. And since one of the sources for oversimplification is ideology, we should do away with ideology. Yet even that, I cannot agree with. In part, because the cause of oversimplification seems to not be caused by ideology itself; but also, because when I ask what exactly ideology is, I am left with a blank, at first.

Sure, we could rely on the definition, but the definition does not give us enough clarity. A system of beliefs or ideas, or a political theory. But consider, what are some reasons why someone adopts an ideology? In some cases, their personality has a positive interaction with the world created by said ideology, and so opt to adopt the ideology; in some cases, their entire family supports an ideology, and so people conflate membership with their family with belief in said ideology; and when we consider communism, some among us look at only the past and consider that to be communism.

So, when we ask what exactly is an ideology, the definition alone does not communicate the entire picture. The definition alone is like trying to analyze a human outside of all their context. A human in a black box is nothing like a human inside a political rally. An ideology in theory is nothing like an ideology ingrained into someone’s psyche. Reasons for human behavior are as much a part of the human; and reasons for ideology are as much a part of the ideology. Ideology, when embodied, becomes a far more complex thing. Capitalism to some is not just free trade, it is also the expression of human creativity and individuality, it is behaviors, emotions, as well as beliefs; communism to some is not just liberation of the wage slave, it is their fundamental perception of equality and fairness; another way of saying it, they adopt communism only because of their perceptions about the nature of fairness. And so, removing communism would not remove the worldviews which are caused by their perceptions of fairness. Another way of putting it, as Kant would say, conception determines perception, but it seems to me that some people adopt beliefs because their perceptions determine conceptions. I believe in colours because my perceptions are structured in a way which shows me colours.

Which brings me to a point I want to make. Asking someone to abandon ideology is in some sense asking someone to abandon aspects of their psychology, which, in many cases, are far beyond their conscious recognition yet alone control. Peterson has a habit, a habit all too common in the self help industry, of asking people to do things not possible by a human. In his first book, 12 rules for life, he asks us to not compare ourselves to others – to avoid social comparison. Yet the brain cannot do that; in fact, the default mode of brain activity is, in accordance to the overwhelming evidence, a social network. When we are not engaged in analytical tasks, we are engaged in a social network (the default neural network). And Peterson himself asks us, in his second book, to look at others so we can identify their lack of responsibility taking. Thus, not only does Peterson ask of us things not possible, but encourages us to do things he previously told us not to do (the social comparison rule is only one of many).  So, I believe we are not able to abandon ideology simply because someone says so, nor do I believe oversimplification stems from ideology itself.

As a little anecdote, I am sure many of us have met sophisticated capitalists and communists who realize they do not have a worldview which solves all problems, and who understand that problems are composed of multiple causes. So, evidently, there is nothing which necessarily entails oversimplification when someone engages in ideology; as far as my anecdotes can tell me. And I believe smarter people view problems as more complex, and smarter people are, by definition, not the average person; which means, we are more likely to encounter someone of average intelligence using an ideology than above average intelligence; and therefore, more likely also to encounter someone who does not view problems as complex. But also, even in the book, Peterson offers mostly political ideologies, which are ideologies far more likely to suffer from group-think, peer pressure, and group dynamics, I believe. So perhaps Peterson should have considered less political ideologies as well. 

And to play devil’s advocate, I am sure there are some problems which are single cause, or at least mostly single cause. And it seems to me, when Peterson treats some of his patients, as he tells us in the book, he identifies single causes for problems, such as when we remain silent when our conscience wants us to speak up.

But where I mostly disagree with Peterson is the advice given. Analysis of his worldview aside, I think the better advice is to be skeptical of our own sense of certainty. Whether our certainty is wedded to an ideology or not. When we believe we have pinned a problem down to a few causes, we should instead be cautiously proceeding rather than professing absolute truth. In part because of the Münchaussen Trilemma, which demonstrates our own inability to have epistemic certainty – yes, including that very statement, and no that is not a problem unless you presuppose it to be – but also because we are only a frontal cortex smarter than our previous brain models. Humility, skepticism, and even some open-mindedness towards the idea of being flat out wrong are all anecdotes to oversimplification. They are also all anecdotes to the tyranny of Truth, a topic explored further in my book knowing nothing

To close on a positive note, I agree with the original point. Peterson makes a very good point when he says people oversimplify problems to suit their needs. And that includes ourselves as well.


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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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