Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson: Heroes for Moral Realism?

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson: Heroes for Moral Realism?

John Klasios
John Klasios

In his recent Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris, by very popular demand, engaged in discussion with the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. The bulk of their conversation centered on epistemology, and the concept of truth in particular. The hope on Harris’s end was that they could profitably discuss their respective views on big and important topics such as morality, science, religion, and atheism if they could establish a shared frame of reference with regard to how to conceptualize truth.

It quickly became apparent, however, that they had fundamentally different ways of approaching the matter, if not simply different terms to refer to the same terrain. And so the discussion amounted to something of a friendly debate.

Very roughly speaking, Peterson’s view of truth holds that a given proposition, ultimately speaking, cannot in fact be true if, say, it turned out to have very adverse effects on an individual or society at large. Accordingly — and to use an example — this might imply that our understanding of physics is fundamentally flawed (perhaps utterly false) if our civilization experienced a nuclear holocaust at some point in the future.

For in Peterson’s view, the mark of truthful propositions — including, in this case, modern physics—is their capacity to serve those ends which have Darwinian currency, namely survival and reproduction. And if such a nuclear holocaust were to occur, it would stand to reason, on Peterson’s view, that modern physics (or something about it) is false — since anything that seemingly reduces evolutionary fitness in this manner is ipso facto untrue.

Large-scale events such as this are perhaps instructive in diagnosing possible pitfalls for (what I understand to be) Peterson’s view, however. This is because a gene-centered and inclusive-fitness approach to understanding the nature of evolutionary selection might very well escape his criterion for truth-making, since there could very well be survivors in a nuclear holocaust. As such, at least some genes (that is, the genes of some individuals) might survive such an event, possibly even replicating themselves into future generations. In brief, Peterson’s conception of truth appears to have a retrospective quality to it, in that propositions that currently appear to be well-justified could hypothetically be shown to be false by future events that prove to be fitness-diminishing — or even civilization-ending, in this case.

On the other hand, it is quite unclear what to make of Peterson’s epistemic position given the just mentioned ambiguities surrounding precisely how to interpret its Darwinian criterion. Must everyone in a hypothetical nuclear holocaust perish for it to cast doubt on our current understanding of physics (or some aspect of it), or is there some threshold that much be reached in terms of casualties for there to be a negative epistemological verdict? And if there is some threshold, what would justify placing it precisely where it is, and in a way that would escape the charge of being arbitrary?

But even more fundamentally, however, Peterson’s criterion of truth is just downright absurd. Harris is quite right to say that truth is not contingent, either currently or retrospectively, on the evolutionary fitness of individuals — or ‘goodness’ (however defined), or utility, or well-being, or whatever other normative criterion one wishes to substitute hereabouts. Indeed, I find Harris’ construal here to be rather obvious — and Peterson’s to be extremely controversial and badly thought-out.

In any event, one of Peterson’s lifelong projects — as detailed in his book, Maps of Meaning, and in his various lectures — has been to develop a guide for acting in the world. Peterson’s aim is thus not unlike the project that Sam Harris has attempted to articulate in The Moral Landscape. On Harris’ approach, though, his attempt to bridge the divide between is- and-ought made famous by Hume implicates the sciences. Accordingly, it is science, for Harris, which would continually inform and revise an open-ended, evolving understanding of human wellbeing. And, similarly, science would be relied upon to ascertain how, for instance, one ought to behave in the world, and how to structure societies, all in service to maximizing human wellbeing. And it is in this fundamental way in which Harris’ moral realism differs from that of Peterson’s.

At any rate, the two appear, at least at first glance, to be fellow travellers in this area. At root, both thinkers postulate what they take to be the highest value to which morality should aspire: for Peterson, the value that should be maximized is some sort of construal of evolutionary fitness; for Harris, it’s a scientifically-informed concept of wellbeing.¹ But in tying his highest moral value to a Darwinian foundation, Peterson seemingly violates the naturalistic fallacy, moving straight from descriptive facts to normative prescriptions. Harris, on the other hand, argues that our highest moral end ought to aim towards something much more humane than simply what nature has happened to foist on our species.

In a recent open-letter video addressed to Harris, Peterson has continued the conversation (to which Harris has mounted a rejoinder). In it, he claims that the ability to climb up dominance hierarchies is diagnostic of one’s apprehension of truth. And the best means of climbing dominance hierarchies, in turn, as Peterson sees it, is embodied by the mythological archetype of the hero. As Peterson points out, women have evolved to prefer high-status men when selecting a mate (at the very least, in long-term mating contexts). Now, this is all true enough, but I confess to being baffled as to what import this has to a basic epistemological sense of truth.

Should Peterson be taken to be arguing — or at least implying — that, among men anyway, dedicating oneself to climbing dominance hierarchies is the ultimate lodestar by which one can ascertain truth? If so, this seems rather farfetched. Having the aspiration to climb up a dominance hierarchy as high as possible may or may not be one’s summum bonum, but if it is, there is nothing about it that makes that pursuit somehow ‘more truthful’ than understanding mathematics or computer science (to take two examples). Indeed, it is quite plausible that such a summum bonum might lead one to understand fewer truths about reality, in an absolute sense, than aspiring to become a historian or scientist, say.

Now, if Peterson merely were to say that there are truths — for instance, in the form of generalizations that are empirically well-grounded — that conduce to climbing dominance hierarchies, generally and or locally (in space and time), he’d be on much more solid ground —  and I doubt very much that Harris would gainsay the possibility of there being such truths. In this way, we could say that there are (perhaps) truths to be discovered about the best methods to climb human status hierarchies (universally speaking), which are a (vanishingly small) subset of the larger class of truths about reality on the whole. Now, it may very well be the case that apprehending the former is much likelier to increase one’s fitness more than the latter (particularly for men, and at least ancestrally). But it does not follow in the slightest that what makes something true or not is its ability to conduce to evolutionary fitness. That is to say, evolutionary fitness plays no role whatsoever, in and of itself, in making something true, objectively speaking.

In the particular case of truths about how best to climb status hierarchies, what we have instead are just more facts (i.e., generalizations) — facts nested in the much vaster domain of facts about reality-at-large, with a key difference being that one set of these facts is much more straightforwardly relevant to an individual’s evolutionary fitness (while, for instance, being acquainted with a random assortment of arcane facts, such as the current distances between Mars and Neptune, and Los Angeles and the Sun, are much less obviously conducive to evolutionary fitness, if at all). And neither does a truth’s conducing to evolutionary fitness make it more truthful than other truths about reality. People value the truths of how to obtain water in a given context more than they generally value the truth about the charge of a charm quark, but this contingent fact about humans does not make the former more truthful than the latter.

Moreover, it is easy to see how serious problems could arise if morality was anchored in that which conduces to evolutionary fitness. For example, empirically speaking, it may be that, at least within certain temporal and social contexts, certain traits which are genetically or memetically most fit also happen to hamper, rather than enhance, human wellbeing in the aggregate (and or possibly in the individual possessing such traits). Such a scenario would run afoul of Harris’ construal of morality. Finally, one might challenge Peterson’s view that exemplifying the hero archetype is, in fact, the most optimal manner in which to ascend status hierarchies, on average. Perhaps, in point of fact, there is a much less savory set of characteristics that make it more likely that one will ascend up a status hierarchy in contemporary large-scale societies (this might be true even if it were the case that the hero archetype was the best available means of climbing status hierarchies at some point in the past, say). On the other hand, Peterson might conceivably respond to this challenge by providing a specific definition of the hero archetype, along with empirical evidence to support the contention that it is the best means of ascending up status hierarchies, currently and or generally speaking.

But let’s try to be a bit more charitable to Peterson’s approach and suggest a way of profitably interfacing it with Harris’ own approach, namely by taking seriously Peterson’s contention that the hero archetype is the optimal means by which to ascend status hierarchies. Specifically, let’s ask, as a first pass, whether the best possible way of cultivating human wellbeing is by aspiring to embody the hero archetype as best as possible, as well as structuring society in as best a manner as we can so as to facilitate the inculcation, development, and expression of that kind of heroism.

There is, to my mind, a fairly straightforward sense in which we can treat all of this as a kind of hypothesis within Harris’ framework — one that may or may not turn out to be vindicated in some manner (either in whole or in part) by the relevant sciences at some (perhaps very far) point in the future. Of course, it is not currently possible to spell out an ‘ultimate’ conception of human wellbeing, as, by Harris’s lights (and rightly in my view), it is a concept to be subject to continual input and revision from any and all sciences of relevance to it. At any rate, treating Peterson’s hero archetype as a hypothesis within Harris’ moral realism could enable one to at least think about how it might make contact with such an emerging, scientifically-grounded conception of human wellbeing. One might, for instance, envision various ways of developing reasonably rigorous scientific formulations of the hero archetype (or aspects of it) and attempting to empirically test how well it accords with our best, ever-evolving scientific understanding of human wellbeing. This would be a way, in short, of appraising Peterson’s approach within Harris’ framework of moral realism.

Additionally, we could examine Peterson’s related claim that our minds are in some manner evolutionarily adapted to the hero archetype and attempt to formulate it in a way that’s rigorous enough to test scientifically (indeed, existing scientific evidence across a range of disciplines may already permit for a good case to be made on this front). After all, it is perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that natural selection has shaped the mind in some manner such that it embodies the hero archetype, at least to some extent. Furthermore, it is likewise perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the hero archetype has correspondingly emerged over time via cultural evolution — as represented in, for instance, various mythological narratives — and for adaptive reasons, at least in part (that is, for reasons that enhanced individual genetic fitness in the evolutionary past).

Naturally, this kind of framing would also raise the possibility of gene–culture co-evolution, with the mind having been shaped over some period of evolutionary time by cultural manifestations of the hero archetype, and the hero archetype, in turn, having been reciprocally shaped by features of the mind. And it is furthermore reasonable to wonder whether any of these hypotheses can connect to more recent and sophisticated formulations and tests of multi-level selection — in particular the manner in which the hero archetype, as a cultural meme (or ‘memeplex’ of some kind), may have contributed to group success in the context of inter-group competition across evolutionary time, hence facilitated its cultural diffusion.

Fundamentally, however, it’s hard to see how both Harris and Peterson could attempt to make much progress on the prospect of a shared moral realism unless Harris was willing to view Peterson’s core ideas as testable empirical hypotheses within his (Harris’) particular framework of moral realism — and unless Peterson likewise could get on board with formulating his ideas in a way that was rigorous and specific enough to be tested scientifically, and on the terms outlined by Harris (or unless, of course, one of them changed their approach in some substantive way). But in principle at least, this strategy, apart from being seemingly coherent and tractable, is prima facie one that could get them speaking the same language, so to speak.

Having said all of that, although one might very well find Peterson’s perspective promising, there are foreseeable issues that might potentially militate against it, at least given the backdrop of Harris’ rendering of moral realism. For example, even if it were to turn out that embodying the hero archetype is a good or even optimal way of flourishing as an individual, it may turn out to be quite ineffective at maximizing human wellbeing at the level of societies (or civilization at large). Indeed, it is possible, for all we know, that manifesting the hero archetype leaves a net negative impact on human wellbeing on the whole—that is, when looking at the wellbeing of humans in the aggregate. For instance, it seems plausible to suggest that there may be negative externalities which lead to decreases in aggregate human wellbeing as a result of even just some individuals single-mindedly attempting to climb status hierarchies as high as they can, and at all costs.

Of course, even if it turned out that manifesting the hero archetype had a negative impact on aggregate human wellbeing, it may be that supplementary moral prescriptions could conceivably redress the negative spillover effects — so that we could have our cake and eat it too, so to speak (e.g., by implementing certain scientifically-grounded government policies, etc.). Alternatively, perhaps prescribing the hero archetype as an ultimate moral aim would optimize the well-being of only some individuals, but, at the same time, nonetheless raise the wellbeing of most if not everyone else in the process — i.e., through the various effects that the ‘heroes’ had on society on the whole. Perhaps this arrangement would be roughly analogous to the Rawlsian ‘difference principle’, which, roughly speaking, allows for certain individuals to hold prized positions so long as doing so would ultimately redound to the benefit of the individuals who are unable (for whatever reasons) to hold those positions. I raise these scenarios merely as possibilities to be examined.

So in sum, I see an avenue that might help Harris and Peterson escape their current impasse, find common ground, and ideally make some progress in advancing this important discussion. One important question that they should probably come to some consensus on is whether the value they are trying to maximize is individual evolutionary fitness or human wellbeing (in Harris’ species-wide and open-ended, scientifically-grounded sense). I see very little promise in grounding a moral realism (insofar as such a thing is ultimately a viable project) in terms of evolutionary fitness, and much more promise is taking Harris’ tack. Yet this would not mean that Peterson’s perspective could not be a viable contender in Harris’ framework, all the same. If they can get that far, it will be important to place an emphasis on Harris’ conception of wellbeing. And Peterson’s hero archetype would need to be rigorously formulated so as to function, effectively, as a scientific hypothesis about how best to maximize human wellbeing, so defined.

 

John Klasios is an academic researcher currently based in Toronto. His peer-reviewed publications can be found here.

 

Endnote

[1] Technically, the highest value to be maximized in Harris’ moral realism is the wellbeing of all conscious creatures (which would include, of course, non-humans). I focus on human wellbeing in this essay simply to compare Harris’ thinking with Peterson’s in a more streamlined way.

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John Klasios

John Klasios is an academic researcher currently based in Toronto. His peer-reviewed publications can be found here: http://yorku.academia.edu/JohnKlasios