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In Search of Utopia for Lobsters Like Us

We must therefore be wary of social or political arrangements that offer us equality of status, without the corresponding burden of self-reflection and improvement.

· 12 min read
In Search of Utopia for Lobsters Like Us

A review of 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaosby Jordan B Peterson, Random House Canada (January 23, 2018) 409 pages, and Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari, Bloomsbury USA (January 23, 2018) 336 pages.

Two recent and highly influential books have both addressed a puzzling question: despite unprecedented levels of material wealth, why are so many people in the modern world still so anxious and depressed?

For Canadian clinical psychologist / intellectual celebrity, Jordan B. Peterson, the issue lies primarily within individuals themselves. His book 12 Rules for Life argues that many people, especially young men, lack meaning, purpose and connection because they have not taken on enough personal responsibility for their own lives.

Johann Hari

In contrast, Johann Hari, a British journalist and author, places the fault for rising levels of depression and anxiety upon the much broader shoulders of dysfunctional modern societal norms and institutions. People are miserable, he argues in his book Lost Connections, because the dominant culture in the West emphasises ‘junk values’, fails to provide meaningful work, disconnects us from supportive communities, and cuts us off from the natural world.

While these two perspectives are not necessarily contradictory, they markedly diverge when it comes to potential interventions. Whereas Peterson generally thinks that solutions to social problems will emerge from individuals taking on more personal responsibility, Hari thinks solutions to individual suffering will emerge from changing the structure of society.

They arrive at such opposing conclusions largely because they each emphasise different higher human psychological needs. ‘Self-determination theory’ posits that humans have three such innate needs, which must be satisfied if they are to grow and prosper. These are competence – the ability to control outcomes affecting one’s life, autonomy – experiencing oneself as a causal agent, and relatedness – the need for interpersonal attachments.

Through this theoretical lens, it appears that Peterson’s primary focus is on the psychological need for competence and autonomy, while Hari’s is on the need for relatedness. Their books can thus be read as accounts of the negative social consequences that result when either of these distinct needs go chronically unmet. In many ways their insights are mutually supportive, especially on the toxic nature of loneliness, a paradoxical problem plaguing our hyper-connected age.

Both authors also accept that biological causes can sometimes overpower an individual’s conscious will, rendering them a helpless victim of disease or dysfunction. Undoubtedly, as our understanding of neurobiology improves, many people currently deemed morally responsible for their actions will justifiably be excused as passive victims of their faulty biochemistry.

Despite these commonalities, important intellectual fault lines exist between Peterson and Hari’s accounts. The first concerns the nature of personal ‘character’ and the necessity of suffering for personal growth.

Character and its transformations

A core thread running through Peterson’s work is that a person’s moral character, cashed out in terms of their core values, traits and habits, is hugely consequential for their life outcomes. Furthermore, such moral character is something that can be cultivated over time by individuals through conscious, deliberate effort.

Peterson’s infectious optimism about the potential for individuals to transform their own lives has driven much of his extraordinary appeal. He thoroughly rejects any form of social determinism that renders human beings as driftwood floating on the ocean of an amorphous ‘culture,’ a view most influentially critiqued by psychologist Steven Pinker as the ‘blank slate’. Peterson articulates a necessary correction to this dehumanising view: self-control and self-discipline are real phenomena with genuine causal potency. Peterson depicts our lived experience as filled with thousands of real choices, each one of which has the potential to bring our lives closer either to a figurative heaven or hell.

Peterson’s vivid examples illustrate how those who chronically lie, or are consumed by resentment or envy, systematically create the conditions for their own personal torment. On the flipside, those with positive character traits and habits can find themselves in a ‘virtuous cycle’ where opportunities for personal flourishing open up to them at an exponential rate. For Peterson, this positive cycle is driven by a belief that we can improve our personalities, with some guidance and some hard bloody work. This motivates us to enact the painful but necessary ritual of burning off the ‘dead wood’ of our false beliefs and harmful habits.

Peterson’s account dovetails nicely with the extensive psychological literature on resilience. This work suggests that if a person has an ‘internal locus of control’, that is, if they attribute their success or failure to their own efforts and abilities, they tend to experience less anxiety and perform better. It also appears that such an attitude can be fostered by changing your ‘explanatory style’, for example by shifting away from ‘global’ explanations for your behaviour (‘I’m a terrible person’) towards specific ones (‘I have this one bad habit’).

This underpins Peterson’s injunctions to fix yourself one small step at a time. He’s acutely aware of how difficult it is to change our deeply ingrained habits, and that our only hope is to attack them in an incremental fashion.

This kind of old-fashioned ‘sort yourself out’ hard talk couldn’t be further from the tone set by Johann Hari in his exploration of depression and anxiety. Trained in sociology, his focus is on the systemic, cultural forces that render us powerless, alone and miserable. He appears to elide any causal role for ‘poor character’ leading to individuals’ bad life outcomes.

Hari tends to avoid the question of whether people can improve their lives via conscious, effortful self-reflection. His selection of case studies and his analyses of them generally assume that people are stuck with their lot in life, thanks to the oppressive systems that control them. The conclusion follows that people’s lives can often only be improved by collective coordination with others. For Hari, the ‘locus of control’ is found far outside the individual mind, closer to the centre of gravity of the entire society. What follows from this is a lack of any justification for individuals feeling personal shame for the outcomes of their lives.

This leads him at one point to suggest eliminating all forms of advertising that make us feel bad about ourselves. To see why this sweeping call to free us all from publicly visible shame-triggers is misguided, we need to return to Peterson’s account of the process of personal growth, which not only admits a role for shame, but a necessary one.

Building on the work of depth psychologists like Carl Jung, Peterson argues that well-functioning human adult beings must hold themselves accountable to objective moral standards. They ask difficult questions of themselves that demand clear responses. What constitutes a healthy and attractive body? What does it mean to be financially secure? Why doesn’t Sarah want to go out with me?

The feeling of shame is a natural response to falling short of a standard that we reflectively endorse. While some of these standards might genuinely be irrational or unhealthy (the heroin chic trend in the 90s comes to mind), for the most part, it is not our ideals that are in error. Advertisements are effective often because they remind us of how we’re genuinely falling short of our ideal selves. To ban them outright would therefore be to admit that we cannot cope with acknowledging our imperfections. It would be to abdicate one of the many challenges of adulthood: being able to calmly assess and act upon our own shortcomings, while side-stepping the abyss of an irrational shame-spiral.

Throughout Lost ConnectionsHari routinely fails to acknowledge a role for legitimate suffering. This is most apparent in his description of how his friend Rachel overcame her persistent and debilitating feelings of envy. She achieved this transformation by practicing loving kindness meditation, which led her to feel vicarious joy whenever she noticed someone else’s success.

Now there is nothing wrong per se with cultivating more positive feelings towards the success of others – it’s certainly a step up from being constantly envious and miserable. But in attempting to expunge all such negative feelings, Rachel risks throwing the baby out with bathwater, in the following sense.

Envy, in its malicious form, is driven by a perception that someone enjoys a good that you desire and lack, coupled with the belief that you could never achieve that good if you applied yourself. For example, I don’t feel envious of my friend who’s just bought a beer if I have $5 and am waiting next in line at the bar. I know that in a few moments, with minimal effort on my part, I’ll be enjoying the very same good. But if that same friend scores a lucrative book deal, and that’s an achievement I’ve always wanted for myself, and I’m deeply pessimistic it will ever actually happen for me – then I’ve landed squarely in envy territory.

To be envious thus requires at some level a fixed mindset about your own abilities and character. Hobbled by this self-imposed limitation, the only way to achieve higher status in the eyes of those you respect is to drag others down to your level. This is what makes envy an intrinsically toxic emotion. The same does not hold however for mere feelings of disappointment, sadness or even shame upon seeing someone else succeed.

This means that the solution to Rachel’s envy was not to feel only positive emotions whenever confronted with other people’s successes. This would only serve to mask her genuinely informative feelings of inadequacy; necessary launching pads for any positive changes to either her habits or goals. What Rachel really needed was to improve her ability to tolerate shame, and a more optimistic vision of her own capacities to improve her life with concerted, conscious effort.

Hierarchy and inequality

One of Hari’s central claims is that individuals are chronically baulked in their attempts to improve their situation, by prevailing modes of social organisation. Crucial to this story is the idea that the hierarchical structures ubiquitous in corporations and government are essentially arbitrary, and that therefore the inequality they engender is avoidable.

According to Hari, “we can find practical ways to dismantle hierarchies and create a more equal place, where everybody feels they have a measure of respect and status”. He discusses a democratically-run bicycle store in Baltimore as a living example of this kind of transformation. Its workers had previously been fed up working in hierarchical companies, taking orders from bosses who weren’t pulling their own weight. Following the transition, they reported feeling far more satisfaction from their enhanced autonomy. This fits nicely within the empirical literature Hari cites showing that a perceived lack of control in the workplace contributes greatly to stress and depression.

Hari’s implication however that this might be a solution writ large across our societies is misguided in the extreme. Democratically governed workplaces make sense only given a highly restrictive set of conditions. The main one is that each of the workers can perform any of the company tasks. This was the case at the bike store, where any team member could fix a bike, ring up a sale, or order in some new inner tubes. It is not the case in almost every large corporation. Indeed the whole point of modern complex corporations is that they successfully coordinate the behaviour of individuals who have vastly different, specialised skillsets.

This is why democratic workplaces, in almost all cases, cannot outperform hierarchical ones, in which workers are selected and given tasks based on their particular interests and skills. Thus the lack of democratic workplaces today, despite the fact that entrepreneurs have been free to start them for centuries.

Contrary to this conventional wisdom, Hari cites a Cornell study that apparently found that businesses closer to the democratic model grew on average four times more than the others. This is a misleading description of what the study actually found: that businesses that granted more autonomy to their workers (as opposed to highly specific top-down direction) grew faster. Here ‘autonomy’ meant the freedom to decide how their work was to be done, as well as ownership and accountability for the outcomes of the work. This is vastly different from democratically deciding how the company should be run. Crucially, workers were still assigned goals in a hierarchical manner – they were just given greater freedom as to how they achieved those goals.

Hari is right that we all need to feel some measure of control over what we do in the workplace. But the mistake is to think that this control has to be exercised as equal voting rights over how the organisation is governed and managed. If a worker is feeling powerless in her role, he or she can up-skill and climb to a position of more influence, or join another organisation in a position that better suits their interests and skills. But at each step, they need to be exercising control within their proper domain of competence. It so happens that not everyone is competent at, or interested in, managing a complex business

Peterson has no patience for claims that our modern hierarchies are arbitrary manifestations of capitalist ideology. He points that we humans share a similar biochemical basis for tracking hierarchical social status as lobsters, indicating that our propensity to form ‘dominance’ or ‘competence’ hierarchies has a deep evolutionary basis.

For Peterson then, to the extent that hierarchies are genuinely meritocratic, dismantling them is the last thing we should be doing. But this still leaves the troublesome problem of vast economic inequality. While Peterson sees this as a major issue, he does not think economic redistribution is a panacea. This is because what matters most to him is not the relative difference in wealth between individuals, but the blunt fact that a growing percentage of individuals at the bottom of the ladder simply cannot contribute value to the economy. His concern is that the innate psychological drive felt by members of this cohort of humanity to actually be of value to their community will not be satisfied by simply giving them more money or resources. It may assist them to some degree, but it won’t solve the fundamental problem.

On this view, it is continuously necessary to improve the competence of individual human beings. Broadly speaking, this can be done in three main ways. Firstly, providing better mentorship to people to develop marketable skills, either via formal education or practical training. Secondly, by assisting people to consciously develop better patterns of thought and behaviour, using the best insights of psychological science. This is Peterson’s primary project. And finally, and most controversially, the development of technologies that can overcome any genetically determined restrictions on intelligence or good character.

The last intervention is by far the most controversial, and least scientifically understood. The notion of enhancing human performance via biological intervention is being investigated by many prominent scientists and technologists. See for example a recent overview of the state of the art by neuroscientist Richard Haier in his book The Neuroscience of Intelligence, or explorations of the ethical implications of human enhancement by philosophers like Julian Savulescu. This approach finds its ultimate expression in the transhumanist movement, which is dedicated to the indefinite improvement of human nature via technological advancement. Eventually we’ll arrive at what Ray Kurzweil calls ‘the Singularity’, where human consciousness is transferred onto a non-biological substrate, enabling us to finally escape the sub-optimal neurological compromises resulting from the haphazard process of random mutation and natural selection.

No doubt Hari would find such a focus on enhancing individual competence and autonomy to be at best distracting, and at worst, disabling, of the social and political transformations required to cure our suffering. But what Peterson’s critique shows is that far from being independent psychological dimensions, our ability to successfully relate to others requires cultivating our individual competences – be they physical, emotional, or cognitive. We must therefore be wary of social or political arrangements that offer us equality of status, without the corresponding burden of self-reflection and improvement.

Hari offers communal salvation for lonely angels. Peterson issues a challenge to cortically-enhanced lobsters: you’re not all you could be, Bucko!

In other words, they’re both appealing to human beings, and their messages are resonating.

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