On the topic of social constructivism and cultural relativism, Jordan Peterson is both a vehement counter voice and a hypocritical adherent. This post calls out Peterson’s hypocrisy. To Peterson, the notion that people create their own reality and especially their own identity is heresy. Worse, he will not abide where someone wishes to be identified by some non-gender-performative pronoun.
In his world, it’s obvious that there are two each of singular, gendered subject pronouns and their correspondent object pronouns: he, she, him, and her. Betwixt the two shan’t ever meet. For people like Jordan Peterson, this arbitrary taxonomical classification is written in stone in a manner reflective of Moses encounter with God on the mount.
There shalt be two and only two genders, male and female;
and all humans shall conform to these classifications;
and all humans shall dress and behave in compliance with these classifications
For people who view the world like Peterson, there is no distinction between sex and gender, so there is no CIS-this or CIS-that. They will accept for the minority of exceptions for hermaphrodites, but these people are freaks of nature and need to pick a path.
If you have were born with certain primary sexual traits, you must comply with gender stereotypes:
Male = Penis
Female = Vagina
And these are not cultural stereotypes, by the way; it’s obvious that this is Natural Law handed down from on high because identity is not an individual’s construct. If anything, you must accept with grace the identity society bestows upon you. If they perceive you as X, you had better conform to X or all hell will break loose, and your parents and friends will corral you into the X-mould, if you’ll only listen and comply. It’s for your own good.
Society knows best. If you can’t see it, that’s your problem. It our world, it’s majority rule, and if the masses perceive you as gender X, you had better comply. And don’t be a sissy about it. Purses are for women. Makeup is for women. Dresses are for women. Skirts are for women.
As action figures are not dolls, kilts are not skirts; even so, don’t wear a kilt unless you are either Scottish or playing dress-up, but don’t play dress-up, and you’d better be toting a bagpipe or we’ll question your motives.
Where was I going with all of this?
At the same time, Peterson and his ilk defend universalism, they leave open the ability to envision their own deities as realities as they choose in a ‘it’s my personal god’ sort of way. They want to have their cake and eat it, too.
It’s fine to take a position of objectivism versus subjectivism. I mean you’d be wrong, but you don’t really get to cherry-pick from each where it is convenient. Actually, you do, but you’d be a hypocrite, so there’s that. Perhaps just logically inconsistent or disingenuous.
In the realm of philosophy, it’s no mystery to those who know me that I am a Subjectivist, but I still need to operate in this physical socio-political domain, which is what attracts me to political philosophy.
I like to make an analogy relative to religious belief. Philosophically, I consider myself to be an igtheist, which is to say that I don’t really care about god or gods or ‘the universe’ or some metaphysical superpower in the abstract, but practically speaking, I am an atheist. The reason being that the non-existence of gods is irrelevant in a world where people behave as if there is one and create moral positions and form legal systems based on this premise, thus infecting these systems, so one needs to be an active atheist in order to disinfect the systems and extricate religion from it. Without getting too far off track, I am not saying that religious belief has had no benefit to ‘human progress’, but the price we pay is too high. The cost-benefit calculus is not favourable.
Walzer and Anderson both understand the constructed nature of political identity, whether self, family, community, state, nation, all of humanity, or beyond. It’s all relative. Some modern political philosophers like Rawls and Nozick try to rise above the inherent relativity in this constructionist view, but after all the trying, their attempts are weak tea, as their solutions are also constructed.
In the end, politics and perhaps all of perceived reality are social constructs, whose major survival mechanism is rhetoric. The more convincing the argument, the better. In fact, the reason I have adopted this worldview is only that the rhetorical narrative resonates with me better than some other. Ditto if you concur, and ditto if another narrative resonates for you, whether Christianity, Pastafarian, a starchild, or a nihilist.
Given this, it makes me wonder how other people choose the rhetoric they have rather than my (obviously superior) version.
EDIT: After I wrote this, I happened upon a short(ish) video promoting veganism and commenting on the construction of culture, so I am adding it. James Wildman
I’d been interested in archetypal and depth psychology for ages, and I’ve read most of Jung’s work. I still own all of the volumes of his complete works. The difference between me and Professor Peterson is that I take it as metaphor and, by his words, I presume that he doesn’t.
The video clip is cued to the location where Jordan says, speaking of Nietzsche,
“…‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ led Nietzsche to pose another question, which was: What are we going to do to replace him? Because Nietzsche believed—and I think he was absolutely right about this. I can’t see how it could be otherwise—, he believed that the morality that had structured Western society was predicated on the fundamental axiom of divinity, and so, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, the whole purpose of morality was dependent on that axiom being true—or at least being accepted as true. And when that axiom was knocked out by, say, the conflict between science and religion—because in some sense that’s what did it—, then the whole system no longer had anything to stand on and could become entirely questionable…”
“The whole purpose of morality was dependent on [the existence of divinity] being true.”
As I’ve said time and again, this is the primary reason people—especially those defending or seeking some sense of status quo, conservative vanguards, and morality warriors—insist on the existence of a real, objective moral centre or a good-enough version of it—one that coincidentally conforms to their worldview.
I’m afraid that I am going to need to hear something well more convincing than that because I’m not buying what these guys are selling.
It seems to me that the largest or largest complaint people claiming a realist, objective moralist perspective is:
How would it work if morals were not objective?
This is also a common defence by Christians who claim:
If there were no God, then people would just be mindless hedonists.
This is the same line of defence used by statists of all stripes, whether Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Monarchist, Oligarch, or otherwise.
Anarchy can’t work because everything would just be chaos.
It is also the same argument mounted, as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, against a strong genetic component to human behaviour.
If we believe that, then what will prevent the next Nazi Holocaust?
In the end, because these people cannot fathom how it might work, it is easy to assuage cognitive dissonance through self-delusion. It’s as if the people defending actually know that they are wrong, but that if they deny it loudly enough, then, like religion, others will believe it’s just so, that they’ll follow the deceiving confederate in a psychology experiment.
The problem is that there is no god, there is no objective morality, government is unnecessary, and much behaviour and temperament have significant genetic foundations unaffected by environmental factors.
Many people are pragmatists, so when I submit that there is no objective morality, the response is that this is unworkable, so I need to find another system. It’s akin to running out of petrol in the desert, and your travel partner responds similarly:
“There has to be petrol; otherwise, we can’t get to where we need to go.”
Hat tip to Captain Obvious, but unlike ethics and morality, one can’t just conjure fuel. This is why we have created normative ethics—the operative being normative.
“How can anyone work with a system without objective morality?”
I get this reaction often when I broach the topic of ethical subjectivism.
“Ethical subjectivism [or moral subjectivism] is a philosophical theory that suggests moral truths are determined on an individual level. It holds that there are no objective moral properties and that ethical statements are illogical because they do not express immutable truths.”
For me, as a moral anti-realist (vacillating at times toward non-cognitive emotivism, if not outright moral nihilism), it’s been relatively easy to hold this subjective meta-ethical position whilst simultaneously adopting a pragmatic ethical theory, though I have always found the prevailing frameworks to be lacking—whether consequentialism, deontology, or virtue ethics. In fact, this is why I decided to go deeper into philosophy, to see what others had to say about the matter. Fortunately, David Hume had trodden this ground before in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Subjectivism allows one to have a preference for a given moral framework, it just simultaneously claims that one cannot objectively be judged as better.
This is about where people’s Hitler and rape fantasies are introduced into the argument, and always with an air of checkmate, so let’s explore this. We’ll take historical, evil, bad person, Adolf Hitler and his ill-treatment of Jews in the years leading up to and through World War II.
The reasoning usually follows these lines: Of course there is good and evil, right and wrong. Don’t (won’t) you agree that what he did was immoral? Sidestepping, that personally, in my opinion, Hitler was not cool, it doesn’t answer to the morality. In the subjectivist domain, there is no good and evil, but I tend to reserve that response, as it falls on deaf ears.
Instead, let’s follow through and reflect on the speculative outcome represented by Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In this world, the Nazis won the war and conquered the free world, but in the vein of “history is written by the victors”, society found a new equilibrium. That’s what people do. Sure, there are always dissenters, as there are today in any government, but this evil moniker is applied by the glorious and victorious Allied Forces over the Axis (of Evil). Had the Nazi’s prevailed, it would have been but a footnote in history—if that. Morality is just perspective. From a societal perspective, it may take the form of ethnocentrism. But in the end, morality and ethics distil down to an individual vantage, even if the individual adopts a package off the rack, as most do in the form of religions and community guidelines.
Nietzsche’s Nihilism (and Heidegger) captured this in his subjective authenticity, which is being true to one’s self. In this view, it is irrelevant what moral systems others impose upon you. If you resolve to go to the gym at least once a week yet don’t, you are not being authentic.
Camus noted in his Myth of Sisyphus that one has the option upon realising the Absurd, that there is no inherent meaning to life. Aside from suicide and acceptance, one could adopt a worldview, whether religious or spiritual to Capitalism, Socialism (his preference), or Pastafarian, essentially denying the Absurd.
Ignorance is Bliss™
In a way, the religiously devout have it simpler. They are indoctrinated with a pre-packaged belief system, and they don’t really question it. But other people have political and jurisprudence systems prêt-à-porter, and they are willing to defend them, seemingly to the death.
“Ethical Relativism has implications such as moral infallibility and moral equivalence. It does not offer a way for parties engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements because each side is required to acknowledge that the opinion of their opponent is equally as factual as their own. Individuals can never have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal. As well, blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always objective [sic].”
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
no way for parties engaged in an ethical debate to resolve their disagreements
True. If you can’t turn a screw with a sledgehammer, perhaps you need to question whether you’re are using the appropriate tool instead of cursing the sledgehammer for not being a screwdriver. If a tool isn’t suitable for a task, perhaps you are using the wrong tool.
one can’t have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal
True. Again, perhaps you need a different instrument.
Blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always subjective
True. I’ll sidestep the question of why blame is necessary, but yet again, this may not be the right instrument.
On balance, people seem to need pragmatism, so they seek a workable moral framework. Assuaging cognitive dissonance is as natural as breathing. Ah, the joy of delusion. Humans fabricate moral systems in an attempt to address issues such as these, but all of these systems are, in fact, human constructs, and none are objectively better than another. Subjectively, one may prefer one over another.
I am re-reading Albert Camus‘ The Myth of Sisyphus, but it’s not as I remember all those years ago. My first comment is that it is a product of its time. Even though some people still believe that without some inherent ‘higher’ meaning, chaos would ensue—the same who believe that atheists will behave this way and that anarchists will smash windows and resort to hedonism.
I think that Camus chose suicide because people at that time would have a ‘natural’ propensity to feel that a life without meaning would necessarily result in suicide. It’s especially humorous given that ostensibly there is no meaning. Of course, the larger question is why people appear to be hard-wired to search for meaning. Secondarily, even if there were some higher meaning, as Camus suggests, there would be no objective way to confirm it.
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Back to reading… (less typing and more reading)
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When Camus cites Nietzsche,
“It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine“,
he also nods to the reader his accord with Nietzsche’s adherence to virtue ethics praising how he ‘elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics‘, and therein lies the rub. Why should any of these be any better than any other thing?
Nietzsche and Camus were both products of their age, and as Descartes was before them, as brilliant as they each were in their own rights, they were blinded by their age: Descartes by God, and Nietzsche and Camus by virtue.
The Myth of Sisyphus is an interesting exposition, but, try as it may, it falls short.
I am still reading, having just finished chapter 5 of Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and I am still concerned that he invokes normative morality and the invisible hand (even ignoring the religious implications of this) as de facto premises and without justification. He eviscerates so much, parsing so much finely, and he hamfistedly adopts these concepts without pause or discussion.