Joe Rogan recently had Jordan Peterson on his podcast for the third time. As an interviewer, Mr. Rogan normally explores what stimulates his curiosity about his guest and what troubles him. In this podcast he covered a number of instances with Peterson in which media interactions have contributed to a public portrayal of him as a covert extremist. In one of these, a recent Vice interview, Peterson came off relatively well, actually. (He criticizes himself in this instance for losing his temper on account of his interviewer’s smugness, however.) In two others, an appearance on Jim Jeffries’ Comedy Central show and an interview with the New York Times, he did (arguably) less well. Herein, I’d like to address Rogan and Peterson’s discussion of the New York Times article.
In the Times article to which Rogan refers, Peterson is quoted as saying that the solution to isolated, violent young men is “enforced monogamy.” Peterson explains that his use of this phrase follows the standard technical language of anthropology. In anthropology enforced monogamy apparently describes societies—like ours until about 20 years ago—in which people generally recognize monogamous marriage as a tenet of their shared ethical standard. He claims that the Times interviewer understood that this is what he meant. He and Rogan agree, however, that the Times article reports this quote in a way that suggests that Peterson might support setting up a legal system that coerces women into marrying despicable men and polices their dutiful service to their unwanted husbands.
Peterson’s explanation, of course, exonerates him from this obviously facile charge, but for Rogan, another criticism of Peterson remains. Peterson’s support for monogamy as a societal good seems to bother Rogan; it runs counter to his leftist ideal of free love. From Rogan’s point of view, a man who keeps a harem of casual girlfriends or a woman who is part of that harem might merely be pursuing his or her own subjectively held ideal for sexual satisfaction. As long as all parties involved have entered into the arrangement voluntarily, no one should criticize it. For him, the mere support for monogamy as a societal good is to impinge on the range of life choices open to free individuals. Rogan also takes this train of thought one step further though.
One of Peterson’s hypotheses is that bodies politic need to reign in the Left when the Left crosses into support for equality of outcome. Rogan asks Peterson whether the institution of marriage itself is not a force for the equality of outcome. In so doing he offers Peterson a problem. If Peterson were to accept Rogan’s premise, he would end up having to move in the direction of softening his opposition to political programs pursuing equality of outcome or in the direction of softening his support for the institution of marriage. He sees through Rogan’s premise, but his denial of it is so compact that it deserves some unpacking…and some commentary.
Peterson makes two points: (1.) that he has never said that the Left has no valid role to play in determining society and (2.) that children who grow up in a home with a mother and a father have the best shot at leading a good life. The second of these is a typical utilitarian or, perhaps, pragmatic argument: we want to preserve the human race, so we have to have babies who can, in turn, have their own babies, they, their own and so on; therefore, we must raise our babies in circumstances that are most conducive to their growing into adults who can take over this task from us. From this point of view, monogamy is not, then, necessarily a moral decision; it is, however, necessarily a practical one. The first requires different consideration.
The reason Peterson responds to Rogan’s proposition that marriage produces equality of outcome by defending the role of the Left has to do with Peterson’s thinking being rooted in psychology. For him the political Left and Right are exist primarily, or nearly primarily, because human beings happen to be born with different dominant temperamental traits. For him, in other words, human temperament is the deeper motivation that tends to animate and guide our rationality. According to this way of thinking, then, the dominant temperamental traits that cause a person to identify with the political left are the temperamental traits that attract people to equalizing social institutions. According to this way of thinking, then, if marriage is shown to be an institution whose purpose is to create equality, it follows that it must have originated as an institution from out of the temperamental impulses that belong to the Left. When Peterson responds to Rogan’s supposition that marriage is an equality of outcome producing institution saying that the Left has a valid role to play, then, what he means is: (1.) that equality is not the same as equality of outcome and (2.) that when the Left pursues equality simply, as opposed to equality of outcome, it might very well be justified in doing so.
Dr. Peterson is certainly right that equality is different than the equality of outcome. Unlike the simple concept of equality, the equality of outcome already has built into its concept, at the beginning, the criterion that the equality contemplated must touch every facet of life. The equality of outcome is, in other words, totalistic in its basic meaning. Equating equality simply with equality of outcome would be like comparing two boxes that have the same length but different widths and heights and judging them equal. The two would be equal along one dimension but not equal in a total sense. Likewise, noting an equalizing effect in the institution of marriage and calling that effect the equality of outcome is similar to claiming that if society fosters equality in any way, then it ought to require it in every way.
I wonder, however, whether the most important potential for denying Mr. Rogan’s premise in questioning Dr. Peterson on this count remained uncultivated because of Dr. Peterson’s decidedly agreeable habit of leading friendly conversations in constructive directions even when he is attempting to disagree with his friends. Under discussion, we must remember, is Dr. Peterson’s critique of the ideology that underpins the political program of the Left in our contemporary moment. By his question, Mr. Rogan intends to challenge Dr. Peterson to explain how he can offer what appear to be contradictory opinions in two analogous sets of circumstances. If marriage is an equalizing institution, then as an equalizing institution, it is supposed to be a microcosm of the Left’s commitment to total equality achieved by means of our political institutions. In setting up his analogy, however, Mr. Rogan overlooks fundamental differences that would have defeated the analogy at its beginning.
When we approach questions of how society is or how it ought to be, we tend to think of ourselves, collectively, as something like software engineers. When software engineers write software, they have a sense of the whole program, a goal concerning what they want it to be able to do when it is finished. Based upon their goal, they attempt to write a piece of software that will accomplish that goal. Similarly, we approach society with a more or less accurate sense of its totality; we identify an effect in society that we believe we see or that we would like to see, and we attempt to reason our way back to a cause for that effect or a cause that we could implement that would produce that effect. Hypothetically, we assume the role of social engineers and attempt to design systems that will turn society into what we think it should be. We imagine social policy or, speaking more broadly, policy.
One danger in thinking this way is that we can unwittingly presuppose that policies, institutions and other things, generally, that affect the constitution of our society, that have affected the constitutions of societies throughout human history, were designed at some time in the past in much the same way that we hypothesize effects and societal causes. It seems to me that Mr. Rogan’s casting of marriage in the light of an equality of outcome producing institution runs afoul of this error.
Again, Mr. Rogan poses his question in order draw an analogy between the Left’s political program, which Dr. Peterson opposes, and the institution of marriage, which Dr. Peterson supports. In the case of the Left’s political program, the almost explicit goal is equality of outcome. The political means of achieving that goal are imagined purely with reference to it. The Left undertakes not simply to imagine themselves as social engineers for hypothetical purposes, but to be social engineers with power unlimited by any principle but their belief in their own goodwill. Who, on the other hand, designed the institution of marriage? For what reason(s)?
If we, as hypothetical social engineers, were to assume that marriage came into being for the purpose of producing equality, then we would most likely credit the advent of the institution of marriage to an aboriginal complaint of a greater number of beta males against a lesser number of alpha males that the alpha males were denying the beta males access to the women. This means, then, that our assumption would be ultimately rooted in a presupposition that the evolutionary imperative, the biological urge to procreate, animated human reason to contrive a social institution that it could not achieve through direct violence. The designer of marriage would be, then, the human sex drive embodied in psychophysically weak males. This whole characterization of marriage as primarily an equality producing social institution, then, is rooted in our habit of presupposing that evolution is the fundamental force driving human development.
If, on the other hand, we were to notice that among human beings, competition can also lead to mutual respect, even friendship, we might consider that conscious human interaction also calls forth from the subconscious other motivations…in this instance, love. Male competition is, furthermore, not the only way that love enters into the question of marriage.
In procreative relationships what do women want? What, throughout human history, have they wanted? What, in aboriginal human times, did they want? These questions introduce the problem of whether what people want is a product of their innate being or the product of so many social conventions, but this is not the proper venue for rehashing that debate. Let us note, rather, a universal human experience: when someone is kind to us, when someone takes care, when someone is gentle and patient, when he or she is dutiful, do we not wish the best for this person? Will anyone but someone made grotesque in the grip of resentful meditations fail to love this person?
Cynics would say that monogamy has been a lie that men have told women in order to cheat and to make sure that their wives will not. It seems entirely true that many husbands throughout the ages have taken advantage of their traditional role as the head of the household, and perhaps more importantly as the member of the household who transacts business in the world, in order to act unfaithfully to their wives. It seems equally true, however, that the more a woman calls forth respect, admiration, ultimately love, from her husband, the more he will wish to esteem her as first, the more he will prize her above all other women. And how can anyone esteem another more than to dedicate himself solely to her?
Did marriage originate as a way for weak men to achieve an artificial equality with strong men? Is it the result of an instinctive drive clothing itself in the raiments of rationality? Or, conversely, is any equality that has traditionally resulted from the institution of marriage a byproduct of a transcendent experience of life that calls forth out of our subconscious being that which we would traditionally call goodness? Is the institution of marriage indebted, ultimately, to a material-natural process or a process that is rooted in Λόγος (logos)?
Mr. Rogan’s analogy depends upon his assumption, at the outset, of that which ought to be the focus of his investigation. Because it is not, he can conceive of the institution of marriage in terms that are alien to its genuine being. From this mistaken point of view, he can set up a comparison between the institution of marriage and the political program of the Left. Even though he does not accept the idea of a transcendent Λόγος, however, Mr. Rogan should at least have taken stock of the fact that it is not the Left but conservative Jews and Christians who champion monogamy.