Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Performative Contradiction?


I love Dr. Peterson’s lectures because for me the experience of watching them is like the experience of listening to Beethoven.

He uses the different ‘orchestral’ instruments of biology, anthropology, bible stories, behavioural psychology, psychoanalysis, literature, neurology, brain structure, evolution, myths, and more to weave together a symphony that expresses his own ideas.

It is a highly poetic way of communicating something.

I suspect that it appeals to creative people (or those high on openness). I know that colleagues of mine find this exact ‘poetic’ characteristic of his work extremely annoying, and actually cannot listen to him.

However, a poetic symphony is not an argument.

I always taught my post grads that the axioms that underlie your actions (and thinking), about which you might know nothing, are Philosophical. So at first glance Peterson’s case, which he has made in several video debates,  that almost everyone in the West acts upon deep religious axioms, looked like a similar claim: Peterson claims that people act / behave as though they believe that they themselves are individual people who are autonomous, self governing beings. And that this belief is a Christian belief and therefore the people who act in this way (all of us in the West) are religious even though we don’t realise it.

However , I think Peterson is committing the Genetic Fallacy – conflating the origin of something with the nature of that thing – when he claims that people ARE religious/Christian (Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty,  et al) even though they think that they are atheists – because their actions are predicated upon Christian values and beliefs and you see a persons beliefs in their actions.

See for example: An Evening With Matt Dillahunty & Jordan Peterson

Although Jesus (real or mythical) seems to be the first person to articulate the idea that every single person is equally potentially divine, the predicate idea here (of the equality and individuality of individuals) is a philosophical idea.

The religious claim that the origin of the individuality is God does not actually mean that mean that the ‘equality and individuality ‘ concept is itself divine or even includes an idea of God. They are two separate concepts, which are not connected necessarily.

To illustrate – You can imagine a logically coherent claim that the origin of the ‘equality and individuality’ concept is not God but Satan. That would also be a religious claim. (In fact it has been claimed that Milton makes this argument in Paradise Lost)

A person can be acting out the philosophical axiom that every person is individual and equally worthy of … without also acting out the ‘origin’ claim that the origin is God.

All you can say is that the philosophical axioms that they embody in their actions were historically articulated as having divine origins.

It is like saying that because Freud was Jewish, psychoanalysis is Jewish thought and every psychoanalyst is Jewish even if they don’t know it.

And more, every person who uses the term ‘the unconscious’ is Jewish because the person who originated the term was Freud and Jewish. So even though they tell you that they are not Jewish, they simply don’t know that they are Jewish!


But something else about the recent Jordan Peterson’s debate with atheist Susan Blackmore bothered me!

Jordan Peterson vs Susan Blackmore • Do we need God to make sense of life?

The rhetoric of his metaphorical way of explaining is powerful, but it is RHETORIC when presented as a case against a person who says they are an atheist.

Some people might even claim that it is Sophistry to use a metaphorical and poetic style AGAINST  the person of a person who says they are Atheist, rather than making a valid argument about the theories – independently of any particular person.

I think it is a sophisticated and powerful way of ‘playing the man instead of the ball’ because he is using Susan Blackmore as an object to prove his own theories, rather than as a self-determining human being who speaks for herself.

I can see that Peterson might be in a moral dilemma in the moment during these discussions / debates:

On the one hand there is an ethical duty not to treat a person as a means to his own ends of communicating his ideas. On the other hand he feels a duty to the public at large to communicate his ideas.

To some extent the action he should take depends upon what underlying (philosophical) system of ethics Peterson himself holds:

  •  If he is a Utilitarian he might calculate that the greater good for the greatest number is to use an Atheist like Sam Harris or Susan Blackmore as a means to teach hundreds of thousands of other people. So that is the right thing to do.
  • If he holds a De-ontological view of ethics, then as soon as he realizes that he IS using the Atheist as a means to his ends – he must stop because that is a wrong thing to do.

De-onotological Ethics demands that he find another way to communicate his theories.  For example in third person, objective, philosophical argument.

However, even without analysing and clarifying what philosophical ethical system underlies Peterson’s actions that he may or may not be aware of himself , I would argue that:

1) If Peterson truly holds that the individual is sovereign, then his actions should be consistent with that theory.

2) If you treat a person as a means to an end, you are not treating that person as a sovereign individual.

So by Peterson’s own theory about underlying axioms being demonstrated in behaviour here is the contradiction :

3) Peterson’s actions in treating Susan Blackmore as a means to the end of demonstrating his point, show that he does NOT believe that individuals are sovereign beings worthy of respect and dignity.

It is a performative contradiction.

[My provisional conclusion until shown to be faulty by sound counter-argument]


However,  I would not wish Dr. Peterson to give up or change his ‘poetic’ style of communicating his ideas. It is wonderful and unique, and it allows him to do so much good in the world.

So,  in the next post(s) I will suggest several different alternative ways out of this ethical dilemna.


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