Jordan Peterson, Social Conservatism and the Application of the Naturalistic Fallacy

The psychologist Jordan B. Peterson has become a very popular man as of late. His recent interviews with Channel 4 and Vice have propelled him into the mainstream as has his latest book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. This once obscure university professor is now everywhere and as such has received critique and analysis from everyone. I do not intend to add to this flurry of critique. Rather I want to use his latest book as a proxy to attack the ideology of social conservatism, which is present throughout the book, from a biological and ethical perspective.

The first chapter in his book, Stand Up With Your Shoulders Back is a short chapter that uses the analogy of the lobster and its competitive instincts as a description of nature writ large. In Peterson's eyes, the lobsters' relative lack of change since it emerged and its interspecies conflict over territory is evidence of nature as harsh and unyielding. It is here that Peterson articulates his first lesson, which is what I plan to deconstruct, that nature is brutal and that hierarchy is unavoidable. Even among animals living in purported peace there still exists the threat of dominance. He writes:

Over the millennia, animals who must co-habit with others in the same territories have in consequence learned many tricks to establish dominance, while risking the least amount of possible damage. A defeated wolf, for example, will roll over on its back, exposing its throat to the victor, who will not then deign to tear it out. The now-dominant wolf may still require a future hunting partner, after all, even one as pathetic as his now-defeated foe. Bearded dragons, remarkable social lizards, wave their front legs peaceably at one another to indicate their wish for continued social harmony. Dolphins produce specialized sound pulses while hunting and during other times of high excitement to reduce potential conflict among dominant and subordinate group members. Such behavior is endemic in the community of living things.[1]

This is not to say that Peterson completely ignores cooperation as an organizing drive, just that he dedicates considerably less time to it. Elsewhere in the book, he talks positively about cooperation but only twice:

For much of history, such willingness to die has been regarded as something admirable and courageous, as a part of human duty. Paradoxically, that is a direct consequence not of our aggression but of our extreme sociability and willingness to cooperate. If we can become not only ourselves, but our families, teams and countries, cooperation comes easily to us, relying on the same deeply innate mechanisms that drive us (and other creatures) to protect our very bodies.[2]

And

People are social because they like the members of their own group. People are antisocial because they don’t like the members of other groups. Exactly why this is so has been the subject of continual debate. I think it might be a solution to a complex problem of optimization. Such problems arise, for example, when two or more factors are important, but none cannot be maximized without diminishing the others. A problem of this sort emerges, for example, because of the antipathy between cooperation and competition, both of which are socially and psychologically desirable. Cooperation is for safety, security and companionship. Competition is for personal growth and status.[3]

Admittedly Peterson also talks about the importance of friendship, but only as a means to help you become a better person. He writes:

If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner. People who are not aiming up will do the opposite. They will offer a former smoker a cigarette and a former alcoholic a beer. They will become jealous when you succeed, or do something pristine. They will withdraw their presence or support, or actively punish you for it. They will over-ride your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. Maybe they are trying to test you, to see if your resolve is real, to see if you are genuine. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.[4]

Beyond this Peterson says little else in the way of cooperation. In fact, he even criticizes the overly compassionate:

Many of the female clients (perhaps even a majority) that I see in my clinical practice have trouble in their jobs and family lives not because they are too aggressive, but because they are not aggressive enough. Cognitive-behavioural therapists call the treatment of such people, generally characterized by the more feminine traits of agreeableness (politeness and compassion) and neuroticism (anxiety and emotional pain), “assertiveness training.” Insufficiently aggressive women—and men, although more rarely—do too much for others. They tend to treat those around them as if they were distressed children.[5]

Peterson also writes little in the way of collective action. His only real statement on the subject is:

Consider this, as well, in regard to oppression: any hierarchy creates winners and losers. The winners are, of course, more likely to justify the hierarchy and the losers to criticize it. But (1) the collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at that pursuit not matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning.[6]

All of this is, as you might imagine, weird to me. Narrowing down society to just struggle might be useful if you're isolating a particular issue or illuminating a certain characteristic but not when a book about how to improve yourself.
Indeed the thing I found weirdest was when Peterson said that hierarchy is pervasive throughout human society today and through history. Certainly, that might be true, but he is conflating a wide variety of dynamics. There is a substantial difference in the hierarchy between, say, slaves to slave owners and workers working under a democratically elected boss in a cooperative. Conflating such forms of hierarchy as subjugating individuals to the same degree is ridiculous.
This silence by Peterson on what is arguably the thing that has made humans so successful which is our ability to cooperate on tasks. Self-improvement can only take you so far as you eventually hit diminishing returns with what you get out of it. As another popular self-help writer, Mark Manson puts it, the point of self-help is to reach the point where self-help is no longer necessary:

Because the only way to truly benefit from self-improvement is to one day arrive at a place where you no longer need it. Like a cast for a broken arm. Or a bandage for a deep cut. You put it on, let it heal you. And then you take it off and move on with your life.[7]

By definition, not everyone can be an iconoclast like Galileo, Newton, Marx, J.S. Mill or Nietzsche - be a person who put forth ideas that go counter to what society considered normal at the time. And even boundary breakers still rely on the mutual support of society to exist. Newton worked and then taught at a university. Nietzsche worked several odd jobs throughout his life. Marx had a wife, worked at a newspaper and was patroned by his friend Engels. Even the great conquerers like Genghis Khan (who Peterson uses an example of success in the book) had a keen eye for talent among both those he fought with and those he conquered. The act of fielding an army is one that requires supreme confidence and trust in others. A single lone alpha might be able to rule through fear and awe in small groups but for an army of ten thousand, you need more than charisma and muscles. You must be capable of negotiating between the demands of those beneath you and be perpetually heading off conflict to get anything done.

This isn't just a reminder that the masses enable the truly spectacular to do what they do. It’s a reminder that biology cannot be reduced to simple hierarchy. The primatologist Frans de Waal who Peterson cites in his book to show that dominance hierarchies in primates tend to be unstable as a result of constant conflict also talks about the importance of altruism and empathy in other works. In a 2008 article he summarizes his arguments for why altruism and empathy were evolutionarily successful strategies (and as such selected for) in five points:

1. An evolutionarily parsimonious account(cf. de Waal 1999) of directed altruism assumes similar motivational processes in humans and other animals.
2. Empathy, broadly defined, is a phylogenetically ancient capacity.
3. Without the emotional engagement brought about by empathy, it is unclear what could motivate the extremely costly helping behavior occasionally observed in social animals.
4. Consistent with kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory, empathy favors familiar individuals and previous cooperators and is biased against previous defectors.
5. Combined with perspective-taking abilities, empathy’s motivational autonomy opens the door to intentionally altruistic altruism in a few large-brained species.[8]

But the biological basis for empathy and morality goes deeper and appears even in animals that lack the intelligence of primates. Even species that lack such social intelligence exhibit behavior that is beyond just the straight up competition. Mutually beneficial relationships exist throughout nature. For example, phagophilies are creatures that feed on parasites infecting other creatures – for example, birds that perch on elephants and clean them of parasites. Mutually beneficial relationships also exist within species, and not just in hierarchical species like ants or bees. We see for example animals sacrificing for others or cooperating with others all the time.
Kin selection - the notion that animals are more likely to act altruistically towards those they are related to is well established. The amount of resources it to raise a human child for both the mother and the father alone is enough to prove that people can act altruistically (other animals mature much quicker).

Kin selection is not the only driving force behind altruism behavior, however. Reciprocal altruism has also been shown to exist in nature. The most famous proponent of reciprocal altruism was the Russian anarchist Pytor Kropotkin who published Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution in 1903. While it was a political text, Kropotkin’s analysis was confirmed to be effectively consistent with mainstream evolution almost a century later. In 1988 the biologist Stephen Jay Gold penned the article Kropotkin Was No Crackpot for the Natural History journal. In his words:

Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief impetus for their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle must not be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided into two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolutionary meanings. We must recognize, first of all, the struggle of organism against organism for limited resources – the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to competition for personal benefit.
But a second form of struggle – the style that Darwin called metaphorical – pits organism against the harshness of surrounding physical environments, not against other members of the same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm, to survive the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and storm, to persevere through harsh periods of drought, snow, or pestilence. These forms of struggle between organism and environment are best waged by cooperation among members of the same species-by mutual aid. If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then we shall witness a feline battle and an equine carnage. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then lighting will not remove the common enemy – while cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to surmount.
Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general notion of struggle – two forms with opposite import: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition; and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation. …
I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode.[9]

Certainly there exist good biological reasons for why reciprocal behavior exists. However, while biological instincts to perform any activity are powerful, they are not overriding. Any argument for a particular society existing because it is natural falls victim to the question of "well what is natural"? Peterson seems to agree with me here as he cites Freud's argument in Civilization and it’s Discontents that society can only arise through the restraint of natural urges:

In fact, his [Freud’s] point in Civilization and its Discontents is that civilization only arises when some restraining rules and morality are in place.[10]

The various expressions of how civilization arise are also not predetermined. Again Peterson recognizes that a variety of societal expressions are possible, but Western civilization being the best he believes that we should follow Western values.
However while Western civilization may currently be the most successful model in terms of spreading throughout the world (although the question of whether you can isolate Western civilization given the variety of influences from the cultures it has interacted with is a tricky one), that does not mean it is the optimal form of social organization, especially given the recent disruptions in society as a result of technology.

Indeed the diversity of human expression throughout history and in other cultures directly contradicts the idea that the norms social conservatives hold so dear are natural.
For example in India there existed “Hijras” who were considered a third gender. Hijras were considered normal up until the colonization of India by the British. An article in he New York Times by Jeffrey Gettleman on the subject declared:

Hundreds of years ago, under traditional Hindu culture, hijras enjoyed a certain degree of respect. But Victorian England changed that. When the British colonized India in the mid-19th century, they brought a strict sense of judgment to sexual mores, criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” That was the beginning, scholars say, of a mainstream discomfort in India with homosexuality, transgender people and hijras.[11]

Such behavior is not just present in pre-industrial socities. Consider for example the openness of African-Americans to non-hetronormative behavior in Harlem in the 1920s. In a 2008 jouirnal article (The Color of Discipline: Civil Rights and Black Sexuality) historian Thaddeus Russell writes:

[S]ubstantial numbers of working-class people in the capital of black America were stunningly open about their homosexuality and created what may have been the most liberated public space in U.S. history. They commonly socialized in cabaret saloons, speakeasies, and house parties, places where bourgeois morality was notably absent. Not only was homosexual activity flagrant and abundant at these gatherings, but the participants often included prostitutes, gamblers, gangsters, and other heterosexuals, who, like gays and lesbians, abrogated the social norms of the day in pursuit of their own pleasure. Perhaps the leading indicator of working-class Harlem’s queerness was the tremendous presence of transgender people, most conspicuously the drag queens and kings who were common sights on the streets and on the stages of many of Harlem’s nightclubs.[12]

Even among “civilized” whites there existed deviant behavior. The disruption of everyday life caused by the two World Wars and the fact men and women were largely segregated into strict gender roles with men on the battlefield and women at home resulted in not just individuals compensating for lack of access to the opposite sex by visiting brothels, but also an explosion in gay, lesbian and other queer behavior. In the first World War, cross-dressing and female impersonation was apparently commonplace. A journal article ("Best Love": Female Impersonation in the Great War) by Lisa Sigel describes the phenomenon as:

The visual evidence of female impersonation shows it as commonplace and pervasive, notable for its ubiquity and ordinariness as much as its erotic potential. Photographers documented female impersonation as part of the cultural landscape. Alongside barracks showers and churches, people circulated the images of female impersonators for a variety of reasons including both homosocial and familial affection. Men impersonated a range of feminine types, acting as beauties, mothers, lovers, and old hags. They crossed race lines as well as gender lines and they used the motif of clowns and harlequins alongside gender crossing.[13]

The diversity of human expression that social conservatives overlook means that their prescriptions for how things should be done overlook the fact that society is usually more complicated. Peterson’s citation of studies that show that young boys and girls tend towards different domains neglects the complexity at play with the human animal. Peterson might appeal to “patriarchy” as being the universal domination of man over woman since we evolved into humans from apes – although evidence suggests that early hunter-gatherer tribes may have had relative equality between men and women and that inequality between sexes emerged when we became agricultural.[14]

But let us assume that men have had power over women since the agricultural revolution. Peterson is still conflating degrees of power over an individual to a single point to a degree where the definition is effectively useless. My earlier critique of him conflating a slave driver with a democratically run cooperative applies here. Implying that slave who’s offspring will also be slaves to the owner and a woman in a pre-divorce non-fault marriage are both subservient to men to the same degree is ludicrous. And as such Peterson, and most social conservatives fail to properly define what we should return to. Tradition may have evolved through a slow process of memetic selection to deal with the facts of human biology, yet that does not mean it is the optimal way of dealing with human biology and all its complexity.

And even if there are biological reasons for why people should behave in certain ways the complexity of self-expression makes this difficult to tease out. Certainly biology influences behavior, but to say that any such form of social organization is superior to another because it is “natural” when we have just seen a small glimpse of how social relations can be structured is a fallacy due to the inherent complexity of human expression and as such human relations. Instead, I will leave behind biological as a reason for why people should operate cooperatively and instead focus on simpler arguments that presume at least one self-interested rational actor in any interaction.

Game Theory

Logically speaking, there exist strong reasons as to why you should engage in cooperative or altruistic behavior. Consider the prisoner’s dilemma game, a classic example of how rational actors can lead to irrational outcomes. Two players both have the choice to cooperate or defect. If you both cooperate you get a modest reward, but if one defects and the other cooperates the defector receives a significant reward while the other gets nothing. Finally, if both players defect they receive only a small reward.
A logical analysis of the situation reveals that no matter what choosing defection is always the superior choice if you look to maximize payout. No matter what the other person does defecting always nets you a better payout.

However one-off isolated prisoner dilemma games are pretty much non-existent in the real world. In a game played between two players over an extended period, the logical choice is to cooperate each round so future reciprocity is likely. Furthermore, even in instances with strangers you may never see again there still exists a reason to cooperate if there exists an atmosphere of cooperation. For example, a community in which you can ask strangers for help can only exist because there is an expectation that the stranger will either help you or politely tell you that they are busy – instead of freaking out. This is still a form of reciprocity, it just happens to be indirect. Helping an individual in the time of need may not reward you in a straightforward fashion but it will contribute to a culture where if you needed it help would be available.

This was proven to be a successful strategy in a tournament set up by the political scientist Robert Axelrod in 1980. He solicited various strategies that artificial agents would use against each other and then put them into a tournament in which sets of agents given random strategies would then play several rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma game against each other. Strategies that scored higher would reproduce adding more of that strategy into the pool while strategies that scored the lowest would be removed from the pool. The most successful strategy turned out to be a simple tit-for-tat strategy that started out cooperating and then would simply do whatever the other agent did last round. In his book The Evolution of Cooperation Axelrod outlines why tit-for-tat was so successful:

What accounts for TIT FOR TAT's [sic] robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long-term cooperation.[15]

Such an environment however only describes environments were the two parties involved interact with each other over an extended period, have knowledge of what the other party has recently done. To understand how cooperation and reciprocity still remains a logical strategy to employ, not just an evolutionarily successful one we must consider more complex games.

Indirect reciprocity, that is to say, reciprocity were you cooperate with another without an immediate reward with the implication that doing so will benefit you in the future has also shown to be a game theoretically viable strategy, but a more complex one that does not emerge as neatly as the tit-for-tat strategy. In reality, indirect reciprocity only arises in which an agent either has a biological predisposition or is intelligent enough to keep track of who owes who what.
This is because indirect reciprocity appears to require reputation and status to work effectively and as such, they require not just memory of how agents have treated you in the past, but also how others perceive them. This can be complicated due to the fact that acquiring what other agents think of a particular agent is not particularly easy (nor can you always trust what they think of that particular agent).
Thankfully the relative simplicity of the prisoner's dilemma game makes acquiring such information easy. As such if agents have access to the information they can correctly navigate encounters with others. A 2003 study found that:

[I]f individuals use a standing strategy [have the reputation of the other agent influence whether to cooperate], then cooperation through indirect reciprocity is evolutionarily stable. … [However] we show that systems of indirect reciprocity are highly sensitive to the availability of information.[16]

Further arguments for reciprocity being rational behavior is how it emerges when agents have the ability to sever ties with other agents. If an agent looking to cooperate is interacting with an agent that keeps on defecting the cooperator can simply sever ties. A study published in 2013 looked at this phenomena by distributing pure defectors and cooperators across a network with varying degrees of connectivity with the other agents (having a higher degree of connectivity meant they would play with more frequency) and found that:

Network modularity encouraged the evolution of cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma game by limiting interactions between players. In general, increasing modularity limited the number of neighbors a player had, leading to a higher chance for clusters of cooperators to develop. Thus, modularity favors cooperation by limiting the interactions of individuals to members of their community.[17]

However, there even exist situations in which outcomes are relatively equal for both parties even when they are both anonymous. A 2013 paper that looked at artificial agents playing the “ultimatum game”, a game in which a sum of resources exists. One agent then offers a deal to another agent who can either take it, giving both players the agreed upon sum or decide against it resulting in neither player getting anything. Theories of nature that imply a constant struggle would conclude that the optimal strategy is for the agent giving the ultimatum to offer the other agent a tiny percentage of the sum (like 1%) and then walk away – as 1% is better than zero the other agent will be forced into accepting no matter what.
A recent 2013 study showed that in an ecosystem of agents such assumptions are flawed. In this study, actors were given a variety of strategies that evolved over time. Successful strategies would reproduce while less successful ones would die off. According to the researchers:

Based on rational self-interest, responders should accept any nonzero offer and proposers should offer the smallest possible amount. Traditional, deterministic models of evolutionary game theory agree: in the one-shot anonymous Ultimatum Game, natural selection favors low offers and demands.
Experiments instead show a preference for fairness: often responders reject low offers and proposers make higher offers than needed to avoid rejection. Here we show that using stochastic evolutionary game theory, where agents make mistakes when judging the payoffs and strategies of others, natural selection favors fairness.[18]

Reciprocity cannot solve every problem. In environments of low trust, you are far less likely to put your neck out for an encounter. Certainly, you can still cooperate with another but trust must be built rather than automatically assumed. Indeed this is why environments with many agents usually either have a centralized authority to guarantee trust or some sort of decentralized system of checks and balances to support and enable reciprocity. Markets are an excellent example here – they usually involve both (a well-defined state and less well-defined reputation mechanisms) to enforce good behavior (at least in theory).

In ignoring the wide variety of biological and social expression to simple hierarchy and the tooth and claw of nature Peterson omits the true diversity and complexity of nature to instead paint a simple image. Certainly, he is not alone in this, nor is he the worst offender. Kropotkin, for example, was largely reacting to Thomas Malthus, an early prophet of the dangers of overpopulation and Thomas Henry Huxley, a discipline of Charles Darwin who saw nature as a cruel and bloody battle which justified an authoritarian state as a way to achieve some semblance of morality.
Likewise the practice of eugenics in the 20th century in both America and Europe as part of elite attempts at weeding out the undesirables at the bottom of society who contributed little (not the working class but rather the so-called “unproductive” classes of petty thieves, prostitutes and those engaged in black market activity).
Finally, there exist the true horrors that lie within social Conservatism. Modern-day monarchists and fascists who wish to bring back the social structure and its norms of old but with modern technology to enforce such class divide so that they can never again be threatened by wealth that such technology brings.

It is with this knowledge that we can see Peterson in the broader context. His calls for social regression are dwarfed by what has been and what looks to establish itself. His advice might even be useful, after all doing something is usually better then doing nothing and if he convinces a couple men to be more confident and stand up for themselves then fantastic. But outside of that, he is merely packaging social conservatism into the language of self-help. To anyone familiar with social conservatism this is just your uncle, dad, teacher, president or pastor telling you to clean your room, take a shower and sort your shit out, bucko.


  1. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, Jordan Peterson, chapter 1. ↩︎

  2. ibid, chapter 10 ↩︎

  3. ibid, chapter 12 ↩︎

  4. ibid, chapter 3 ↩︎

  5. ibid, chapter 11 ↩︎

  6. ibid, chapter 11 ↩︎

  7. Whats the Point of Self-Improvement Anyway?, Mark Manson, markmanson.net ↩︎

  8. Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy, Frans de Waal. Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 59:279-300, published January 2008 ↩︎

  9. Kropotkin Was No Crackpot, Stephan Jay Gould. Natural History vol. 97, no. 7, published 1988 ↩︎

  10. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, footnote 1, foreword ↩︎

  11. The Peculiar Position of India’s Third Gender, Jeffery Gettleman. The New York Times, published 17 of February 2018 ↩︎

  12. The Color of Discipline: Civil Rights and Black Sexuality, Thaddeus Russell. American Quarterly, Vol 60 issue 1 pages: 101-128, published March 2008 ↩︎

  13. "Best Love": Female Impersonation in the Great War, Lisa Sigel. Sexualities, Vol 19 issue: 1-2, pages: 98-118, published February 1, 2016 ↩︎

  14. Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands, M. Dyble, et al. Science, Vol. 348, Issue 6236, pages: 796-798, published 15 May 2015 ↩︎

  15. The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, page 54 ↩︎

  16. A tale of two defectors: the importance of standing for evolution of indirect reciprocity, Karthik Panchanathan, Robert Boyd. Journal of Theoretical Biology, Volume 224, Issue 1, 7 September 2003, Pages 115-126 ↩︎

  17. Network modularity promotes cooperation, Marianne Marcoux, David Lusseau. Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 324, 7 May 2013, pages: 103-108, published 7 September 2003 ↩︎

  18. Evolution of fairness in the one-shot anonymous Ultimatum Game, David G. Rand, et al. PNAS Volume 110, Issue 7, pages: 2581-2586, published February 2013 ↩︎