Kenneth Primrose discusses academic Jordan Peterson’s views about how people arrive at the beliefs that shape their behaviour.
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How do people arrive at the beliefs that shape their behaviour, and do those beliefs have much substance to them?
It would be fair to say that Cathy Newman’s interview of Canadian academic Jordan Peterson has created more social media heat that it has cast light. Nonetheless, the interview was a bracing tour of an often–ignored and important question: how do people arrive at the beliefs that shape their behaviour, and do those beliefs have much substance to them?
Answer #1 is that they’re given these beliefs from one prevailing ideology or another. In the course of the interview Newman was probing Peterson’s comparison of the politics of trans–rights activists and the ideology of Chairman Mao. Peterson contended that both are based on the idea that group identity is paramount. That sounds like a wild claim, and perhaps one that has a whiff of the genetic fallacy about it. Nonetheless, the claim that ideological narratives shape our behaviour and identity and can propel us along a particular trajectory, the end of which is often unconsidered, is an important one.
Answer #2 is that people are biologically predisposed towards certain beliefs. After the exchange on the politics of Mao and trans–rights activists, she asks Peterson about his use of the evolutionary connection between lobsters and humans. Peterson explains that his point is that we share a similar nervous system/neurochemical make up to lobsters. Lobsters are programmed in such a way that hierarchy will emerge, and so too – contends Peterson – are humans. The point here is that biology is part of the reason for the existence of hierarchy in society, rather than a toxic ideology. It’s pointless to rail against hierarchy as a social construct.
Of course, both answers could be true. Some culture–shaping beliefs are offered by this or that ideology, while others may be a matter of biological inclination. In fact, Peterson thinks that what we learn from evolutionary biology can be lined up with the ‘mythos’ – the stories – of western individualism, undergirded by the moral and theological claims of Christianity (see this discussion from the RSA).
The writer Yuval Noah Harari makes similar observation in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In tracing our evolutionary lineage, Harari agrees that those from whom we descended have their social structures defined by their genetic predispositions. If for example, a group of primates tends to be organised around an Alpha Male, this structure will invariably look the same wherever such colonies exist. However, we sapiens are uniquely able to organise ourselves very differently depending on our narratives – from communist and capitalist societies, to those with a divinely ordained religious hierarchy. Why have many of our species opted to live a celibate life in relative penury, as some religious devotees are wont to do? Mythos is in fact capable of winning out over nature.
When it comes to explaining all human behaviour, the reductionist arguments of certain neo–Darwinians are specious at best. Our behaviour patterns are of course influenced in no small part by biology, but they are also clearly predicated on narratives with no rightful place in biology. As the poet Muriel Rukseyer put it, ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms’.
If Harari is correct and we sapiens can transcend the rule of the jungle and live according to higher moral codes, then we ought to know our story. What is the narrative in which we locate our moral codes? Where will this narrative lead when it is pursued? And perhaps most importantly, how do we know we’ve claimed the right one to believe in? Since behaviour is to some extent directed by belief, we have a moral responsibility to consider these questions.
Cathy Newman was getting close to an important question: even if some social structures are biologically determined, then are we to simply give way to them? It may be that we’re hardwired for certain social structures, but the claim that some forms of life are better and more desirable than others is matter of ‘ought’, not a matter of ‘is’ – a matter of stories and not of atoms. This seems to be a weak point in Peterson’s approach, but Newman fails to land on it because, first, she has decided ahead of time to take Peterson down and, second, she hadn’t reflected on the story in which she is rooted.
It would seem obvious that our civic dialogue will become much more constructive when we improve our listening, though not only to one another. Without some self–reflection, we court the danger of peddling nothing more than the hot air we inhale, rather than the considered answers on offer to us from science, philosophy and of course, faith.