In this part, I will discuss Rules 4-6 of Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Rule 4 says, “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.” In simple language, this rule is about being a good worker, taking the initiative, figuring out where others have failed to take care of something and then claiming responsibility for it. When I am employed in an organization, I can either see what is expected of me and meet that expectation or I can actively search for things I could do, going beyond other people’s expectation, and, as a result, make myself (in Peterson’s words) “invaluable”. Peterson argues that taking the initiative isn’t just about career advancement and becoming valuable in the eyes of others. It’s also about living a meaningful life, since one source of meaning is the challenges we voluntarily meet. Even when we fail at these challenges, we learn from our failure and that is vastly better than not trying. Another aspect of being a conscientious worker is being able to delay gratification and think about long-term goals.
Like the other rules, this rule shouldn’t be taken as the only guide. Who would disagree with the statement, it’s better to be active than passive, or with, it’s better to be happy in the long run than to be happy in this moment. These are platitudes, which are dressed up with a little bit of Egyptian mythology and some anecdotes from Peterson’s clinical practice. But we don’t encounter questions in the treatment of this rule. We don’t read, “Why is it that most people are inclined toward passivity, despite knowing deep down that being active is better?” When we don’t address the root of a problem, the best we can achieve is a temporary burst of emotions–feeling motivated for a short while, and then losing that motivation. A student who procrastinates can just push her/himself with rules (“I must not abdicate responsibility!”) or can investigate her/his procrastination (“Why am I not inclined to work?”). A line of inquiry will lead us to new questions, while forcing ourselves with new list of rules is like casting a spell, again and again, that generates only sparks but no real consequence.
The emphasis on work and being a good worker reminded me of Andrew Taggart, the philosopher, and his critique of “Total Work” (Taggart, 2020). Work isn’t the only source of meaning, though it can present itself as such, and dictate its grammar of meaning in other areas of life (to the point where everything, including our holidays and romantic relationships, are expressed in the logic of work). There are other domains, where meeting a challenge or overcoming an obstacle–i.e., the grammar of work–isn’t an appropriate metaphor. We could think of friendship or leisurely activities. Another problem with this rule–or any rule that endorses working as hard as you can–is that it presupposes complete trust in the organization, where you work. I remember reading some statistics about income disparities between CEOs and average employees at major American companies. In 1965, the income of the CEOs were 20 times larger, whereas in recent years, their income was 350 times larger than that of the average employees. I am not saying that working hard is bad. I value it myself, but it is also good to be mindful of who benefits from your hard work. What breaks my heart the most, in academia, is the hard work of PhD students which benefits above all their supervisors. The PhD students are typically underpaid, overworked, overstressed, often facing a hopeless job market after graduating. Telling them they should do more, and always look for more things to do, would make me feel uneasy. Again, I am not against working hard, working with passionate, but this rule reminds me of Boxer (the horse) in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Rule 5 offers a different perspective, “Do not do what you hate.” The concept “hate” isn’t adequately dissociated from unpleasant feelings. Should you quit doing what you find unpleasant? Is there a moral aspect to this rule? Is this rule about knowing yourself and your interests? Is this rule balancing the effect of Rule 4? We could interpret it that way, as in Don’t work for evil organizations. The text of this chapter is mostly devoted to a criticism of political correctness and its effect in organizations. We read about one of Peterson’s clients who had a difficult experience at work due to issues related to political correctness. He gives a series of advice based on the client’s case, but the advice is quite vague and doesn’t have anything to do with challenging the structure of an organization (we wouldn’t expect such advice from a psychologist or a self-help guru, who continues to shift the emphasis on the person). Toward the end of the chapter, we read that the client is still struggling to find a position after switching jobs three times. The main example of the chapter fails to support the message of Rule 5. There isn’t much else in this chapter. There certainly isn’t a discussion of personal interest and trying to learn about your unique aims in life as a person. Faced with a workplace that we have (for whatever vague reason) come to find troublesome, we are simply encouraged to be hopeful and courageous, and consider other jobs. Fine. Let’s move on to the next rule.
Rule 6 says, “Abandon ideologies”. What does Peterson mean by ideology? At some points, he appears to be referring to simplistic (“univariate”) frameworks. If I have a simplistic theory about the world, I am (according to this position) ideologically driven. What about simplistic theories that try to promote peace and love for the world, that encourage universal brotherhood/sisterhood among all humanity. Is that ideology? Or is ideology about drawing a clear and fixed boundary between what is good and what is evil? I think this is closer to what Peterson means by ideology: Lazy dichotomies that map onto good and evil. Unfortunately, he contributes to that lazy thinking whenever he talks about Marxism, postmodernism, anarchism, nihilism, or atheism. I find it especially troublesome that Peterson continues to assume (based on his interpretation of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky) that atheism necessarily leads to ideology, when we know that religion can be and has been weaponized by ideology. The presence of religion doesn’t guarantee the absence of ideology, just like the absence of religion doesn’t guarantee the emergence of ideology. If we accept such a simplistic relationship, we fall into ideology.
Could we say that ideology arises out of our desire to do more with a given theory? A theory that works in one place, for one set of phenomena, becomes an ideology if we try to forcibly extend its scope to everything else. A psychological theory, like Peterson’s theory about the experience of meaning, becomes ideological when it turns into a theory about almost everything, including ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion. That ideological cheque will bounce, because it is overdrawn. This is an important point for those of us who are offering criticism of Peterson’s work. When we find fault with Peterson’s work, we are not necessarily saying that it contains falsehoods or vacuous statement. What we say is that it is being extended beyond its own domain. It is trying to do too much work, be the answer to too many problem, give us too many rules, and then hide behind the innocent-looking reasoning that, “I am just trying to encourage the young men,” which I think is an abdication of responsibility. It is easy to come up with a rule and say, “abandon ideology”, it is difficult to resist the temptation of ideology in action.
OECD (2017). Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe. https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/cope-divide-europe-2017-background-report.pdf (accessed on March 15, 2021)
Taggart, A. (2020). The spell of total work: A fairytale starring the mischievous magician, the clever ones, & a band of merry pranksters. Medium. https://andrewjtaggart.medium.com/the-spell-of-total-work-a-fairytale-27335997e502. (accessed on March 15, 2021)