A Conservative Manifesto: Jordan Peterson’s Vision for Conservatives: Part 1
In this video, Peterson discusses what he sees as a positive message for conservatives, a message that can reach a wide audience. As he sometimes does, this video is of him reading a text – a practice he uses when he wants to be careful about his words. As Peterson has often said, he tries to be very careful about the words he uses.
Further, it is a text that he has asked some others to comment on. In other words, what he says here are well-chosen and considered thoughts, vetted by trusted friends. Nothing should be considered off-the-cuff.
Peterson describes this as a manifesto for the center-right and classical liberal front. These are considered by him to be foundational principles. I would start by challenging the idea that center-right and classical liberalism go together.
This is not to say that classical liberalism isn’t conservative. Compared to the mess we live in today it is quite conservative. Even one hundred-twenty-five years ago it would have been seen as conservative. But at its birth – coming out of Enlightenment thinking – it was seen as anything but conservative.
Which comes to a very fundamental question: what is it we want to conserve? There is some quote out these that goes something like: liberals drive change and conservatives consolidate their gains. So, what, exactly, is to be conserved? Peterson sees it as classical liberalism. Unfortunately, this is a foundation built on sand. But I am getting ahead of myself.
A profound crisis of meaning currently afflicts, destabilizes and demoralizes the sovereign citizens of the West and the social institutions on which they depend.
I will come later to his repeated use of some version of the term “sovereign citizens.” In the meantime, Peterson is speaking of the meaning crisis and the ignorance we have regarding the source of the principles that give life meaning. He speaks of holding to a courageous faith in the traditional values of our past – the “eternal verities.”
What are these traditional values and eternal verities, which, as he says, are “crying out for rediscovery”? He offers what he admits is an “inevitably incomplete list”:
He then expands on each item from the list. While he recognizes that these are traditional values and eternal verities, since he is focused on the sovereign citizen, he is grounding these on a foundation unknown until the Enlightenment.
John Locke wrote in his Two Treatises on Government that "every man has a Property in his own Person". Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick interprets Locke as saying that the individual "has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did.”
Josiah Warren was the first who wrote about the "sovereignty of the individual".
In such a case, why would any individual act with or in accord with several items on Peterson’s list: humility, truth, responsibility, tradition, justice, and unity? What would compel him to do so?
Much of Peterson’s list was considered virtuous several centuries before there was any notion of the classical liberalism that came out of the Enlightenment. It was grounded in a tradition that the Enlightened classical liberal tossed aside as irrelevant – or even harmful. Most importantly, he does not identify the one single virtue that gives reason or cause to pursue any of the other virtues or characteristics he identifies.
In other words, he says nothing about Christianity and nothing about love as man’s highest purpose. Sure, he says “do something meaningful.” But Marx did something meaningful; Stalin did something meaningful; Hitler did something meaningful. And much of what they did they considered as offering liberty, truth, identity, merit, tradition, justice, and unity (no, not in every case, but in different degrees for each of them).
They could believe this because they didn’t have Christianity and they didn’t have love – properly tempered by discipline and truth – as man’s highest purpose.
Further, Peterson uses some version of the term “sovereign individual” and “sovereign citizenship” many times. In fact, if there is one concept that undergirds all of his points and supports his arguments, it is this idea of the sovereign individual. At the same time, he outlines specific objectives or values for this “sovereign citizen.” This is very problematic and even contradictory.
First, some definitions:
Sovereign: a person who has supreme power or authority; having supreme rank, power, or authority.
There is no way we are all sovereign, although leftists want to make us believe we are.
Judges 21: 25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Isn’t this the world we live in today? We live in a West where anything peaceful is allowed, and even many things violent are acceptable and even desired. We are sovereign in our ability to identify as anything we choose; we are sovereign in relation to unborn human beings; we are sovereign in creating our own truths; we are sovereign in inventing our own values.
Peterson can’t mean this: we are free to do whatever is right in our own eyes. He can’t mean this because he is offering a list of things we should do, values we should hold, virtues we should stride toward. Yet, he uses the word “sovereign.” So, to keep looking….
Next I looked for something on “sovereign citizenship.” The first items in the search were to sites like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-defamation League and the like. Sovereign citizens do not accept government authority, they are extremists, right-wing anarchists, etc.
Peterson can’t mean this either. But, as careful as he is with words, how can he not understand that this is how many who he wishes to reach will understand this term? They have long ago labeled him right-wing, alt-right, etc. Using this term just adds fuel to that fire.
Further, if I am a “sovereign” citizen, of what am I a “citizen” of? To be a citizen of something implies that I am under some other authority. Even if my participation is fully voluntary, inherently I am no longer sovereign. Even if I am free to leave that authority and become a citizen elsewhere, I am now under a different authority. Truly, a sovereign citizen, if words are to mean anything, would be an individual under no authority – earthly or heavenly – at all. A citizen of an entity with a population of one.
Finally, I did a search on the term “sovereign individual.” From Wikipedia:
Self-ownership, also known as sovereignty of the individual or individual sovereignty, is the concept of property in one's own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity and be the exclusive controller of one's own body and life. Self-ownership is a central idea in several political philosophies that emphasize individualism, such as libertarianism, liberalism, and anarchism.
Clearly it is this latter idea that Peterson has in mind. But all of this just points to the problem of using the word “sovereign” and relating it to “citizen” or “individual” when describing a world conservatives would value.
This idea of an individual as sovereign was certainly born in the Enlightenment, and it just as validly supports communism as it does liberty. This idea of an individual as sovereign implies no hierarchies – or, at least no hierarchies that suggest accepting and living with responsibilities. I know from what he has said in the past – and even in this video – Peterson doesn’t believe this.
For example, he speaks of every person needing a purpose to give them meaning through this otherwise difficult and even tragic life. He lists personal responsibility, marriage, family and job, civic engagement and sacrifice. But he doesn’t offer a “why.” Why should a sovereign individual value and pursue these, as opposed to the meaning pursued by the greatest despots in history?
He says people are crying out for individual sovereignty and responsible genuine social service and purpose. But why would a sovereign individual cry out for genuine social service?
He speaks of “atonement through responsibility.” Why would a sovereign have to atone for anything? And, again, why take on responsibility? I am sovereign, after all. He says that the highest must serve the lowest, but again, no “why.” So why stick with the word “sovereign”?
First, he sticks to the word sovereign (individual or citizen) because he cannot or will not escape the idea that the Enlightenment was an almost unmitigated good. He is very much in the Steven Pinker camp on this.
Second, the “why.” The answer to the last “why” in all of these questions is love. Love of neighbor, to be sure. But this cannot be sustained without a love of God. It cannot, because there is no reason to love one’s neighbor when it is easier not to, when I am better off for not doing so, when it requires some sacrifice on my part. And love always demands these things of me. Love demands that which Peterson is asking of conservatives. And it is my love of God that keeps me accountable to my neighbor (as poorly as I do this…).
But Peterson ignores the root; he ignores the basis.
So, why take on any responsibility – sovereign individual that I am – unless I am under the authority of God, Who places on me the responsibility to love? That is the last answer to the last why? But it goes unsaid by Peterson.
Almost. He speaks of “the Abrahamic cannon” as our inheritance. I had to look this one up. I found things like the following: The Hebrew Canon (Tanakh and Mishna); Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; Islamic Canon. Peterson says nothing of Christ, Christianity – Peterson doesn’t even use the invented tradition of “Judeo-Christian.”
The Abrahamic canon is much too broad a concept. There is the tradition of the Old Testament as understood via the New Testament. It is through this canon that the ideas Peterson cherishes have borne fruit. Without this canon, those ideas will not bear fruit again.
It should not go unsaid that Peterson makes some excellent points in this video: he recognizes that there is an inevitability to economic disparities, and to a difference in competence. He speaks positively of free markets. He does use the term “natural law” once (albeit, with no expansion or explanation). He recognizes the negative result of the atomistic individual.
A shallow conservatism. This is what Peterson offers. A conservatism with no foundation.
I have previously dealt with this topic: What to Conserve. From that post, I offer the following – a short summary, greatly expanded in the post:
What does conservativism wish to conserve?
What does liberalism wish to liberalize?
What does progressivism wish to progress to?
Only one of these has a functional answer, yet those who label themselves as such (conservative) are ignorant of it or don't wish to aim at it. That would be the purpose of man, which is the foundation for discovering the natural law - the foundation of which only comes to full development through Christianity.
The other two offer no target at which to aim, as there is always more to liberalize or to progress to. So we have Bari Weiss wishing for the NY Times of three years ago, apparently ignorant of the countless Walter Duranty types that preceded her by decades or more. And Jordan Peterson, who wishes to go back only a few years further - when [personal] pronouns actually had some definitional value.
Without a focus on the natural law ethic and the necessity of Christianity to develop this fully (among other things, via Jesus summarizing the commandments: Love God, love your neighbor), the idea of “conservatism” is meaningless.
For those, like Peterson, who cannot give up on the Enlightenment or who otherwise cannot allow themselves to fully embrace the natural law ethic, they will never provide a workable or sustainable vision for conservatives; they will never find answers to the meaning crisis; they will never discover the antidote to the delusions that have overtaken society today.
Just a couple of other comments by Peterson worth addressing: He finds the current bodies of government to be fundamentally good and functional (I would suggest that he reads Hans Hoppe). He must believe this, as he is a disciple of the Enlightenment and the Whig theory of history with liberal democracy seen as the highest form of government ever devised. Things are really getting better, and we are just mucking it up because we aren’t taking on responsibility.
But one cannot divorce the reality that we are in a meaning crisis from the thinking and philosophy that came out of divorcing reason and the individual from God.
Romans 1: 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Peterson also offers: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He calls for conservatives to advocate unity. But unity based on what principles, what truth?
In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.
- Ayn Rand
I know she won’t like it, but the Bible got there first:
1 Kings 18: 21(a) And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Acts 5: 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.