For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). Peterson’s approach to truth-telling at first seemed to echo Kant, but as I read deeper I learned it was more nuanced (and perhaps more far-reaching than even Kant’s categorical imperative).
As I’ve said a couple times before, this isn’t a review. I’m just using this post as a way to reflect on what I’ve read and commit it to memory (though readers are more than welcome to use it to pique their interest in the book or compare it to their own findings). A full review should be coming once I finish the book.
Only the most cynical, hopeless philosophy insists that reality could be improved through falsification. Such a philosophy judges Being and becoming alike, and deems them flawed. It denounces truth as insufficient and the honest man as deluded.
Peterson’s focus with regards to honesty is centers on the notion that the world is rarely, if ever, benefited by deception. Tying into Hayek’s economic theories, I believe that some of the reason for this is that people are essentially data collators; they find data and use that data to pursue their interests. In the case of deception, one intentionally denies information that could be helpful or beneficial to the world as a whole to suit their own interests.
In any case, sufficient lies lead to the point where everything that someone has done needs to be re-examined and potentially discarded, replaced with a new paradigm. Either the person must become open with their flawed behavior, or seek total denial and begin anew, sacrificing everything for the comfort of familiar patterns.
Peterson cites Solzhenitsyn and Kierkegaard to raise the point of self-deception. While I disagree with Peterson in his notion that self-deception is typically conscious, I concur with him that it is a major problem. He notes that in the Soviet regime, most citizens denied the nature of their own existence to prevent themselves from coming into opposition with the regime and ideologies they were trained to follow. It was Solzhenitsyn that broke this self-deception for many of them.
Peterson also cites Frankl, who said that an inauthentic life is one of the things that can breed the desire for social totalitarianism, as an individual grows fed up with their chosen lifestyles, built on fallacies, falling apart.
One example Peterson gives is that of the relationship between the over-sheltered child and their parent (he actually uses the example of a son and his mother). By preparing the son for failure, the mother can keep him around forever: and even further, she keeps the position of a martyr and caretaker for a child who she never prepared to face the world. All the while, the son finds himself victim of a society that never delivered him any opportunity at self-salvation, unaware that such things lie within himself and not in external forces.
Peterson is quick to point out that not every failure is the result of dishonesty; honest mistakes and circumstances can account for a large portion of dysfunction in a person’s life. One of the things that impacts how quickly someone can recover from or resist such hardships, however, is the degree to which they are honest with themselves with regards to their abilities and the causes of their problems: rather than blaming them on the world, they claim responsibility for them (something, again, that sounds very familiar to followers of Steven R. Covey’s Seven Habits) and are able to begin fixing the situations they find themselves in.
It is deceit that makes people miserable beyond what they can bear. It is deceit that fills human souls with resentment and vengefulness. It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao. It was deceit that killed hundreds of millions of people in the twentieth century.
One of the interesting things about deceit is the way that it needs to stay in motion. Things done right are done right; they are finished and last. Deceit requires effort. Denying something requires a continuation of denial, and each time that denial happens it becomes more and more easily repeated. Each time the denial happens, it also becomes more and more painful to undo.
So there are better paths than deception; one thing is to accept that individuals’ knowledge (and, indeed, the collective’s knowledge) is limited. Traditions can help with that, according to Peterson, but even they need to be monitored and assessed on their own merits, rather than merely adopted because they offer a path.
It is our responsibility to see what is before our eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible— even if the horror of seeing it damages our consciousness, and half-blinds us.
Peterson cites Nietzsche, who claims that the value of a man is related to how well he can handle the truth. When we see truth, and truly take a good look at it, it may be unpleasant; the world is not a generally pleasant place, despite what we may make it out to be, and the things that we consider good may indeed be incredibly deleterious to our own Being and our own society.
Things undertaken with the best intention may very well pave the road to Hell, and not just in the afterlife.
Nonetheless, ambitions are helpful. They give goals that cannot be based totally on fallacy, because they require action on your behalf. Using skill and effort can develop a person’s intellectual and moral muscles as they force themselves to confront problems, and allows them to really pay attention to who they are.
According to Peterson, a disciplined person can “feel a state of internal division and weakness” when they are doing something inauthentic; something that goes against what they know to be right. Without discipline, it follows that this knowledge is limited or perhaps unavailable.
Better yet, really paying attention may reveal that what a particular goal represents is not really what is desired; a honest pursuit will enable people to shift away from a dangerous or unfulfilling goal and toward a better one. To sift through the chaos of life, something needs to serve as a metric by which to organize.
Likewise, truth is needed to see when change is needed. Otherwise old things or idealistic things without substance are easily claimed as important.
Truth transcends the people who try to tell it; and the people who are trying to shout about what they have found may not have found truth in any meaningful way, but may be self-deceptive in their efforts, making an attempt to convince themselves that they have found truth by seeking validation from others.
Only by reflection and introspection can one find truth, and truth is worthless if it does not lead to action.