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Jordan Peterson is Wrong About the Case for the Left

At 1:21:45 of the above video Jordan Peterson says the following:

One of the things I do all the time in my public lectures is make a case for the utility of the left.  So and the case can be made quite rapidly.

If you’re going to pursue things of value in a social environment you’re going to produce a hierarchy. It’s unavoidable because some people are better at whatever it is that you value. And so when that lays itself out socially it will produce a hierarchy. The hierarchy has a necessity if you’re going to pursue the things of value.  But it has a risk. The risk is it will ossify and become corrupt. That’s risk number one. And risk number two is that when you produce a hierarchy you’re going to dispossess a number of people, because there’ll be lots of people in the hierarchy who aren’t good at it and they’ll be dispossessed.  So you need a political voice for them. That’s the left.

So I make that case over and over. Now, what the right does is say yeah but we still need the hierarchy. It’s like yes you still need hierarchy.  The reason we need the political dialog is because we need the hierarchy and we can’t let it get out of control. So we and and the the way to balance those two competing necessities isn’t by only having the hierarchy or dissolving the hierarchy.  You have to live with the tension. And the way because because the situation keeps shifting. So the way you live with the tension is by talking. You say well here’s the current state, the hierarchy needs to be tweaked this much because it’s getting too tyrannical and it’s dispossessing too many people. So we need to tweak it so that it’s not as corrupt and so it’s a little more open. And we have to talk about that all the time. And that’s what the right and left, it’s not the only thing they do.  Because they also talk about the necessity of borders. That’s the other fundamental thing they do.  The dialog has to continue so that we can have the hierarchies and utilize them as tools without allowing them to descend into tyranny.

The part of this I think he’s wrong about is the nature of the tension between the right and the left. He says the right defends hierarchical systems and the left defends those who are dispossessed by those systems. This implies a tug of war between two opposing forces. It also implies that the right does not defend the dispossessed. It’s wrong on both counts.

I further suggest that the idea he proposes is an example of the sort of entrenched yet questionable orthodoxy produced by academia because it’s populated almost entirely be leftists and there’s nobody present with an alternate viewpoint who can challenge them.

Well, I’m challenging this one.

I suggest that the tension of which he speaks is fully formed and self-contained completely within conservatism.  Balancing those two forces is, in fact, what conservatism is all about. Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles describes the conservative outlook as (paraphrasing): “There are no solutions, only tradeoffs.”

The real tension is between balance on the right and imbalance on the left.

In Towards a Cognitive Theory of Polics in the online magazine Quillette I make the case that left and right are best understood as psychological profiles consisting of 1) cognitive style, and 2) moral matrix.

There are two predominant cognitive styles and two predominant moral matrices.

The two cognitive styles are described by Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for them.  These two quotes from the book summarize the two styles:

Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things.  They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it. (p. 61)

The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives (p.539-540)

The Platonic cognitive style amounts to pure abstract reason, “unconstrained” by reality. It has no limiting principle. It is imbalanced. Aristotelian thinking also relies on reason, but it is “constrained” by empirical reality. It has a limiting principle. It is balanced.

The two moral matrices are described by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Moral matrices are collections of moral foundations, which are psychological adaptations of social cognition created in us by hundreds of millions of years of natural selection as we evolved into the social animal.  There are six moral foundations.  They are:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Fairness/Cheating
  3. Liberty/Oppression
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation

The first three moral foundations are called the “individualizing” foundations because they’re focused on the autonomy and well being of the individual person. The second three foundations are called the “binding” foundations because they’re focused on helping individuals form into cooperative groups.

One of the two predominant moral matrices relies almost entirely on the individualizing foundations, and of those mostly just care. It is all individualizing all the time. No balance. The other moral matrix relies on all of the moral foundations relatively equally; individualizing and binding in tension.  Balanced.

The leftist psychological profile is made from the imbalanced Platonic cognitive style in combination with the first, imbalanced, moral matrix.

The conservative psychological profile is made from the balanced Aristotelian cognitive style in combination with the balanced moral matrix.

It is not true that the tension between left and right is a balance between the defense of the dispossessed and the defense of hierarchies.

It is true that the tension between left and right is between an imbalanced worldview unconstrained by empirical reality and a balanced worldview constrained by it.

A Venn Diagram of the two psychological profiles looks like this:


5 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson is Wrong About the Case for the Left

  1. So, to be on the left means to lack psychological maturity.


    Posted by Ortega y Gasset | October 27, 2018, 4:58 pm
  2. Nice and concise lay out of the different visions and matrices here, given that it’s a pretty complicated/heterodox theory of political differences. I think it would be really interesting to see JP respond to this critique…

    One question I have is, where does the distinction between the Liberal Left and the Socialist Left factor into this equation? Haidt in particular seems to ignore this one – where he makes a profile for Libertarians but not the ‘Hard’ Left.

    Also, could there be a variant of Far-Left morality (or vision) that dispenses with the first three moral foundations in favour of almost pure Loyalty/Authority, as they identify with the vanguard party of the ideology over everything else? Or is that pretty much just sociopaths exploiting the Left blindspots at that point?


    Posted by AutumnPortrait | July 4, 2018, 6:59 am
  3. Jordan Peterson has been under non-stop assault by the left for the last several years, including a number of viral videos in which liberals attempt to mercilessly assail him. His recent book(which I highly recommend) and his overall philosophy is founded on individual responsibility and being a productive member of society by getting your own house in order before you attempt to do other things.

    Merely the fact that he doesn’t fit into your narrow, one-dimensional, linear (self-referentially) incoherent vision of the world, doesn’t mean he is wrong. And since he is a conservative, it also provides another poinent example your empirically erroneous assertion that there is a unified ToE conservatism that exists in reality.


    Posted by Tom Rossman | July 2, 2018, 9:10 am

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

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