I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. I am splitting this chapter into
three four parts because of its length, but also because I think this is such a significant topic that it deserves extra treatment.
Tonight I’m looking at the final portion of the chapter, in which Peterson talks about deceit in particular before getting into the solution to (as much as the reasons to avoid) resentment, deceit, and arrogance.
Jordan Peterson’s trademark phrase (if he had one) is probably “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.”
And deceit is more than a lie, but it is the substance that the above injunction attempts to fight against.
There appear to be two broad forms of deceit: sins of commission, the things you do knowing full well they are wrong; and sins of omission, which are things you merely let slide—you know you should look at, do, or say something, but you do not.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem with deceit is that we often think of it as a character quality or a personality trait, which isn’t wrong in the sense that it can take on a sort of spiritual/psychological life of its own within people.
But there is another element that matters. Deceit is a real thing of its own.
Or, perhaps it is better to say, that deceit is not real. But deceit nonetheless exists.
It is the presence of falsehood within the universe.
And the consequence of inviting in falsehood is terrible.
Place falsehood into the universe and you set yourself up for errors.
Even the proto-postmodernist Stirner conceived of an absolute truth, and his goals were to strip away all meaningless and false obstacles to the path (it is noteworthy that in this way, Stirner may have actually been among the first of the skeptical modernists, though he also embodies something much more extreme than we would see again until the likes of the Dadaists).
The deliberate denigration of truth (as a cultural phenomenon) is a contemporary invention, at least outside certain extremist circles, but casual individual dalliances hide themselves better inside even the lives of those who might consider themselves seekers of truth.
It is also worth noting that the extreme cynicism which I have here equated with the denigration of truth has materialized before. It is rare, to be sure, but lurks at the nadir of civilizations across time.
There is a real question of what will happen next to our society. One consequence of the modern nation state is a degree of stability inconceivable compared to its predecessors.
But stability is not the highest moral virtue, and certainly not the stability of loosely defined collectives.
One concept from economics is the constant clash between stated and revealed preferences as aggravated by complications in knowledge. Things like regime uncertainty, currency manipulation, and bookkeeping tricks all have an impact on the perception of how the economy is doing, but they are not real.
At some point, the consequence of this is economic catastrophe, even if things do not lose their value, because large swathes of the economy were treated as being more valuable or less valuable than they really were.
We saw this in 2008, and it is a good case study for deception.
The consequence of deception is what might be known as the real fiction. Although it is not substantive and collapses, often when the stakes of this collapse are devastating for all involved, deception and its products can function as if it were real so long as the conditions that predicate its collapse have not arisen.
Then the game is up.
Naturally, deception is not the right strategy to confront the world. Not only is there cowardice and vice down that path, and by corollary an absence of virtue, but there is an ever-looming collapse.
In the worst case, the person doing the deception may not even realize how deceptive they are and must in the end face both internal and external dissolution.
Peterson lays out the sins of commission that lead to deception in four ways:
- The denial of the interconnections between divinity, truth, and goodness
- The assumption of the power of the divine
- The belief in the power of the deceptive act to substitute for the real
- The posture of being sufficiently just that deception is permissible
The common trend here is that the deceiver is aware of what they are doing, which is a defining distinction that sets them at odds with those who commit deception by omission.
We naturally should fear people who would do this, and perhaps even submit them to ostracism. At the very least the proper course of action is to avoid giving them any power (though they are, as all people, entitled to the power they can earn legitimately; forestalling their ability to ascend through deception but permitting them to play fairly may reform them, though we should not take risks with ourselves and others by trusting without verification).
It is not necessarily true that those who are deceptive are evil in the sense that we think of comic book villains and pernicious reprobates.
However, there is no substitute for truth. Those who commit deceptive acts are choosing to ignore the reality of the situation.
There is a power for short-term gain when this is applied within the framework of a society. It could be conceived of as a behavioral virus–though this is a faulty metaphor for significant reasons, among which is the fact that attempts to socially engineer humanity along pathological metaphors have always failed and will always fail–a strategy that corrupts the user and encourages further deception.
The growth of further deception as a conscious strategy is one consequence of this deliberate commission that may be absent in omission. Of course, patterns of behavior that are rewarded or go unpunished reinforce themselves, but it seems likely that conscious behavior reinforces itself faster (though unconscious behaviors may occur in ways that are much more pernicious and hard to root out).
The problem is that while short-term benefits are possible, they are always selfish. This is a poor strategy for long-term cooperation, which is where it is most necessary. In individual Crusoe environments, this can have dramatic effects quickly as decisions made against prevailing wisdom (where it aligns to reality) and better judgment result in catastrophe due to a lack of resources.
Socially, this involves taking advantage of people and then pretending that the resources still exist. Worse than overt thievery, the victims are led to a place in the real fiction, which ultimately collapses on them.
Omission that leads to deception always looks the same: a failure to confront truth.
But the motives and reasons for it look different in each context. There are three, and each represents a mistaken assumption about the world.
These assumptions lead to the growth of the real fiction, because they are all attempts to avoid the truth.
Nihilism leads down the path of destruction because it posits, on a philosophical level, that everything is indistinct from destruction.
It might not be immediately obvious what nihilism and pride have to do with each other (and even less what both have to do with sins of omission). But the nihilistic attitude is one of certainty: everything is meaningless, or even negative.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The consequence of nihilism is that everything that holds meaning is reduced to a null.
This does not necessarily involve conscious deception, though it certainly can combine with the first type of sin of commission that Peterson outlines when a person applies it to reality consciously.
But more often than not, the nihilist is going to approach the world from premises that require no conscious justification, at least not on the level of action. The arguments for nihilism are complex, of course.
But the problem is that it always involves placing oneself in a place of judgment, which is not possible given the superhuman nature of the universe.
Expedience is the second form of omission, though here I’d say that I’m using it in a non-standard way and even deviating from Peterson’s own account.
Another motive for a sin of omission? The claim that it is justifiable to take the easy path. This means living life so that true responsibility for anything important never falls on your shoulders.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The reason why I call this expedience as opposed to irresponsibility is that irresponsibility can stem from different tenets. Nihilism, for instance, encourages irresponsibility.
But choosing the easy path can still be accompanied by certain responsibilities, even if the desire is not to live up to one’s responsibilities but merely to reap the rewards granted to those who assume responsibility.
And this is also where the danger of expedience lies. It would be one thing to seek the easiest path that is right: this is efficiency. There is some danger in prioritizing efficiency over rectitude, but it is a place for the hero to explore.
There is no place to pursue the easiest path among all possible paths, because this is not in alignment with right action by its very design.
Despair is the third path of omission that leads to deception.
The final form of sins of omission is associated with lack of faith in yourself—perhaps in humanity in general—because of the fundamental nature of human vulnerability.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The consequences of despair look similar to nihilism, but differ in a distinct way.
Nihilism is essentially value-free. In fact, it is not only value-free but also cynical about the existence of value in any context, which is different from the philosophical or practical approach of a question outside moral frameworks with the intent of later applying moral frameworks to determine whether the action is acceptable.
Despair is not. Despair recognizes the hierarchies of value that we need to follow in order to live happy and “successful” lives, according to whatever metrics an individual prefers.
But then it denies the achievability of those goals.
The natural response to this is bitter skepticism (i.e. resentment) or a complete withdrawal from life.
The right attitude to the horror of existence—the alternative to resentment, deceit, and arrogance—is the assumption that there is enough of you, society, and the world to justify existence.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The solution to deception is this: to live forthrightly and with an eye to truth.
That is not a solution so much as a course of action, which is why it is understood through archetypal and symbolic terms.
The most significant of these is the concept of the hero.
The hero sets out to combat the horror of existence by seeking to serve that which can be considered good. It is not truthful to say that the hero will never err, or that anything in the world is ever perfectly good. There are costs to all things.
But there are value hierarchies and establishing a hierarchy that is under God and aligns with truth permits a legitimate effort to be made to make the world better.
How does one deal with bitterness, resentment, and arrogance?
It is trite to say perspective, gratitude, and humility, but it is not altogether wrong.
The proper way to deal with the suffering of the world is to accept its existence, understand that much of it is random (though it is also unavoidable in a literal sense), and attempt to do the best one can.
The reason why this works is because of the power we have as bearers of the image of God, namely the creative energy that is part of consciousness and moral agency.
We apply that, and do so as carefully as we can because it is possible to use it for evil, and then we take a step back, examine what has happened, rest, and repeat the process.
Do that for long enough and great things happen.