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 just finished the first half of the chapter dedicated to the fifth rule, and this is the second part to follow it.
As I mentioned previously, this is a shorter chapter, but I think there’s a lot to discuss so I broke it down in two parts. Right now part of the section that this overview covers is the excerpt over on the Beyond Order Amazon store page, and I’m willing to bet that they chose it as an exemplar because it’s a very interesting and powerful piece.
Odium as Gatekeeper
One thing that I find interesting about this section is how it shifts from the case study and general philosophy into action, and one central part of that is the idea that when you do things you hate you will block yourself from living the life you want to live.
This makes sense. After all, time is finite, and any choice you make that puts you in a situation that damages you morally also operates to the exclusion of that which might otherwise build you up.
When culture disintegrates—because it refuses to be aware of its own pathology; because the visionary hero is absent—it descends into the chaos that underlies everything.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
It’s important to remember that if you do things you hate you are putting yourself in a negative esteem from your own perspective.
For instance, I detest dishonesty. When I lie, I become a liar, and dishonesty becomes a quality that applies to me.
This makes it much harder for me to be an honest person, not only because of the consequences that might unfold in the world because of my past actions but because I no longer have the perception of myself as honest.
Of course, self-deception could also result, but this is a bad long-term strategy for many reasons that Peterson talks about at length elsewhere. In fact, there’s lots of people who will bring up the issues with self-deception.
The unavoidable problem with self-deception is that it eventually meets with reality, and the consequences of that are so incredibly destructive that they can threaten to tear the psyche apart–and while I’ve been through that experience it’s not something I’d recommend or wish upon other people.
There are, of course, other issues that can arise around the side, and one of them is important here.
When one is self-deceptive, they strip themselves of the ability to aim at better things. If you say that something that would be intolerable under other circumstances is justified because of a fringe benefit, you need to be sure that you’re not setting yourself up to continue on a path to mediocrity.
As someone who considers themselves an absolute pacifist (with some moral failings), I consider people who are contingent pacifists to be an example of this.
If you say that no war is permissible except for wars that accomplish just goals, you are not a pacifist. You are average. There are people more hawkish than you who revel in or support the institution of warfare (for political, economic, or social reasons), but the statement of the contingent pacifists boils down to this:
“All violence is bad, but the violence I like is justifiable.”
The problem here is that if violence were off the table there might be painful but no less fruitful options to prevent many of the problems “solved” with war, though even I am not utopian enough to pretend that unilateral nonviolence will create a world without sin.
Author’s note: I’m using war as an easy example here, but my Tolstoyan bent means I consider things far less obvious than war to be violations of pacifist behavior, and I know that there are contingent pacifists who would never tolerate modern/mass warfare.
To get back to my point, if you’re doing something you hate, then you need to be very careful to make sure that you aren’t setting yourself up to justify it.
That sort of bitterness and resentment can consume you.
Peterson states that “in the rubble of the most broken-down lives, useful weapons might still be found.” And while I am a pacifist, the thrust he is making here is that you need to prepare yourself for the moral struggle that will emerge when you need to choose between convictions and beliefs.
I’ve been in something of an introspective mode today, and one thing that occurred to me is that if you’re not willing to risk dying for something, it’s not really a principle.
For living life honestly and forthrightly as the best potential person you can be, there’s no room to live without principles. That doesn’t mean every action has to line up with your goals with painstaking precision–your choice in breakfast doesn’t need to send a message about your life, though it can in ways people don’t appreciate until they’ve thought about it–but it does mean that you need to have non-negotiables.
And to have and hold that, you need to know what you’re doing.
If you are willing to conceptualize yourself as someone who could—and, perhaps more importantly, should—stand fast, you may begin to perceive the weapons at your disposal.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The important thing here is to take a page from the Stoics. Do you believe in your values enough to lose things for them? Can you prepare yourself for that loss?
I have at a couple points in my life hit what I might call a rock-bottom. I don’t know that I’ve really had it as bad as a person can have it, but I’ve been forced to confront losses that I could avoid at the expense of being less than my proper self and I’ve always chosen my self.
I’m proud of that (hopefully in the non-sinful way, and since some of these have involved being true to my faith convictions I believe I’m correct there), though I’m obviously not a perfect person.
Much of that happened in weak points of my life, so in hindsight I’m surprised that I had the moral fortitude to carry through and keep my center intact.
But I can say that in hindsight the fight was obviously worth waging.
That would not have been possible had I not been armed.
It is not an accident that one of the Christian metaphors for being prepared to engage with the world involves the “Armor of God”, and further that there is a sword (representing Scripture) included in the ensemble.
And the reason for this is simple. You do not fight unless you are prepared. If the enemy catches you unaware, you surrender. Sometimes you die, but moral compromise rarely kills you outright.
Further, there’s a reason we tie the possession of weapons to sovereignty throughout human cultures and times.
It is this: when you are armed (literally or metaphorically) you receive the power of life and death.
When you arm yourself with moral fortitude, you are giving yourself the power over your own life and death, in the same way that arming yourself with physical weapons gives you power over others.
Coincidentally, this is why despite being a pacifist I don’t detest weapons themselves. I’ve also had enough experiences in rural regions to know that they’re helpful for surviving when bears (or other threats, which are more numerous than city-dwellers appreciate) come calling, but the central point is this: I think it is better to entrust people with power than strip them of it, even if the morally correct action is not to use that power. To think otherwise would be hubris or folly. In fact, there’s a potential case where the only moral situation is for people to have the power and not use it, since powerless people cannot claim virtue through their inaction.
What’s the Worst that Could Happen?
One thing I cannot stress enough is that the consequence of doing things you hate is becoming something worthy of scorn and derision. You will hate yourself, if only because you are a thing that does that which is hated.
Peterson touches on this, but he doesn’t give it enough depth.
I cannot give it enough depth.
The proper weight of this realization is practically infinite. Do not become a doer of wickedness. It doesn’t end well, both because of the consequences in the end–material comfort is worth a lot less than psychological and spiritual wellbeing, but sacrifices of the latter for material comfort often come without a guarantee of success despite their tempting nature–and because of the steps you take along the way.
There is no guarantee that doing the things you hate is benefitting you. Peterson points this out, since finding a different job than one which forces you to do or say things you find distasteful has a lesser cost than many people presume.
And the cost of staying can be brutal.
But it is once again worth realizing that staying where you should not be may be the true worst-case situation: one that drags you out and kills you slowly over decades. That is not a good death, even though it is slow, and there is very little in it that does not speak of the hopelessness that makes people age quickly and long for the cessation of career and, worse, life.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One thing that you never want to have happen is to have something that you hate overwhelm you. It’s possible to do everything “right” within the framework of your human limitations and still become overwhelmed, though usually there are ways to deal with this if you had knowledge and support that you cannot provide yourself.
But if you’re doing something wrong, the chance of catastrophe increases exponentially, which I mentioned yesterday.
The hazard here goes beyond a catastrophe in life, however.
It is the loss of value of life itself. Tragedies by their own nature require the loss of something valued.
The worst tragedy is that which plays out and leaves the survivors with nothing.
This was a brief chapter, but I think it had some noteworthy ideas. I have largely elaborated on my own ideas here, but they’re all tied into things Peterson has said.
One thing that I will suggest: read The Gulag Archipelago. There’s a connection between Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom and this in a way that I can’t articulate.