On Rules

There is a lot of talk these days about Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I have ordered it and I’m looking forward to seeing whether it lives up to its hype. Because of the highly polarized rhetoric around Peterson, this can be taken both ways: I wonder whether it’s as good as people say it is. And wonder whether it’s as bad. It may be both or neither.

The quality of an advice book is usually very much in the eye of the beholder. This shouldn’t surprise us since the book’s virtues will probably be apparent mainly to people who need the advice. Those who don’t may not understand why such “banalities” are being codified into “rules of life”. Indeed, I’ve noticed that there are people on both sides of “the Jordan Peterson moment” who seem eager to make clear that they certainly don’t need these rules. Perhaps, they’re already a matter of habit. I sometimes wonder if they understand that what is second nature to them, or what various accidents of life and work have spared them the need to think seriously about, may not be obvious or even imaginable to many others. The right book at the right time can make a great difference to someone whose life has not gone as yours has.

In this post I want to address “the very idea” of rules for living. I have my own set of rules, (though not for life but for writing and they only go to 11) so I think I understand the spirit of Peterson’s project. I also recognize the misunderstandings that it has been subject to in the discourse. I’m not thinking here of the polarized political and scientific rhetoric that has characterized the book’s reception. I’m thinking more about the ridicule Peterson has had to suffer merely for thinking he can help people get their lives together, and the resentment he has encountered because, it would seem, he actually can.

Moralists are always open to the charge of hypocrisy. If I tell you how you should live, I can expect you to notice if I don’t uphold those standards. I’ve never been quite convinced that charges of hypocrisy are a useful part of our ethical discourse — after all, can’t my morality be as aspirational for me as I’m proposing it should be for you? — but I think this line of criticism fails outright when we’re not talking about moralizing and merely about advising. If I’m only telling you how you could live, am I really implying that this is how I do it too? Does it matter whether I am successfully following my own advice? Does it even matter whether I have a successful life? I’m not sure the answers to those questions are obvious.

I’m certainly not sure that pointing out that Peterson breaks his own rules in his book is a very incisive criticism. After all, breaking rules is a sign of mastery. Only a novice worries about following rules to the letter in all things. The master knows how to do things without the rules, bending and even breaking them as needed, often without giving them a thought. Noticing that the master didn’t follow a particular rule normally means you didn’t notice the contextual factors that made it inapplicable. So “he doesn’t follow his own rules” isn’t really a stinging barb; it’s giving the game to him by saying that the only standards by which to judge him are those he gives us.

It’s also important to notice that Peterson’s “rules for life” aren’t going to be enforced by him, or any other human authority, but by, precisely, life. These are not injunctions but instructions. You are not bending to his will but to the way of the world–assuming of course that Peterson has, on the relevant point, discovered how the world works.

Finally, after over ten years of advising people about how to write, I’ve stopped being surprised to discover that the real reason my advice didn’t work for someone was that they simply didn’t follow it. Sometimes they tried to follow it but had badly misunderstood what I had suggested they do. Other times they simply decided that it wasn’t for them. It’s as if advice has to be immediately persuasive in order to be counted as “good”.

Of course, that’s a very important part of the qualification of a coach (or any other adviser). Someone who gives excellent advice that no one ever finds compelling enough to follow isn’t going to do much good. But it is important to realize that the quality of a piece of advice for dealing with your particular problem can only finally be determined by following it and seeing where that leaves you. Apparently, Peterson is having some success in reaching people and he seems to be coming by it honestly. People just like what he has to say and find it useful in their lives.

Anyway, from the advance press I’m broadly sympathetic to Peterson’s project. I think it is perfectly reasonable to talk of rules for living and it’s a perfectly legitimate aim to try to explain what you think works to others.  When the book arrives and I’ve read it, I’ll write a proper review of it from the point of view how it might help the lives of scholars.

2 thoughts on “On Rules

  1. I like your remark that “Noticing that the master didn’t follow a particular rule normally means you didn’t notice the contextual factors that made it inapplicable.”

    It is an excellent echo of Aristotle on practical rules: “…all law is general, but concerning some matters it is not possible to speak correctly in a general way. In those cases, then, in which it is necessary to speak generally, but it is not possible to do so correctly, the law takes what is for the most part the case, but without being ignorant of the error involved in so doing. And the law is no less correct for all that: the error resides not in the law or in the lawgiver but in the nature of the matter at hand. For such is simply the stuff of which actions are made.” (NE, 1137b13–2, translation Bartlett and Collins).

    Yet perhaps, some of the hostility towards Peterson might also explained with reference to Aristotle, e.g. that Petersons work is insufficiently clear that “the stuff of which life is made” is such that only very flexible rules (which doesn’t necessarily mean imprecise rules, cf. Wittgenstein on rules) can be given at all. But I haven’t read Peterson either. Not yet at least; I’ll look forward to your review.

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