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Comment on Jordan Peterson's EP 291 about “How to combat Hedonism”

What follows is an excerpt from a private exchange. I am reproducing it with permission, without disclosing the identity of my correspondent. This is a follow-up to a video presentation I did yesterday “on hedonism and presence”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2023-01-09-hedonism-presence/.


This discussion about hedonism appeared on my youtube, I wonder if the AI noticed me watching your video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKa8X5vjtjc

I do not agree with everything they say, but some statements touch upon similar issues to those you mentioned in your video.

A few sentences add something interesting to what you said and clarify your concepts.

But tell me, after watching that video are you more enlightened or more confused?

Thank you for sharing this! Below are my thoughts about it. Can I publish this on my website and include your quote as well (together with the link)? I will not disclose your contact details.

Let me start with an admission that is relevant to this video: I tried to read Nietzsche’s “god is dead” opus many years ago but I quit. I did not like the style of exposition as I could not tell with certainty what should be taken literally, what is hyperbole, what is a metaphor… Sure, it is sensational and captures the imagination, though I am concerned that instead of understanding the author’s intent I will simply find an authority to justify my biases.

If I am to make up my own mind about what the author wrote, I might as well do it without the author and be safe in the knowledge that whatever mistake is mine as there is no authoritative source supporting it. I felt that Nietzsche was more interested to show off his undeniable intelligence and ability to write than to make a clear point. I understand this is superficial as I never read further, so take it for what it is.

Another general comment is that there are many interesting ideas in this discussion, many of which I have also covered in my publications, though it is hard to share my views on each of them because they are not considered in depth. I am concerned that if I expound on some aside, I am likely assuming too many things and am not treating the opinion fairly. For example, there is this comment about what Islam can teach Christianity: it is a brief remark that Islam is “brave” whereas Christians are “spineless”. What exactly is this spinelessness about? And what does bravery of this sort entail? Another example is the reference to Icarus who is couched in terms of self-sacrifice whereas I would interpret the myth as one of hubris, not sacrifice. A third is “to conquer nature […] in a Promethean way” which, I think, does not do justice to the original myth given the context of that comment.

With regard to the title of the video—“How to combat Hedonism”—it already frames hedonism as an inimical force and expects us to take this as a given. Before we even listen to the arguments, we are expected to pick a side. At around the 46:00 mark in the video, Peterson describes hedonism as impulsive, short-sighted, and essentially naive as it “backfires on you the next day”. This is exactly what I asked in my latest presentation: why take this school of thought, or any belief for that matter, and argue against its naive version? And this is why I talked about drug abuse, because it is not about seeking pleasure yet is mistakenly taken that way.

It is easy to triumph over the silly variant of every idea. What I want is to take the argument seriously and not essentially make fun of it. This is why I said that we have the conventional wisdom where hedonism is necessarily bad: it sets up an artificial divide between responsibility and recklessness where the pursuit of pleasure is inherently reckless. Yet seeking pleasure can be done responsibly because we have knowledge and are purposeful in our actions, hence the falsehood of this dichotomy. Also, arguing that pleasure is inherently irresponsible is problematic for the person who makes that claim: does the person not seek any pleasure in their life? Maybe they do it in a balanced way, which is precisely what I talked about.

Combating a naive version of a theory is like making an argument against the teachings of Jesus by saying that the local priest is a crook. Sure, any given priest may be corrupt though that says nothing about the teachings of Jesus as such.

What we can do in the face of a naive proponent of a theory is to tell them that they fail to convince us with their actions, not mere words. This is also a point I make in the video on discipline and self-restraint (basically: don’t talk big, but lead by example): https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-10-27-discipline-self-restraint/.

At around the 1:30:00 mark in Peterson’s video, hedonists are described as manic people, again insisting on the notion of short-term naivety because it frames pleasure only in the sense of its immediate feedback. But what about sustained pleasure? Is anyone out there actively seeking to be chronically ill, for example? And is that somehow morally superior to the pleasure of a balanced life which is a gift that keeps giving?

This is why I covered the concept of presence in my video, to explain that “presence” is not a proxy for the lack of an attention span, nor is it bereft of longer-term thinking. Rather, it is a matter of how we go about conducting ourselves in the face of uncertainty and the reality of our finite resources: if we keep thinking without acting, we will never escape as we will never be 100% certain about everything. We perform a leap of faith, which is what the here-and-now is all about.

Fair to Peterson though, at the 1:32:00 mark he says that “it is not even hedonism, it is narrow, impulsive, immature 2-year-old hedonism”. This is exactly my thought, so I would suggest we don’t call it “hedonism” at all and be honest about it at the outset. Which means that all the talk about hedonists being manic and impulsive was a straw argument and we just wasted our time giving too much value to the stupidity of “2-year-olds”.

To be clear, I am not “team hedonism”. My nuanced critique is that we try to reduce complex phenomena to team red versus team blue. The multifacetedness of our condition means that we will have to deal with a bit of everything and will need to find a balance therein, given the imperfect circumstances we labour in.

Since I watched the entire episode, I provide some more comments.

The significance of the whole

Between 08:30 and 09:30 there is a thread on how the sense of a unifying purpose adds significance to smaller components or otherwise mundane actions. Kreeft then remarked that polytheism declined because it lacked the unifying narrative that Abrahamic religions have.

Given that this is a brief aside, I will not try to read too much into it. It sounds incorrect. Polytheistic cultures lived just fine for millennia without imploding under the weight of their own ostensible mythological inadequacies. Monotheism was enforced in many places through fire and steel and was not simply brought about organically to fill in the vacuum that was created by some self-induced state of social despair among polytheists. This includes parts of modern-day Greece under the Roman Empire, the Baltic countries during the Prussian Crusade, African tribes in the era of slave trade to the Americas, the treatment of native American populations…

The history of ideas is dirty and we already get a sense of this from our everyday experience with politics. It is not today’s politics that are this way, mind you: the kind of excesses we witness today have existed in prior societies. Unlike intellectuals who can exchange views in a spirit of sincerity and reach consensus, history is full of stories of subjugation and control.

This is not an indictment on the ideas themselves, but rather a reminder that good ideas do not prevent bad people from misusing them. We still need to be guided by wisdom. We all make mistakes. The spread of religious views can have or has had political reasons associated with it and is/was not merely a matter of peoples changing their customs during a process of undisturbed contemplation.

The same can be said for secular views. Think, for instance, how the French Republic prohibits religious symbols in public schools. The state is enforcing its laïcité: this is not some fair dialogue between secularists and theists.

The psychological explanation on the demise of polytheism also raises an important question about how we got to today’s more secular views of the world, given our historical trajectory. If, say, Medieval Europe, which was devoutly Christian and, at times, theocratic, had found the correct narrative for addressing the existential angst of people, was that a society worth living in? Was it genuinely better than today and, if so, in what ways? What went wrong and why are we here, then? Are modern theocracies that enforce their monotheistic traditions the sort of milieux that empower people and, if so, how?

My point is that we may be comparing today’s unpleasant quotidian realities to some idealised “tradition”. This is not helpful. Whatever we juxtapose to its ideal will be found lacking. The real challenge is whether we ever reached that ideal state. Did we really have a golden age of human happiness that we somehow destroyed? And if we did destroy it ourselves, it probably was not that “golden” after all as we still were foolish. Could it be that human life always is messy and this is only tangentially about whatever grand narratives we have, monotheistic, polytheistic, or otherwise?

Faith in scientific atheism

I have also noted in several publications that we act on the basis of faith and as such agree with Peterson and Kreeft. Faith is inevitable because (i) we are not omniscient and (ii) our life unfolds through action. We have to act on the basis of imperfect information, meaning that we can only hope that something happens/exists the way we need it to.

This generic or latent faith, however, is not the same as belief in any given coherent narrative. To believe in that way is to proceed from a position of certitude: you claim to know that which you have faith in.

In practice, the two may be the same though the distinction still matters conceptually as it influences one’s disposition. The one who only operates on the basis of generic faith does not need to unlearn something in order to withdraw from a position of certainty. It is easier for them to revise their views in the face of cogent counter-arguments or available evidence, provided they are honest about it.

Though this practical distinction depends on the person and I would not generalise those as “good VS bad” or anything along those lines.

Personally, I think atheism is inconsistent with science because it constitutes a prior truth: the person claims to know that there is no god, yet has no means of proving it definitively. The only dubitative view, in this regard, is agnosticism. Namely: the central theological topic is obscure and we have no sufficient method to prove or disapprove the verity of our views about it.

Still, what matters is the way a person behaves. One can be a theist and still act godlessly (e.g. commit genocide) and one can be an atheist and still have an implicit God that informs all their decisions.