The Utility of Rules and Hierarchy

Part 1 of 6: The Utility of Jordan Peterson's Digressions

The overzealous politically correct-speech crowd has triggered a backlash. One person who took exception is Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who rocketed into the spotlight for his courageous dissent against compelled speech. I support that stance taken by Peterson. Peterson also has a youtube presence, and this year his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Crisis (Penguin Random House UK) was published.

Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life contains plenty of wisdom, but also plenty of bias, often ill-supported by facts or reason. Yet an anarchist physics professor finds, “Peterson is having an impact because his important words are true and because oppressive false words have gone too far.” Peterson, says the anarchist, is “fighting for reason and objectivity and against ideological madness.”

Indeed, rational people will agree that discovering what best captures or approximates truth is important, as is exposing false narratives. Who cannot help but support “fighting for reason and objectivity and against ideological madness.” Yet Peterson can also be accused of ideological bias. Since 12 Rules for Life is a best seller and since Peterson’s views are garnering widespread attention, Peterson’s viewpoints on truth, falsity, anti-communism, ideology, and so on, as expressed in his book, call for a critical analysis.

The Need for Rules

Peterson claims that “without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions—and there’s nothing freeing about that.” (location 50)

This is an assertion, and it seems that Peterson is imprecise, or taking liberty, with language since what he calls slavery is more correctly termed addiction. An addiction usually starts as a choice, a choice that turns out to be bad as the addict has lost self-control.

There are several other points when considering rules and whether to adhere to them. First, it has been compellingly argued that rules lead to a dreaded, bloated bureaucracy. ((See David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015): loc 2166.)) Second, there are good rules, and there are bad rules. Third, who is it that decides what the rules are or should be and which rules are good or bad? Does the common man decide or the uncommon woman? Does the colonizer decide or the dispossessed Indigenous person? Cree lawyer Sharon Venne made the legal and moral argument that “colonial laws are ‘rules and regulations,’ but not laws in the true sense of the word. Colonial laws are made to be broken.” ((Sharon Venne, Our Elders Understand Our Rights: Evolving International Law Regarding Indigenous Rights (Theytus Books, 1998) cited in Tamara Starblanket, Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State (Clarity Press, 2018): 24.))

When rules are devised and imposed on the masses with little or no input from the masses, and without genuine acquiescence from the masses what does this signal about the validity and legitimacy of said rules?

Regarding rules, in general, I propose: don’t become a slavish follower to a bad rule, instead seek its abolition. Likewise, in cases where rules are a necessity and are legitimately enacted by moral actors among the masses and having garnered the acceptance of the masses (without unduly impinging on the rights of a minority), then apply common sense: don’t be selfish and break laws that are scripted for the good of the wider society. Bad rules, however, can, and probably should, stir up a passionate resistance.

The other side of the argument is specificity. For instance, suppose a rule is valid. Is it universal though? For instance, if an Israeli accepts a rule, would a Palestinian accept the same rule knowing that his condition does not allow him to be generous in accepting such a rule? In the Canadian context, should First Nations accept that their culture and laws are subject to and inferior to rule imposed by a colonial-settler structure?

Decency and social cohesion points to the preeminent rule being some form of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Regarding Peterson’s 12 rules, they are very reasonable and something all persons interested in their betterment should consider embracing. Importantly, they are rules one should set for oneself and are not meant to be imposed from outside; hence individual autonomy is sanctified. Individuals are empowered and are challenged with responsibility for their actions. In this vein, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over himself and over fate, has sunk right down to his innermost depths, and has become an instinct—what name will we give to it, this dominating instinct, if he needs to have a word for it? But there is no doubt about it—the sovereign man calls it conscience. ((Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1913): location 661.))

Dominance Hierarchies and Determinism

Petersen writes of the dominance hierarchy,

It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism, either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence. (loc 688)

Peterson writes that the dominance hierarchy is ancient, as is the part of brain that tracks position.

Nonetheless, many people take umbrage at the idea that one could seemingly extrapolate from lobster behavior “up” to humans and also that dominance hierarchies among humans are fuelled predominantly by biochemistry. Such a view points to biological determinism. It hearkens to sociobiological theory which, in a nutshell, is that humans are genetically driven to pass their genes into future generations. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, came to this theory based on observations of ant colony behavior which he compared to animal behavior along the branches of the evolutionary tree. Yet sociobiology has problems adequately explaining evidence contrary to theory, for example, couples who choose not to have children, homosexuality, or engaging in behaviors that would diminish chances at passing genes to the next generation — such as alcoholism.

Peterson’s view of an “unchanging existence” runs contrary to the several qualities/changes that distance humans from animals, for example, the human conception of morality. ((There is evidence for behavior guided by morality among animals. However, the reasoning behind such moral behaviors is qualitatively different from among humans. See Robert M. Sapolsky, “Morality and Doing the Right Thing, Once You’ve Figured out What That Is” in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2016): 478-520.)) The moral principle popularized by Star Trek that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one would argue against sociobiology, and also indirectly against a dominance hierarchy. ((Individual differences and situational cues influence how human subjects indicate they would respond in such scenarios. See Robert M. Sapolsky, “Morality and Doing the Right Thing, Once You’ve Figured out What That Is” in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2016): 478-520.))

Peterson’s amoral view (he does not state that dominance hierarchies are good or bad, just that they are), however, appears more nuanced; he does not appear to adhere strictly to a deterministic outcome. Ideally based on intrinsic human values, people must (or should) have by inalienable right free choice. If this happens, then clinical psychologists can help distressed people through therapy to bring about changes in their life.

As for the animal kingdom, there are salient studies that call into question the pervasiveness of a dominance hierarchy. The great apes called bonobos are known for positive emotional attributes, a lack of aggression, and a relatively deemphasized hierarchy. ((See Paoli, T, Palagi, E, and Tarli, SB (2006), “Reevaluation of dominance hierarchy in bonobos (Pan paniscus),” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130: 116-122. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20345))

Another study suggests the importance of the environment, pointing to the lack of a dominance hierarchy among chimpanzees in captivity. ((Funkhouser, JA, Mayhew, JA, and Mulcahy JB (2018) “Social network and dominance hierarchy analyses at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest,” PLoS ONE, 13(2): e0191898.))

Besides, sometimes being an alpha is not all it’s cracked up to be, as the underlings will knock off their despised alphas. ((See Rowan Hooper, “Gang of chimpanzees kills their alpha male,” New Scientist, 6 March 2013.)) Humans, by and large, also do not appreciate bullies (a type of personality who covets a top-dog position obtained through violence or threat of violence).

Quite revelatory was a longitudinal study of a baboon troop by Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share. They chanced upon a surprising result following the die-off of alpha males after eating tuberculosis-tainted food at a garbage dump. Subsequently, the stress levels of the remaining troop diminished, and the troop behaved much more amicably toward one another. ((Robert M. Sapolsky and Lisa Share (2004) “A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission,” PLoS Biol, 2(4): e106.))

The neuroscientist Sapolsky also appears in a documentary where he speaks to the recultured baboon troop and what it implies for human society:

Another one of the things that baboons teach us is, if they are able to in one generation transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems, sort of engraved in stone, we don’t have an excuse when we say there are certain inevitabilities about human social systems. ((“Stress, Portrait of a Killer,” National Geographic, 24 September 2008.))

In conclusion, the documentary’s narrator pointedly asks: “And so, the haunting question that endures from Robert [Sapolsky]’s life work: Are we brave enough to learn from a baboon?” ((“Stress, Portrait of a Killer,” National Geographic, 24 September 2008.))

Plenty of evidence exists for the non-expression of a dominance hierarchy in the animal kingdom. This does not, however, preclude the manifestation of dominance hierarchies among humans. And, indeed, dominance hierarchies do exist in human societies. But are they wrought by evolution? Or are they shaped by features of the environment? Or perhaps a combination? Are they pervasive across the spectrum of behaviors and networks? Are they an inevitability?

The chicken-and-egg conundrum speaks to determinism. Does physiology precede topping a hierarchy or does top ranking bring about changes in physiology? What about environmental factors? What about socioeconomic factors? ((Sapolsky: 443.)) Sapolsky writes, “When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.” ((Sapolsky: 442.))

Sapolsky notes there are similarities in human and animal hierarchies, ((Sapolsky: 429.)) but humans are “totally different.” ((Sapolsky: 429. Sapolsky expounds on factors affecting hierarchies: choice of leaders, political orientation, intelligence, affect, conformity, and obedience: 442-470.))

Dominance hierarchies do exist, and there are multiple hierarchical scenarios that humans can take part/compete in. Therefore, most people are likely to rank higher and lower across myriad fields of endeavor. Many humans can also choose their pond; being a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond.

Moreover, there are the drawbacks of clawing one’s way to an hierarchical apex. What is the actual utility of hierarchical supremacy if reaching the pinnacle requires one to become a despised asshole? If one has to spend inordinate hours working (being a slave to one’s job or addicted to work?) instead of spending leisure time with family and friends? And what if one cannot determine whether those who surround you are sycophants or genuinely care about you as a person?

Sapolosky wrote, with easily perceived sarcasm: “Hurrah for clawing your way to the top, for zero-sum, muscular capitalism.” ((Sapolsky: 429.))

It seems eminently preferable to be an anarchist, work and play with others at one’s leisure, and refrain from undue concern about chasing rankings because in your mind all are equally human beings.

  • Part 2 examines further the nature of hierarchies among humans and whether competition is preferable.
  • Read also Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. ((Apologies for the delay in getting out part 6, but I was in East Africa without laptop.))
Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.