Notes on Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Some Useful Terms

  • Ethics is the subfield of philosophy concerning the nature of right and wrong. 
  • Normative ethics is the subfield of Ethics concerning what standards to use when judging what we morally ought to do.
  • Consequentialism is a normative ethical theory that judges the rightness or wrongness of actions entirely on their consequences or effects.
  • Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that believes happiness and unhappiness ought to be maximized and minimized respectively.

Book Notes

Utilitarianism (1861) is the most famous book on the eponymous ethical theory. Due to its great influence on the study of ethics and short length of just under 100 pages (allowing for its continual use in undergraduate classrooms), it has maintained great relevance to the present day. It has played a key role in the history of consequentialist ethical theories and can be credited, in part, for their popularity.

Divided into five chapters, Mill describes what the theory of Utilitarianism is (and is not), how people might be motivated by it, his proof for it, and ends with an analysis of justice and its relationship with the theory. Throughout the first three chapters it is notable how much time Mill spends deflecting canards, or objections he does not consider to have merit due to their inaccurate assessment of what Utilitarianism is – some occurring before he even provides an outline of the theory itself.

This outline begins in chapter 2. The key principle Mill directs us to, is the much remarked upon Happiness Principle : Acts are right insofar as they tend to increase the overall happiness or decrease unhappiness. By happiness, Mill is eager to point out, he does not mean the trite notion of momentary bliss, but all the aspects of life that are satisfying or pleasurable. Additionally, in discerning what types of happiness are best, he uses a controversial criterion: of any pair of actions where everyone or nearly everyone who has tried both prefers one over the other, the preferred one is the one bringing greater happiness. 

This, Mill believes, demonstrates that so-called higher pleasures of mental, moral, or aesthetic quality are better than lower, sensation-driven pleasures. It also leaves philosophizing and intellectual thinking as some of the greatest pleasures around — quite convenient for Mill, given that this is what he spent much of his time doing outside of political advocacy.

Furthermore, Mill notes, other principles often embedded in moral language, such as veracity or virtue, still have purchase in Utilitarianism. However, these are secondary principles, which, while good guideposts to moral behavior, are not the ultimate deciding factors of right and wrong. The ultimate judge of rightness and wrongness is the degree to which happiness has been increased or decreased.

In chapter 3, Mill dedicates significant time to describing how Utilitarianism is not unique from most ethical theories in certain ways. The same psychological and social sanctions will be used to prompt people to perform moral actions. While it may take time before the tenets of Utilitarianism seep out into society through education and persuasion, the mental and social tools to prompt moral behavior are already there, even if what is considered moral is changing.

In chapter 4, we are asked to consider how Utilitarianism might be proved. As he notes, this is no direct proof but is the best that can be asked for a moral theory. Roughly it goes:

  1. Everyone desires happiness
  2. The only way to prove what is desirable is to observe what people desire
  3. A person’s happiness is thus good for that person
  4. Therefore, the general happiness is good to the aggregate of people

Despite being warned that this was not a direct proof of mathematical strength, it does still feel underwhelming. Specifically, it is peculiar that Mill thinks it logical that one person’s happiness being good for them entails increasing the aggregate amount of happiness being good for the aggregate of people. Such a logical connection requires some other assumptions about what the aggregate of persons means and whether or not something can be good for them. 

Through chapter 5, Mill considers the topic of justice. He searches for common attributes to conceptions of justice, and finds them to be grounded in a set of emotions that deal with self-preservation, some observed in other animals. These emotions, when constrained by social custom, motivate the creation of law. Mill points out, the etymology of justice demonstrates the deep connection it has to our legal foundations (Jus means law in Latin). But, he states that it is deeper than law, as the law itself can be unjust.

So, justice can be seen as the ways in which society protects our moral rights, sometimes through law. This means we all have a stake in the creation of just systems. Mill connects this to utility, and the happiness principle, by noting that just systems secure people’s basic security and alleviate many of the most basic concerns we have regarding harms that others might inflict upon us. However, justice is not systematic and it lies on top of some of our deeper intuitions concerning morality. At the base of our moral intuitions lies the notion of utility. Justice emerges from this. Furthermore, Mill argues, there are cases in which it would be moral to act expediently outside of what is just, yet within what is moral. This demonstrates that justice delineates a class of moral rules which emerge in societies to satisfy certain common emotions used for self-protection and fairness. This is less fundamental than the notion of what is moral, which Mills states is determined by the principle of utility.

Together, the chapters lay out a series of passages that contain many influential and compelling arguments in favor of, at the very least, a prioritization of happiness in any ethical system, if not adherence to Mill’s version of Utilitarianism itself. Mill’s work has been followed by a series of derivative ethical theories and has done much to advance the expanding moral circle, where greater moral concern is given to women, the impoverished, those in other countries, and non-human animals.

Book Review: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Previous week’s post

Some authors are capable of bringing so many disparate ideas to the table that you begin to wonder where the limits of their creativity lie. A few are able to turn the tangle of ideas they introduce into a coherent, compelling synthesis. Yuval Noah Harari has shown in Homo Deus, that he is not only capable of doing this for human history (in his widely appreciated Sapiens), but for the human future as well. Where Homo Deus falters most is perhaps in its repetition. The first two sections do contain several informative strands of thought, but it takes too long to reach the meat of the work: the section concerning the future of humanity. 

Harari’s thesis will certainly be controversial to many readers. He claims that the past has seen the religions of old replaced by the story of humanism: concerned fundamentally with the experiences of human beings themselves. The liberal variety of humanism, which dominated the 20th Century and lives on in democratic societies today, is now under threat by improving technology.

Giving value to individuals makes sense when you need them to fight wars, run factories, and participate in a growing economy. Through artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, advanced machines and enhanced humans will likely be capable of these tasks in the future. This will result in the breakdown of the liberal humanist story. Harari suggests two alternatives: a form of techno-humanism, valuing the experiences of technologically modified humans, or Dataism, valuing the free exchange of information above all else.

Concerned more with convincing than assuaging the reader, Harari relies on analogies from the past and present. He starts by chronicling the shift away from the pre-agricultural human worship of animals. Non-coincidentally, this shift occurred precisely when farmers began to domesticate animals. Suddenly, animals were seen either as a means for human gain or ignored completely. 

Furthermore, rulers were often given divine status precisely to justify the unequal value given to them and provide a structure that society could operate under. When capitalism and mass-mobilization required that men perform additional economic and military duties, they were given more inherent value. When mass-mobilization required these men to leave the factories in World War I, the women who replaced them also gained inherent value in the eyes of society.

These and other examples lead Harari to the conclusion that history describes a web of stories that humans tell one another to justify their actions. These stories are not feeble bits of imagination. The stories we tell ourselves about Jesus, capitalism, science, France, and others, direct the lives of billions of people, altering the world in their wake. For readers of Sapiens, this will be a familiar concept. 

When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give humans will certainly change.

Harari makes it clear that the dominant story of our age, liberal humanism, is under threat. When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give huamans will certainly change. There is certainly evidence that technology will profoundly alter the value structures we now cling to. Liberal humanism, which values every person’s experiences enough to allow them to vote and speak their mind, is likely to change.

The question Harari leads the reader to ponder is what story or value structure will come next? Harari suggests that the likeliest successor is Dataism, or the belief in the value of connecting bits of information. I think this is questionable. Harari does little to convince me that we will be walking away from fundamentally valuing certain conscious experiences themselves. Perhaps this is because this work takes the contemporary materialist line on consciousness (which I will critique in a post next week). Regardless, I think the experiences of the most powerful beings around will likely dictate the value structure society operates under. 

I do accept the likelihood that increasing information flow between people, cyborgs, and machines would usually provide net benefits to society at large. But I think every improvement to society will emphasize the amazing states of consciousness and harmony provided by increased information flow (as Harari in fact emphasizes to defend Dataism). This is different from valuing information flow a priori. The quadrillionaire cyborgs of tomorrow (perhaps a future Elon Musk) will likely not be pleased if increased informational flow leads to their suffering and ultimate destruction.

Whether Dataism pans out or gets panned by its cyborg critics, Homo Deus will certainly expand your conception of what the future will look like and where we’re heading as a civilization. It stands as a creative, albeit lengthy, successor to Sapiens.

-Alexander Pasch

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Book Review: One Billion Americans – The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Certain issues with obvious premises are sometimes crucial to lay out in the mainstream simply because of wildly neglected and consequential nature. The connection between America’s population and its relative economic might vis-a-vis China is certainly one. America falling behind in GDP means less global influence, and a relatively stronger China means greater global pressure for illiberal values. One Billion Americans attempts to break the relative silence on this topic and layout paths to reach the title’s ambitious target. 

A few basic factors seem to be fundamental to the continued strength of global superpowers: a strong military; a network of reliable allies; a functioning government; economic prowess; a resilient culture. Yet perhaps the most obvious factor is a population sufficient to produce enough excess wealth to dedicate towards the end of global influence. No matter how innovative the culture and economies of Singapore, Sweden, and New Zealand might be, their smaller populations place firm limits on their global clout. In the 21st Century, they will never hold the global influence that the US and China do.

For many patriotic Americans, the benefit of having America play a leading role in the world is a no-brainer. To them, acknowledging our international mistakes doesn’t refute our greatness by any means. Yet understandingly, many others resist the notion that America need play a leading role at all. For them, wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are echoed as examples suggesting that the right amount of international involvement is little to none at all.

Yet, as so often occurs in such discussions, there is an absence of counterfactual reasoning. America does not act in a vacuum, and if you consider what other actors will do in America’s absence, the conversation becomes muddied and the cry for America to back off rings hollow. Here, a common Churchill quote is effectively employed, albeit in modified form. As “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, perhaps America has been the worst global superpower, except for all the others. Assuming the EU is unable to foster cooperation of the sort that will provide credible protection to South Korea while promoting its liberal influence across the world, the only other realistic world leader in the next 50-100 years is China. For those with a liberal and democratic mindset, this should be a terrifying future.

America has been the worst global superpower, except for all the others

Yglesias notes that the way we have been able to lead up to now isn’t by dominating the population metrics. We can’t rely on, and shouldn’t hope that less wealthy countries stay poor. He hammers down on this point repeatedly. Despite the threats associated with climate change, stalling poorer countries’ growth is profoundly immoral, even if it would reduce emissions. This results in an acknowledgment that the only moral future available is one where poorer countries with larger populations follow our economic growth and challenge our dominance in gross GDP statistics.

Meanwhile, pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is one of the few areas Democrats and Republicans often agree on in the Trump (and likely post-Trump) era. While the exact nature of the pushback is up for debate, both sides are certainly rooting for team USA and against team CCP. Noting this, Yglesias attempts to engender a set of proposals compatible with further bi-partisan action. 

He introduces numerous ideas to foster population growth in both of the two possible avenues: immigration and babies. Here, Yglesias demonstrates himself to be a competent and wide-read interlocutor on the subjects of pro-family and pro-immigration policy. Comparing us to Canada and Australia, he shows how accepting more immigrants in a points-based system could bring us hundreds of millions of people over the next century. Such a points-based system could value skills like knowledge of English and the ability to immediately get a job, making integration of immigrants swifter and less prone to conservative pushback.

On the family side, he suggests the Family Fun Pack, a collection of proposals including a baby box of items for newborns, universal child medical care, and other family-friendly policies. Following in the footsteps of most other wealthy nations, he suggests we adopt parental leave, more holidays, universal daycare, and create a more friendly culture for families with children. This is sensible. The lack of such policies makes childrearing in the United States much more arduous than in many parts of Europe and East Asia. 

Yet the connection between such policies and population growth is limited at best. Yglesias doesn’t take this fact seriously enough. He would likely respond that this would still likely marginally increase childbirth, but acknowledge that it would really take increased immigration to lead to massive population growth. I think this is a serious fact worthy of greater consideration. Relatedly, he fails to seriously examine the connection between religion and childbirth, which might not directly affect policy in America, but obviously still matters in considerations of population growth.

Yglesias addresses numerous objections to his proposal, including which cities residents will go to, housing shortages, and transportation woes. As he points out, we have more than enough space to accommodate massive population growth. One billion Americans would make us about as dense as France and half as dense as Germany. In addition, many American cities are shrinking, especially in the midwest. Greater immigration and federal government relocation of jobs to these areas could foster revitalization of these areas. 

Problems of housing shortages can be alleviated by making zoning regulations and housing policy decisions at a higher level of government with more sensible incentive structures. This would allow more duplexes and residencies that accommodate greater numbers of people to be built. Congestion will go up, but policies like fixing roads, reducing cars on the road via taxes, and investing in smart urban transit (like S-trains) can alleviate much of this issue. Except for some odd takes, including how it would be a waste to go to Mars (which certainly doesn’t fit with the theme of the book) this section is replete with sensible analyses of urban policy. 

All in all, I admire Yglesias’ patriotic and direct perspective. This is an important and timely book, especially in an era of divided government seemingly perpetually bereft of unity itself. We need to rediscover a healthy variety of patriotism and love of fellow countryman and woman. We need to remember that the alternative to American leadership is not leadership by the UN or the EU. Currently, the alternative is leadership by a government that fully believes in its fusion of Maoist political totalitarianism with state capitalist economic policy. Pushing America to be larger can curb this dark vision. To this end, I would be happy to welcome a future with one billion Americans.

Review by Alexander Pasch

Book Review: Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Note: Designing Your Life is more of a synthesis of idea and instruction than a standalone book. It contains numerous hours of outside writing, thinking, and other tasks to fully follow its advice. For this reason, I am going to publish two reviews: one (this one) on the content, and another, after I have had more time to complete the weeks-long set of tasks.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Can’t read the whole thing? Focus on chapters 6, 7, and 11

Vast amounts of useful and critical knowledge are left out of America’s high school and university curriculum. Included here, (as discussed in the previous week’s review of Allan Bloom’s fervent work, The Closing of the American Mind) is a sense of historical and philosophical perspective. More practically, we fail to teach the process of voting, tax filing, and other sensible life practices. Designing Your Life touches on a broad question also ignored: how should you realistically approach designing a satisfying life?

Balancing realism with optimism is a ceaseless struggle for books in this genre. I’ll admit at the onset I was worried I was reading a naive bit of self-congratulatory fluff by two Stanford professors and their most successful students. While the book is still clearly targeted primarily for a college-educated audience, while reading, I could not help but forcefully extinguish many of my pessimistic preconceptions and acknowledge the sensible advice contained throughout. (Yes, I know the cliche don’t judge a book by its cover, but I still must rediscover its meaning after every new one I read) 

Perhaps the fact that I am taking this work seriously enough to write two reviews informs you about how well I rank some of its advice. Indeed, I am not trying to be deceptive and believe these practices are sensible and worthwhile enough to commit myself to do them for at least a month. Embedded in the practices are five core predispositions: (1) curiosity, (2) bias to action, (3) reframing, (4) awareness, and (5) willingness to collaborate. In their 11 chapters, Burnett and Evans repeatedly invoke these design-minded predispositions. In fact, the word “Designing” in the title betrays their origin: Stanford’s Design Program. These are interspersed alongside common misconceptions and anecdotes from numerous former students and other connections.

From these ideas emerges a series of practices to begin the book’s eponymous process. These include but are not limited to:

  • Taking stock of your time and capacity for health/work/play/love
  • Articulating workview and lifeview philosophies with which to guide you
  • Documenting your daily activities for several weeks
  • Freely brainstorming via what they call a mind map, and synthesizing these tasks to create prototype lives on paper, through communication, and finally in practice
  • Finding a life team and involve yourself in a community of supportive individuals

To fully follow this advice is obviously quite a lengthy process, so in my second review I’ll have more to say about it.

All this said, the book’s design limits its audience. On the continuum of tech CEO to homeless person, the book’s applicability lies within a group of people far, far closer to the former than the latter. That isn’t to say this book couldn’t be handed to a single mother of two working in retail, a store owner in rural America, or an ex-con getting back into the job market, but its glitzy design and a lack of examples of non-college-educated people certainly direct it away from these groups.

Additionally, the book doesn’t feel as serious as can be craved by the self-help book audience (I’m comparing it particularly to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life). It fails to touch on common problems that plague swathes of individuals: drug addiction or addiction of other sorts, debt, mental illness, divorce, and numerous others. It fails to step into the shadows to hoist many lost or forgotten souls out. Thus, through its examples, its style, and its omissions, this book simply ignores most people. That doesn’t preclude its value, however. If you are a lost college student, recent college graduate, or don’t feel satisfied where you’re working or with your work-life balance, this book will provide practical advice to think about how to improve your career and social life. It helped me conceptualize what specific values the work I do must be rooted in to be meaningful. Despite its limited audience, there is much to appreciate and use in Designing Your Life. I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from it.

The ideas and possibilities and roles and forms that you will end up living do not actually exist anywhere in the universe right now, as you are reading this. They are all waiting to be invented, and the raw material to invent them is found out in the world and, most important, lying in wait in the hearts and minds and actions of others—many of whom you’ve not met yet.

Book Review: The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Reading and digesting The Closing of the American Mind is an undertaking that few books of its length (just under 400 pages) provide. For the curious and engaged, every page is an ineluctable and fulfilling series of passages. Together they chart an illuminating course through the history of philosophy and its connection to the modern American university, in all its eccentricities. For the statistically minded and skeptical audience, there is undoubtedly concern with the confidence and ease with which Bloom draws connections between philosophical movements, university structure, and American culture circa 1987. Yet, the purpose of the book is not to scientifically demonstrate a connection between any single philosophy and a specific outcome. Rather, it is to construct a comprehensive picture of the ideal role of higher education, and how this role has been jettisoned. The problem Bloom articulates is that the university no longer fosters great intellectual minds curious about great philosophical movements of the past and capable of integrating them into modern culture through a sense of perspective. This requires a broad exploration, the sort of which could yield book-length responses to every chapter if not page.

At its core, the book attempts to demonstrate the philosophical nature of the failure in American higher education to properly educate its intelligent students in those subjects making up the Liberal Arts. Pervading universities is a derivative of democratic minded thinking: extreme openness; relativism; an abandonment of any point of view, which paradoxically leads to a closemindedness. This cultural relativism eats away at its very intellectual grounding until even reason and rationally are sacrificed. What remains is a view of every intellectual and cultural system as fundamentally illegitimate.

Boom makes clear that education must strive to remove prejudices. This must be done with a true openness that acknowledges the reality of knowledge and ignorance, providing a path to increase the former and decrease the latter. Universities must show students where their point of view originates, in order to properly facilitate learning ideas within and outside their tradition. The alternative, relativism, is self-contradictory and impoverishes the mind. The relativistic maxim that everything fundamentally is equally untrue or amoral (neither moral or immoral), leaves minds far out to sea, unaware of which direction to row. 

It would be futile to delve, even briefly, into each of the specific topics Bloom discuses. However, broadly speaking, he begins by describing the problem of relativism, articulates a broader malaise of the student body, connects the Enlightenment and continental philosophy (Nietzsche being particularly prominent) with contemporary American nihilism, chronicles the philosophies of learning leading to and constituting the university (from the endlessly curious soul of Socrates, to the Enlightenment creation of the modern university, to the counter-enlightenment worries of corruption of the soul found in Swift, Rousseau, Kant, Heideger, and others), and ends by delving into the university’s structure and purpose in a modern era. There is more than enough to disagree with, but never is Bloom’s work anything but engaging.

The most striking feature of this work is how acutely it describes the malaise of the American university I felt, as a student, some 30 odd years later: The hyper-compartimentalization of university departments, questionable campus political movements and the administration’s inability to stand up to them, the racial self-segregation on campus, the splintering of student’s families, the prevalence of a self-contradictory relativism, and a dearth of perspective and deeper sense of philosophical grounding. This is simultaneously heartening and to a greater degree depressing. We live in an age of increasing division pulling America apart. In-so-far as we can look at prior periods and exclaim truthfully, “They had the same problems we do and they stuck together long enough to produce me. Why can’t I do the same until my next of kin come about?”, we can be have faith in perseverance itself.

Yet the fact that students, specifically in the humanities and social sciences, are continually let down does not strike confidence in the state of American culture. If our university educated students have little to no sense of purpose, place, or history, and fall into a nihilistic relativism, shouldn’t we expect our society to deteriorate? As costs rise, student debt alongside; as diplomas matter more the liberal arts education they purport to be attached to; as grade inflation increases and standards fall, universities won’t stagnate, but deteriorate. It remains to be seen whether the university can revive itself, particularly as centers of philosophical investigation designed to permeate into the culture a sense of meaning, groundedness, perspective, and honest open-mindedness. Bloom strikes an solemn tone as he concludes, remarking that “the future of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities,” and the quality of their stewardship is in doubt. Had Bloom seen America from the vantage of 2020, it is hard to imagine this doubt would not balloon.

Book Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is a provocative, engaging, yet sometimes questionable synthesis of psychology, religion, culture-war commentary, and inspiring self-help. Throughout, a philosophy of self-understanding, self-improvement, and embracing hardship, is contrasted with giving into resentment and malevolence. He heavily invokes memories from his life, from Chris, a misanthropic friend, to the intense struggles of his daughter, Mikhaila, to illustrate a variety of archetypical themes. These themes are further described through folk, depth, and personality psychology as well as biblical passages and other religious stories. Where religion and psychology do not suffice, he brings in, sometimes stretching to do so, other pieces of evidence ranging from the historical to the philosophical.

The book consists of 12 main chapters, sandwiched between a brief overture and coda, each centered, sometimes only ostensibly so, around one of his 12 Rules. In line with Peterson’s lecturing technique, the chapters often stray far from the originating rule and display the full gambit of his interests: eclectic takes on religious passages, compelling anecdotes, psychological evidence, contentious historical takes, matters at the forefront of certain contemporary cultural debates, and much more.

Of the ever-present themes in 12 Rules for Life, there is none greater than that of the division between order (represented by masculine themes, culture, and explored territory) and chaos (represented by feminine themes, nature, and unexplored territory). Humans are forced to find the balance between the extremes of excessive order, on one hand, and complete chaos on the other. Religions of all kinds are shown to represent these states through deities, fantastical creatures, and other narratives. Beyond religion, Peterson draws heavily on evolutionary history to describe the length of time that our nervous systems have evolved to understand social structures (order) and handle threats posed by nature (chaos).

Early on he establishes the concept of the hierarchy as a manifestation of order. Hierarchy is not simply arbitrary, but a millions-of-years-old social construct embedded deep within us that describes our relative position vis-a-vis others in society. He uses a lobster, in a section almost designed to be memeable, to illustrate how creatures this far removed from us still share similar social features and the appearance of depression. The hierarchy is a manifestation of social order, which like nature, appears in positive and negative forms. (archetypically analogized as the Wise King or the Tyrant). 

In connecting the concepts of order and chaos to the fundamental insecurity humans possess, both psychological and physical, Peterson is at his best. We are indeed placed with the existential burden of self-knowledge, which ancient religions uncovered in myths from Genisis to the Buddha — nature is easily described as infinite and ultimately uncaring. The connections made between archetypical stories and a modern-day psychological approach are well articulated. They service his argument that as understandable as resentment in response to arbitrary suffering is, we need to work to strengthen, respect, and incrementally improve ourselves mindful of this daunting truth, not ignorant of it. When we fail to properly acknowledge and respond to our annoyance or suffering, even if done out of respect for others in the moment, we grow resentful, and in the extreme, suicidal and homicidal. Excessive sensitivity to others in the moment produces much larger harm in the larger picture.

Many of the actual rules in the book are drawn from this theme: listen and care for yourself so that you can improve as a person, find meaning, and enjoy the moments in life that offer you bliss when they come. These rules are sound advice. The rules orienting yourself to others and society are more of a mixed bag. Being precise in your speech and telling the truth are vital rules if you want to clean and clear up the world you inhabit. However, not bothering kids who skateboard, and setting your house in perfect order before changing the world are much more problematic.

Peterson’s intense focus on the concepts including Good and Evil and cosmic significance causes confusion in several points, but the trouble is especially pronounced when articulating these more problematic rules. Most prominently, they lead him to extrapolate beyond what appears reasonable. When describing the opposition to skateboarding in certain parts of his university campus, he says this opposition is imbued with a profound anti-human spirit. He further connects this to the Columbine shooters, the reduced success of boys in school relative to girls, postmodernism, communism, and much more. In a sort of who’s who of a conservative’s favorite bogeymen, it can be hard to follow along if you are not familiar with Peterson’s rise to fame.

There is certainly something to what Peterson is talking about. Universities have become far more left-wing over time, and certain studies in the humanities have led this movement. Much of this movement leftwards consists of an unwavering skepticism of current power structures, commitment to social justice, and focus on particular identities. Peterson tries crudely, but somewhat fairly I believe (though I could be persuaded otherwise) to show how postmodernism, critical theory, and Marxism form an intellectual basis of the modern social justice movement. 

Where I take issue with Peterson is the pseudo clairvoyance of the intentions of people wanting to make things safer and in some of Peterson’s analysis of the relations between men and women. First, while malevolent intentions certainly lurk in our unconscious, Hanlon’s razor points me towards more banal explanations of people’s behavior. Many people wanting to stop skateboarding simply desire to reduce noise so that people can concentrate, reduce their legal liability, or reduce injuries. I don’t think in most instances of people acting to reduce the freedom of boys and young men to do dangerous things there is a dominant anti-human unconscious or conscious motivation propelling the action; even if the actual outcome is harmful and even if the anti-human unconscious is acting weakly within that person. Peterson points to a highly questionable Jungian maxim — if you can’t find the rationale for something look at the outcome and infer the motivation — to suggest that making young men unhappy and destroying beauty is the purpose of anti-skateboarding measures. This is quite silly.

Peterson does point out some salient and depressing facts. Boys are failing in school relative to girls. Boys are failing to learn how to channel their biologically greater propensity for aggression into healthy activities. Going further, Peterson uses the archetypal oedipal protective mother, who goes much too far in protecting her children, to describe the motherly impulse to stop boys from all dangerous activities. However, there is an imbalance in his descriptions of what reasonable restrictions on dangerous or disruptive behavior are. He fails to charitably acknowledge that rules curtailing obnoxious behavior, bullying, and actions producing accidental injuries and deaths (just look at the number one cause of lost years of life in the gulf states) are one side of an ongoing negotiation about safety where people of good faith can disagree. 

The extent to which Peterson goes to refute the idea that women were subjugated throughout history is also odd. I agree with his refutation of social constructionism, but I detect a massive aversion to the word ‘oppression’, perhaps because of his fears of viewing history through such a lens, even if it truthfully described the state of women vis-a-vis man. It shouldn’t be hard to admit that while the average man had unique disadvantages in history (fighting brutal and unjust wars being the most obvious), the makeup of the ruling class, male-only property rights, sexual demands of virginity, among other features, make our historical social structures deeply biased against women. 

I can side with Peterson in opposition to certain radical left-wing beliefs in general. Those who claim that Western society is uniquely oppressive, or who consistently ignore our very culture’s march onwards towards increased equality and prosperity for men and women should be refuted. But this doesn’t require ignoring the unique burdens women faced in the past. Peterson asks: do “male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans?” sarcastically. While this ignores much of what most people mean by oppression, I would still say yes. 

Because of its incredibly loose nature, tying disparate religious, personal, psychological, and controversial cultural concepts together, 12 Rules for Life fits well into the cultural moment that Jordan Peterson stormed into several years ago, serving as a father figure for wide swaths of people. In an age containing a crisis of meaning, where millions of lost individuals seek a structure to believe in, I can see the value in following these rules. Simultaneously, while I disagree with several of his critiques, I understand the value in directly pointing to and refute extreme beliefs that have seeped into our cultural moment (those emerging from social constructionism prominent among them). While 12 Rules isn’t as reigned in as many secular and skeptical minds would appreciate, it does have a unique flavor that uncovers certain profound truths about the human condition. Understanding my propensity for resentment, embracing the suffering inherent in Being, and consistently valuing and improving myself, are things I find myself more prepared for after reading 12 Rules for Life.

Book Review: Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

To read Why We’re Polarized book notes click here

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Klein’s Why We Are Polarized is a compelling account of how structural forces embedded in the American political system have prompted rational actors to significantly increase political polarization since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He charts the ways that the breakup of a de-facto four-party system (Dixiecrats, other democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans) ushered in party polarization, not just by policy, but of race, geography, culture, and other factors. His conversational style and peppering in of surprising facts (did you know that a filibuster was ended in 1908 when the blind senator Thomas Gore tried to pass the floor to a senator who had left the room?) eases the reader into the dark, but natural, conclusion Klein accepts: polarization is here to stay, and we should be thinking about how to structure our institutions around this reality.

Much of Why We’re Polarized is informative, charitable, and historically minded. The book avoids, in a conscious manner, blaming any individuals or group for bringing the polarized political environment about. Klein acknowledges and tries to reign in his liberal biases, leaving, to my eyes, relatively few sections of the book where a charitable conservative reader would roll his eyes. It provides a psychological grounding, from studies where groups of kids shift out-group members out of money, to an analysis of sports teams rivalries and riots, in order to understand the depth of group, and fundamentally, identity-based thinking. He uses this grounding to make sense of the trend of increasing polarization. And for some reason, if you doubted polarization was occurring, Klein provides much to disabuse you of such notions. Election results, polls, demographic data, and particularly in the second half of the book, recent political events, from the snub of Merrick Garland in 2016 to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, make polarization seem all too real.

The book does fail in at least a couple of ways, however, to argue for its central narrative from the ground up. There are enough brute facts to easily make it convincing that polarization has grown, and we are living in a dysfunctional period of American governance. It is also clear that the two political parties each have different incentives. However, for a deeper understanding of what polarization is, it would have been helpful to have more than a few pages dedicated to describing the phenomena and instead defined it and its subcategories rigorously. Klein makes use of comparative politics in describing the ways in which our presidential system makes governing in periods of split control and high partisanship near impossible. This international perspective is missing when one tries to gauge how normal (or not) high polarization is beyond America’s borders.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the primary historical narrative Klein offers — that the Democratic and Republican divergence “revolves around race”, principally after the Dixiecrat exit from the Democratic party — while in many ways compelling, is given without any meaningful thought to alternative arguments. There is little to no talk about the ways in which WWI, The Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War might have helped bind the country, and parties, together. Additionally, there is a brief section, near the end, that describes how the one-party dominance of the American political system has been key in reducing polarization. However, it seems this could help construct a competing narrative to the one Klein offers in the first half of the book where it was the Republicans steadily regaining strength, post-1932, that was the primary driver of increased polarization, and party differentiation.

Klein might argue that what I have listed is still not mutually incompatible with his main thesis. However, displaying alternative theories, at the very least, provides the context in which curious readers can grapple with history themselves. Beyond these complaints, this book still does much to synthesize US history, human psychology, and contemporary politics in an interesting and useful package. If any of these topics interest you, it might be worth picking up.