What to Make of Jordan Peterson

Last week, Professor Jordan B. Peterson gave a phenomenal interview with Cathy Newman of the British ITN Channel 4 News. If you haven’t seen the 30-minute dialogue, check it out here. It is certainly worth the half hour of your time. This, however, wasn’t Peterson’s first time in the spotlight.

Who Is Jordan B. Peterson?

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist. He often speaks about sociological differences between men and women as well as other cultural issues. He gained notoriety for his insistence that he will refuse to be forced into using specific language regarding a proposed Canadian law. This now famous video shows Dr. Peterson engaging with college students regarding gender pronouns and free and compelled speech.

His latest propulsion into the spotlight was his interview with Cathy Newman. Dr. Peterson held his ground, showing kindness, cordiality, firmness, and graciousness in his engagement. In contrast, Newman gave a lack luster performance filled with seemingly disingenuous characterizations of Peterson’s statements. At virtually every turn Newman misrepresented Peterson’s statements in what seems like repeated attempts at painting his sociological assertions as offensive and ludicrous. Yet, he graciously responded by repeating and clarifying the difference between what he said and what Cathy Newman surmised.

The pinnacle of the interview was when Peterson turned the question on Newman herself. Newman asked: “Why should your freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” Peterson responded: “Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now. You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable.” Newman rebutted: “Well, I’m very glad I’ve put you on the spot.” Peterson pressed in further: “Well, you get my point. You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”

Peterson brilliantly shows Newman that her own argument works against her. Freedom of speech is not about protecting others from being offended. It is about protecting the right to speak important things that will be offensive. (For a short primer on free speech, check out PragerU’s video, “Does Free Speech Offend You?”) Peterson showed that the argument cuts both ways, and Newman, to her credit, acknowledged she had been bested.

This interview by Peterson was a notable example of a truthful engagement, yet with gentleness and respect. This is exactly how Christians should engage unbelievers in apologetic and evangelistic encounters. Too often we hear stories of non-Christians being berated by Christians. This is far from being Christlike and must be rejected. Christian, were you not graciously shown how the crucifixion of Christ paid for your sins? Christians are supposed to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). We Christians can learn much from Peterson in this regard.

A Caution to Christians

While Peterson’s responses are positive examples of clear reasoning and charitable engagement, as well as sound sociological and biological differences between men and women, we should only follow him so far when it comes to morality.

Peterson’s philosophical and theological foundations are not Christian. He operates under the schema of naturalism, despite his use of the terms good, evil, God, and the Devil, as well as other Judeo-Christian frameworks and terminology. He does not ground his ethical imperatives in an objective foundation, as he explained in a recent panel discussion at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto (with philosophers William Lane Craig and Rebecca Goldstein).

Peterson rightly affirms the existence of objective good and evil. He sees them as obvious. Christians wholeheartedly agree. Yet, Peterson lacks a transcendent foundation for their objectivity. In fact, William Lane Craig petitions Peterson along these lines. He affirms his objective stance and, conversely, anti-relativistic posture to reality, but encourages him to seek a transcendent foundation for morality in the Christian God.

The Moral Argument

This is the moral argument for the existence of God. There are several forms. Let’s look at two different kinds. This first one is an argument from goodness to God.

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists (by modus tollens).[1]

The second argues along the lines of duty.

  1. If God does not exist, there are no moral obligations.
  2. There are moral obligations to parents, to children, to fellow citizens, to the truth itself and so on, which are more than socially constructed (relativism).
  3. Therefore, God exists as the source of moral obligations.[2]

You can weed out the relativism in another’s thinking by applying relativistic beliefs to their life. Here’s a hypothetical example: take your friend’s new iPhone and tell them it is now yours. There is no doubt that they will attempt to impose an objective moral framework as to why you shouldn’t have done so. (I take no responsibility for any such attempt mentioned above.) If there is no objective standard to measure actions, no moral assessment can be made. They are nothing more than a person’s opinions, which have no basis in reality. Without a higher authority, there is no impetus to obey.

Overall, Peterson gives sound and valid reasoning for the reality of differences between men and women, the wage gap, and free speech. This is evidenced in many of his videos, not just his interview with Cathy Newman. Christians can join with him on the creational differences between men and women, free speech, and even the wage gap. So, too, can Christians adopt his pathos of engagement, especially with someone who is hostile. However, when it comes to grounding one’s moral landscape, Peterson comes up short. Moral values must be grounded upon an objective foundation. The Christian God is that foundation.

[1] William Lane Craig, “Five Reasons Why God Exists,” in God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, ed. William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 19.

[2] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 360.

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