In Defense of Psycho-Conservatism
Sarah Constantin wrote a fantastic post perfectly cutting out a recent phenomenon: Psycho-Conservatism. Roughly speaking, psycho-conservatism is an approach to philosophy and politics building on knowledge about what people are like. Mainly, this means that human personalities are both flawed and varied and there’s less we can do to change that than we would hope. Today, I would like to defend psycho-conservatism, especially the brand espoused by Jordan Peterson.
The first thing I want to do is add another name to the list of wildly famous psychologists who have a centrist/conservative leaning: Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’d also argue that Scott Alexander belongs to this pantheon, but not today.
Second, this post is by duality a criticism of the Rationality movement. The areas that Jordan Peterson addresses well and that make him popular are woefully neglected by rationalists. What characterizes Peterson’s psycho-conservatism? Realism about the darkness of the human soul, and respect for religious language and metaphor.
Doing these two things right (and then some) means that Jordan Peterson has about a hundred times as many views as anything produced by the rationality community. Then, when you really listen to what he has to say, his lectures sound like CFAR workshops. Something something rationalists are those who actually win.
Dostoevsky, born nearly two centuries ago, is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time, and one of the first great existentialists and psychologists. He predicted that utopian socialism would be both inevitable and apocalyptic in Russia, a good hundred years before the Communist Revolution. I’d like to pick out two choice quotes of his, to showcase the fact that if there is such a natural category as psycho-conservatism, Dostoevsky is its father. From The Possessed, when Dostoevsky introduces his protagonist:
Sometimes a trifle will catch the attention and exclusively absorb it for a time. Most of what I have to tell of young Stavrogin will come later. But I will note now as a curious fact that of all the impressions made on him by his stay in our town, the one most sharply imprinted on his memory was the unsightly and almost abject figure of the little provincial official, the coarse and jealous family despot, the miserly money-lender who picked up the candle-ends and scraps left from dinner, and was at the same time a passionate believer in some visionary future “social harmony,” who at night gloated in ecstasies over fantastic pictures of a future phalanstery, in the approaching realisation of which, in Russia, and in our province, he believed as firmly as in his own existence. And that in the very place where he had saved up to buy himself a “little home,” where he had married for the second time, getting a dowry with his bride, where perhaps, for a hundred miles round there was not one man, himself included, who was the very least like a future member “of the universal human republic and social harmony.”
“God knows how these people come to exist!” Nikolay wondered, recalling sometimes the unlooked-for Fourierist.
The implication is one that Jordan Peterson emphasizes: the utopia can only come about if every single individual wins the battle against the darkness within his own heart, and that no amount of politics could produce that “visionary future social harmony” in a Russia completely absent of the good-hearted Fourierists (socialists) to maintain that harmony. Human beings are abject, coarse, jealous, and miserly.
Sarah argues against such a defeatist attitude about human nature:
Sometimes, you gotta say, “I don’t care about the balance of nature and history, this is wrong, what we should do is something else.” And the psycho-conservative will say “You know you’re probably gonna fail, right?”
At which point you smile, and say, “Probably.”
A hundred years ago, Comrade Stalin also rejected the psycho-conservatism of Dostoevsky. Failure was a little too costly for Russia.
The opening paragraph of Notes from Underground:
I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive
man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know
nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain
what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never
have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides,
I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect
medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious,
but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult
a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand.
Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who
it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite:
I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors
by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by
all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still,
if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad,
well—let it get worse!
I have been going on like that for a long time—twenty
years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service,
but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude
and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you
see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that, at least.
(A poor jest, but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking
it would sound very witty; but now that I have seen myself
that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way, I will not
scratch it out on purpose!)
When petitioners used to come for information to the
table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and
felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody
unhappy. I almost did succeed. For the most part they
were all timid people—of course, they were petitioners. But
of the uppish ones there was one officer in particular I could
not endure. He simply would not be humble, and clanked
his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on a feud with him
for eighteen months over that sword. At last I got the better
of him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth,
though. But do you know, gentlemen, what was the chief
point about my spite? Why, the whole point, the real sting of
it lay in the fact that continually, even in the moment of the
acutest spleen, I was inwardly conscious with shame that I
was not only not a spiteful but not even an embittered man,
that I was simply scaring sparrows at random and amusing
myself by it. I might foam at the mouth, but bring me a doll
to play with, give me a cup of tea with sugar in it, and maybe
I should be appeased. I might even be genuinely touched,
though probably I should grind my teeth at myself afterwards
and lie awake at night with shame for months after.
That was my way.
The Underground Man is the embodiment of that shrunken, bitter basement critter who traffics the unsavory districts of the internet and take out their nihilism on random passersby. The Underground Man is a demon completely distinct from Moloch; whereas Moloch inhabits the uneasy contracts between human beings, the Underground Man lives in the dungeons of every individual soul – the dungeons neither light nor truth can reach.
The Underground Man is prolific in the popular imagination (spoilers ahead):
Walter White is the Underground Man. He squandered his intellectual potential to be a high school chemistry teacher. He is tyrannized by his wife, his brother-in-law, and even his disabled son and enacts his silent and passive-aggressive revenge on them by ignoring and lying to them. He is too proud to accept money for his cancer treatment from his old collaborators, so he finds one of his druggie former students to start a meth lab.
Ross Geller, and the entire archetype of the NiceGuy, is the Underground Man. He says he’s fine with something, then later sabotages you for doing it. When pressed, he’ll pretend nothing’s wrong. He confuses being harmless and pathetic for moral fiber (Nietzsche’s slave morality). Filled with impotent spite, the darkness congeals in his soul until he no longer recognizes the truth as his friend.
Sarah is right that psycho-conservatism is built around beliefs about what people are like. However, she beats around the bush about what Peterson and others actually believe about human nature. It’s not just that there’s not a whole lot you can do about IQ. It’s not just that women are 10% more friendly on average and men are 10% more competitive. It’s that everyone has inside them a shadow – the capacity to be an Auschwitz guard – the kind of person who would go above and beyond the call of duty to realize the Final Solution.
I think the biggest failure of the Rationalist movement is its failure to engage with, or even acknowledge the existence of the shadow. How is it, exactly, that nice people with good intentions are so captivated by shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or even Hannibal? About a decade ago, moms were in an uproar about how violent video games are corrupting their children. But isn’t it obviously the other way around? Video game companies respond to incentives. Six year olds self-organize into games of war and wrestling without external stimuli, but adults must be completely harmless?
It is possible that rationalists are disproportionately agreeable and kind people by nature. Nevertheless, I would say, read this chapter of HPMOR carefully. Is Harry’s intent to kill entirely a work of fiction? Tell me Eliezer didn’t enjoy listing out creative ways to kill people with school supplies. I certainly enjoyed reading it. Tell me Eliezer just made up the experience of the shadow taking over: blood running cold and calculations of maximum harm going into overdrive. Because that’s exactly what it feels like. I joked recently that I would not be surprised if Eliezer single-handedly saved the world from unfriendly AI, but I would also not be surprised if simultaneously a couple dozen of his enemies died artistically to carbon nanotubes.
There’s no denying that there’s a lot of cognitive biases to be afraid of. Sure, lot of problems are due to akrasia and inadequate equilibria where well-intentioned people respond to perverse incentives. But let’s give good, old-fashioned evil its due too.
Jordan Peterson’s fundamental message about human nature is that everyone has a shadow, though some are more prominent than others. But he’s not defeatist about this. He sketches out exactly how to recognize and integrate the shadow into your personality so that it doesn’t take you unawares when you have the least slack to deal with it. It’s a harrowing experience, because the shadow extends all the way down to hell, but it seems to me the only way to go: recognize your shadow by discovering your own capacity for malevolence and violence. Integrate it by treating yourself with the respect that your shadow deserves. Only then can you stand upright and be slightly more confident that you would not be an Auschwitz guard.
The Religious Language
Dostoevsky and Peterson are always speaking in the religious language, and I think this is fundamentally right. A great quote he mentions is (paraphrased), “Some things are so important only the religious language is sufficiently serious to speak about them.”
This is not an argument for religion. I argued previously that the beauty of life is its High Resolution, the role of language is to magnify reality, and that one of the mechanisms by which this occurs is that the more words you know for a thing, the more space it occupies in your conceptual landscape. Religious language is designed to speak about grand questions of good and evil. The idea that people have souls which can be damaged by sin is psychologically true beyond belief. The idea that the ultimate hero is the person who takes on the sins of the world also rings of the highest wisdom. These are not babies we can afford to throw out with the bathwater.
What’s funny is that rationalists have belatedly begun to realize the power and necessity of religious language. Moloch and Ra are part of the process of rebuilding the pantheon of Gods, which Peterson would define as psychologically central archetypes. The word soul seeps back into the discourse because it refers to something absolutely central. Rituals like holy days and the Sabbath have been popping up since the beginning.
In HPMOR, Harry says,
“You could call it heroic responsibility, maybe,” Harry Potter said. “Not like the usual sort. It means that whatever happens, no matter what, it’s always your fault. Even if you tell Professor McGonagall, she’s not responsible for what happens, you are. Following the school rules isn’t an excuse, someone else being in charge isn’t an excuse, even trying your best isn’t an excuse. There just aren’t any excuses, you’ve got to get the job done no matter what.” Harry’s face tightened. “That’s why I say you’re not thinking responsibly, Hermione. Thinking that your job is done when you tell Professor McGonagall—that isn’t heroine thinking. Like Hannah being beat up is okay then, because it isn’t your fault anymore. Being a heroine means your job isn’t finished until you’ve done whatever it takes to protect the other girls, permanently.” In Harry’s voice was a touch of the steel he had acquired since the day Fawkes had been on his shoulder. “You can’t think as if just following the rules means you’ve done your duty.”
You know who else took on responsibility for all the sins of the world? Jesus.
Let me close by describing three segments of Jordan Peterson’s The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories series that stood out to me.
Peterson places great emphasis on the divinity of the spoken and written truth in his reading of the Bible. In Genesis 1, God doesn’t simply create the universe, he speaks it into existence: “Let there be…” Humanity is allowed to participate in this act of creation in Genesis 2:
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
The act of naming things is divine – rationalists know this too, and it is not to be taken lightly. In the best fantasy series, the purest skill in magic is the study of the True Names of things. This preoccupation with words goes all the way back to the Bible.
The written word plays an equally central role in this mythos. The moment Moses receives the Ten Commandments in written form on Mount Sinai is divine, not because people were wild animals who didn’t follow rules before that moment, but because the act of transmuting subconscious knowledge and unwritten rules into the articulated truth – written word that can be reproduced and exchanged and learned from – is the highest art a human being can aspire to.
Adam and Eve
The moment that Adam bites into the apple of knowledge is the moment that he descends into history. What is crucial about this moment? What knowledge is so dangerous?
The first thing that Adam sees, now that his eyes are opened: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
Nakedness is not merely about embarrassment – it’s about vulnerability. The moment Adam eats the apple is the moment he understands his own vulnerability. Peterson highlights the dual knowledge of this knowledge: you cannot recognize your own vulnerability without recognizing how to exploit that same vulnerability in others. That’s why the apple is so dangerous: by opening Adam’s eyes to his own vulnerability, it simultaneously makes available to him his shadow, i.e. his capacity for malice.
Cain and Abel
Peterson gives a (I think) nonstandard interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. After killing his more moral and successful brother Abel, Cain is sentenced to some pretty harsh punishments by God. Then, “Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” ”
Peterson’s interpretation is that any punishment would have been bearable except that Cain killed his own ideal. Abel was the good brother who walked in the light, an example to be followed. In killing his brother, Cain also permanently damaged his own soul, the only thing that can allow people to endure the toughest punishments.