Yoram Hazony’s profile of Jordan Peterson from the weekend Wall Street Journal contains a point that might or might not conflict with my recent musings on principles of meaning. Here’s the passage from Hazony:
Departing from the prevailing Marxist and liberal doctrines, Mr. Peterson relentlessly maintains that the hierarchical structure of society is hard-wired into human nature and therefore inevitable: “The dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent.” Moreover, young men and women (but especially men) tend to be healthy and productive only when they have found their place working their way up a hierarchy they respect. When they fail to do so, they become rudderless and sick, worthless to those around them, sometimes aimlessly violent.
In a post on Saturday, I wondered if people “smuggle a sort of meaning” into their lives by climbing such ladders. How might that go with the idea Hazony attributes to Jordan, which, as a conservative, I find intellectually appealing?
Perhaps the resolution comes by distinguishing between two concepts that Hazony seems to conflate. Maybe young men and women do find satisfaction when they “have found their place” in a hierarchal structure, but “their place” isn’t necessarily “working their way up.” I’ve known too many people who were more or less satisfied with their roles and can testify for myself that I’ve tended to be the happiest when I’ve felt “this is my place,” whether or not I had the sensation of upward motion.
Something that I consider to be very American also leads me to rebel against the idea that we’re hard-wired to find hierarchies. Such a notion creates an image of beings who find their purpose only as servants or as the authority lording over servants. That can’t be right, and if it is accurate, it still can’t be right; we should make it a central target for social evolution.
Instead, I’d propose that human beings seek meaning, which tends to be most fully realized when other people share it, and a hierarchy is incidental to a group’s collective belief in a purpose. A particular sense of meaning produces objective standards that help people settle into their roles somewhere along a perceived hierarchy.
We’re “healthy and productive” not when we’re pursuing success for ourselves, versus others, but when we feel like we’re doing our part to advance shared goals, which (incidentally) requires that we have the freedom to determine which role is truly ours.