What do you think about what Jordan Peterson said in his conversation with Helen Lewis that equality of outcome is a pathological wish and doctrine?

Thanks for the question (in reference to this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZYQpge1W5s), but my god that was an incredibly painful video to attempt to watch — simply because of the level of aggressive combativeness in play. And so, alas, I couldn’t find the relevant bit in this video (though I actually scanned through most of it…Ack!). However, I have heard Peterson riff on “equality of outcome” in several other interviews and lectures, so I have a pretty good idea of why he doesn’t like it. In essence, he believes that the only realistic avenue for achieving equality of outcome is to impose it — via the tyrannical force of authoritative institutions. He will then use things like Soviet era agricultural disasters or the failures of affirmative action hiring to exemplify just how tyrannical and ridiculous striving for equality of outcomes ends up becoming.

The problem, of course, is that Peterson is shoehorning or conflating a lot of subtly different concepts into one very narrow box of his choosing. He is also missing the forest for the trees. Probably the best way to appreciate his error is to understand the idea that “fairness” of distribution is tied to a presumption of equality. In other words, that regardless of how someone begins their life in society — rich or poor, male or female, black or white — they should have sufficient barriers mitigated by society so that their opportunities are truly equal. That is the heart of most philosophical frameworks which include equality of outcome as a desirable goal: there really is very little difference between authentic equality of opportunity and pragmatic equality of outcome in these frameworks, because for opportunity to be effectively equal, similar outcomes must be realistically achievable.

As a simplified example, imagine that two runners are set to race around a track. One of them has shoes, is well-rested, has had regular meals for the past week, has had time to train and prepare for the race, and really wants to win. The other runner has no shoes, is emaciated, hasn’t slept well or eaten in the last few days, and doesn’t have a complete understanding of what a competitive “race” really is (let alone had time to train for it). In Peterson’s vision of the world, once the parameters of such a race are set, and both runners are placed in the same starting positions on the track, then they effectively have “equal opportunity.” Any attempt to level the playing field between them is, for Peterson, an interference with merit. And such interference is anathema to Peterson, ostensibly because it’s “Marxist” (it isn’t Marxist, actually, but anything with the remotest hint of Marx will generally set Peterson off into irrational and pedantic histrionics). No, but seriously, Peterson really hates the idea that any external agency or institution can judge the requirements necessary to achieve equity in such situations.

Now Peterson does have a point: it is very difficult to know how to structure society so that distributions are actually fair (and not punitive, or gamed, or generating unanticipated consequences, or ultimately biased and unfair, etc.). But this is really where Peterson doesn’t “get” the forest of successful civic institutions, and fixates instead of instances of failure (i.e. the trees). Where the intent of a given system of shared opportunity — and the people operating within it — is genuinely grounded in the presumption of equality, it actually works pretty well. Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize-winning research into real-world examples of common pool resource management has definitively proven this to be the case. These CPRMs were organic, self-organized and self-managed systems all around the globe. No imposition of government tyranny was required to make them work. So really, Peterson’s argument is specious because he (apparently?) just isn’t aware of such real world instances.

Anywho, my fun meter has peaked on this topic, but hopefully this can help others navigate these treacherous waters.

My 2 cents.


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