Thursday, April 19, 2018

Jordan Peterson on Lobster Hierarchy: A Response to P. Z. Myers' Critique

P. Z. Myers, an evolutionary biologist, has attacked Jordan Peterson's account of lobster hierarchy as utterly stupid in its ignorance of Darwinian evolutionary science. Here are the videos.  The total time for all three is about thirty minutes.  The first one is eight and a half minutes.

Peterson argues that the similarities between lobster hierarchy and human hierarchy show that human hierarchy is rooted in an evolved human nature, and therefore that it cannot be a purely cultural construction of capitalist patriarchy, as some radical feminists have claimed.

Against this, Myers raises four objections.

(1)  Hierarchies in the animal world have not evolved to be fixed and identical, as Peterson claims, because they are variable in response to variable social circumstances; and therefore human hierarchies really are social constructions, and as such they are open to change.

(2) Peterson claims that the hierarchies of lobsters and human beings are the same in being derived from a common evolutionary ancestor, but this is denied by the logic and evidence of evolutionary science, which therefore refutes his assertion that human hierarchy is biologically determined.

(3) Peterson claims that the hierarchies of lobsters and human beings are the same in being based on the same nervous system that runs on serotonin, but this is denied by the fact that the nervous systems of lobsters and humans are very different, and by the fact that serotonin serves diverse functions in different nervous systems.

(4) Against Peterson's claim that all hierarchies are simple, linear, and competitive, Myers argues that in fact they are complex and nonlinear, and they are based not just on competition but also on cooperation.

All four objections fail because they are based on a straw-man fallacy: Myers is refuting claims that Peterson has not made.

Notice that like Cathy Newman, Myers is engaged in a dominance contest with Peterson.  For Myers, an intellectual discussion like this is an opportunity to show his superiority over those with whom he disagrees, as shown by his smug insulting dismissal of Peterson: "he is a loon!"  So Myers gives us a good illustration of what Peterson identifies as one of the eight kinds of conversation--the dominance-hierarchy conversation.  This debate over the idea of hierarchy is itself a manifestation of the natural human inclination to hierarchy.

I will concede that Peterson is not always as clear and explicit as he should be in laying out the evolutionary logic and evidence for his position.  So responding to Myers' critique forces us to clarify Peterson's argument.

Contrary to what Myers asserts, Peterson does not claim that in arguing for hierarchies as natural rather than purely social constructions, he is arguing for hierarchies being absolutely fixed and identical.

This should be clear in his use of the chess analogy in the Newman interview.  Hierarchy is like a chess game: there are lots of ways to play chess, but you can't break the rules of chess and continue to play chess.  Biological nature sets the rules of the game, but within those rules, you have a lot of leeway for individual and cultural variation.

Actually, the game analogy is even more complicated than this in 12 Rules, where he emphasizes that there are "many good games" of hierarchy (87, 303).  If you're losing in one game of hierarchy, you should look for other games where you have a better chance of winning.  So, for example, if Myers is a loser in many games of hierarchy, he can always play the YouTube video game and challenge Peterson, who is one of the highest ranking players of that game. 

Liberal pluralism promotes this by allowing a great diversity of hierarchical games for people to play, instead of the oppressive order in which there is only one game with few winners and many losers.

In explaining hierarchy, Peterson observes, there is no strict separation between nature and culture, because it is an "erroneous concept" that "nature is something strictly segregated from the cultural constructs that have emerged within it."  "There is little more natural than culture" (12 Rules, 14).  Thus, hierarchies really are "cultural constructs," but it is natural for human beings to culturally construct hierarchies.  So, against the nature/nurture dichotomy, Peterson argues for what I have called "nurturing nature": while we commonly separate nature and nurture or nature and art, animal nature--including human nature--must be nurtured if it is to reach its natural completion (Darwinian Natural Right, 36-44). 

Modern biology shows that innate traits in most cases are not absolutely fixed, because the observed phenotype emerges from the complex interaction of inborn potential, developmental history, and external physical and social environments.  Hierarchy is an natural propensity for human beings, as indicated by studies showing that even babies less than a year old recognize hierarchical relationships.  Yet the full expression of that innate propensity will emerge through the life history of each individual as shaped by cultural experience.

According to Myers, Peterson infers that since both lobsters and human beings have hierarchies, the ancient common ancestor of lobsters and human beings must have been hierarchical, which shows the ancient evolutionary lineage of human hierarchy.  It is easy for Myers to ridicule this claim as unsupported by the logic and evidence of evolutionary science.

But Myers ignores Peterson's suggestion in 12 Rules that the evolution of hierarchy among animals shows convergent evolution, which is the independent evolution of similar traits in species of different evolutionary lineages, where species in similar ecological niches facing similar problems have evolved similar solutions.  So, for example, the capacity for flight has evolved independently among insects, birds, and bats because flying was a similar solution for the similar problems they faced, and not because this trait was inherited from a common ancestral species.

Although Peterson does not explicitly speak about convergent evolution, his account of the evolution of hierarchy in 12 Rules suggests convergence.  He speaks about lobsters, wrens, chickens, wolves, lizards, dolphins, and humans as very different species, and yet they have faced a similar problem in evolutionary history--fighting over territorial resources--for which hierarchy was the solution.  "Over the millennia, animals who must co-habit with others in the same territories have in consequence learned many tricks to establish dominance, while risking the least amount of possible damage" (4).  The reference here to "learning" suggests gene-culture coevolution.  And the idea that hierarchy has evolved in species of different evolutionary lineages as a similar solution to the similar problem of territorial conflicts suggests convergent evolution.  Myers says nothing about this.

Myers ridicules the idea that hierarchy among both lobsters and humans can be explained as the product of a nervous system run on the neurotransmitter serotonin.  No nervous system runs on a single neurotransmitter.  Serotonin is a simple molecule that is ubiquitous in the living world, and it functions differently in different organisms and in different nervous systems.  Serotonin is found in bananas.  Does that mean that bananas are hierarchical?

"This man is lying to you!" Myers exclaims.

In 12 Rules, Peterson supports his account of serotonin and hierarchy by citing six articles on serotonin in lobsters and one survey article on serotonin and dominance in humans and other primates (371-72, nn. 5-10, 17).  Myers doesn't explain what is wrong with these articles or with Peterson's interpretation of them.

One of the cited articles--Ziomkiewicz-Wichary (2016)--really is a good brief summary of the research.  Other articles that Peterson does not cite provide good longer summaries of the research--Watanabe and Yamamoto (2015) and Van Vugt and Tybur (2016).  Myers is silent about this research.

This research does not claim that hierarchy can be explained by the action of serotonin alone, because there are many factors that influence the evolution of hierarchy (Van Vugt and Tybur 2016).  But in males high levels of serotonin do correlate with dominant behavior, and low levels of serotonin correlate with submissive behavior.  Dominant male vervet monkeys have twice the level of serotonin as subordinate monkeys.  If the dominant monkey is removed from a group, and certain subordinate monkeys are given tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, or fluoxetine (Prozac), which increases synaptic concentrations of serotonin, the subordinate monkeys exhibit more dominant behavior (Raleigh et al. 1984, 1991; Raleigh and McGuire 1994).

The administration of serotonin to humans has a similar effect on social dominance.  Humans who have been administered tryptophan over 12 days begin to exhibit an increase in dominant behavior (Moskowitz et al. 2001).  When citalopram (a serotonin drug) is administered to human beings, these individuals are rated as more dominant by observers, and they also increase their eye contact when interacting with strangers (Tse and Bond 2002).

The serotoninergic system affects the recognition and establishment of social dominance in three ways.  Serotonin affects the processing of facial cues, so that dominant individuals react with less anxiety to angry and fearful faces.  It affects the processing of voice cues, so that dominant individuals are less responsive to angry voices.  And it affects the mechanisms of aggression and cooperation, so that individuals can achieve dominance by first increasing affiliative behavior to establish coalitions with some individuals, and then engaging in aggressive encounters with competing individuals (Ziomkiewicz-Wichary 2016).

Regrettably, Peterson does not present this research, which would strengthen his argument.  Myers says nothing about any of this research.

Against what he takes to be Peterson's position, Myers argues that human hierarchy is not simple but complex, not linear but nonlinear, not based only on competition but also on cooperation.  Moreover, Myers insists, male dominance does not exclude female power, because female sexual selection gives females the power of mate choice.

The problem, however, is that Peterson actually agrees with all of these points.  As I have already pointed out, Peterson sees human hierarchy as complex and nonlinear, because he sees that there are "many good games" of hierarchy that people can play, particularly in societies with liberal pluralism.

Myers says that the social pyramid hierarchy of premodern times leads to social inequity and long-term instability.  Peterson agrees with this when he contrasts hierarchies based only or primarily on power and those based on competence (12 Rules, 135).

Like Myers, Peterson stresses the importance of rcciprocal cooperation in which people work together for "mutual betterment" (135).  Parents need to teach their children to be cooperative and thus "make their children socially desirable" (60, 124, 143).  To be successful in society, people need to be both cooperative and competitive.  "Cooperation is for safety, security, and companionship. Competition is for personal growth and status" (337).

Peterson also agrees with Myers that female mate choice matters for empowering females.  Peterson stresses the power of "human female choosiness," which causes so much anxiety for us males.  "It is Nature as Woman who says, 'Well, bucko, you're good enough for a friend, but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation'" (41).

This stands behind Peterson's point with Cathy Newman that his message to young men about the need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives benefits not just men but women as well:
"If they're healthy, women don't want boys.  They want men.  They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with.  If they're tough, they want someone tougher.  If they're smart, they want someone smarter.  They desire someone who brings to the table something they can't already provide.  This often makes it hard for tough, smart, attractive women to find mates: there just aren't that many men around who can outclass them enough to be considered desirable (who are higher, as one research publication put it, in 'income, education, self-confidence, intelligence, dominance, and social position').  The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is, therefore, no more friend to woman than it is to man. . . . And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of" (332).
I'll be writing a few more posts on Jordan Peterson.


Moskowitz, D. S., G. Pinard, D. C. Zuroff, L. Annable, and S. N. Young. 2001. "The Effect of Tryptophan on Social Interaction in Everyday Life: A Placebo-Controlled Study." Neuropsychopharmacology 25: 277-89.

Raleigh, M. J., M. McGuire, G. I. Brammer, and A. Yuwiler. 1984. "Social and Environmental Influences on Blood Serotonin Concentrations in Monkeys." Archives of General Psychiatry 41: 405-410.

Raleigh, M. J., M. McGuire, G. L. Brammer, D. B. Pollack, and A. Yuwiler. 1991. "Serotonergic Mechanisms Promote Dominance Acquisition in Adult Male Vervet Monkeys." Brain Research 559: 181-90.

Raleigh, M. J., and M. T. McGuire. 1994. "Serotonin, Aggression, and Violence in Vervet Monkeys." In Roger D. Masters and Michael T. McGuire, eds., The Neurotransmitter Revolution: Serotonin, Social Behavior, and the Law, 129-45. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Tse, W. S., and A. J. Bond. 2002. "Serotonergic Intervention Affects Both Social Dominance and Affliative Behaviour." Psychopharmacology 161: 324-30.

van Vugt, Mark, and Joshua M. Tybur. 2016. "The Evolutionary Foundations of Status Hierarchy." In David M. Buss, ed., The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2: 788-809. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Watanabe, Noriya, and Miyuki Yamamoto. 2015. "Neural Mechanisms of Social Dominance." Frontiers in Neuroscience 9 (June), article 154, 1-14. Available online.

Ziomkiewicz-Wichary, Ania. 2016. "Serotonin and Dominance." In T. K. Shackelford and V. A. Weekes-Shackelford, eds., Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.  Available online.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Darwinian Aristocratic Liberalism: The Cathy Newman Interview (Part 3)

Now, in the last part of the interview (25.57), Newman finally brings up the topic everyone wants to hear about--The lobster! Tell us about the lobster!

The lobster is the star of the first chapter of 12 Rules--"Rule 1/ Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back."

This reminds me of how I introduced another crustacean--the hermit crab--to make a point in Darwinian Natural Right (24-25).  These small crustaceans occupy the empty shells of dead snails.  They are most easily seen in tidal pools along ocean coastlines.  Their shells protect them from predators, reduce their physiological stress, and promote their reproductive success.  Some shells are better than others in satisfying these natural desires, and as the animals grow, they need to move to larger shells.  Finding the right shell means the difference between life and death, or at least the difference between being cramped or cozy in one's portable domicile.  A hermit crab will carefully inspect a new shell to assess its weight, size, and structure.  Biologists who study this animal have see a complex pattern of behavior by which it evaluates the quality of a shell to decide how well it satisfies the animal's desires.  The good is the desirable for hermit crabs, and in seeking that good, they show the natural teleology of animal movement.

The process of evaluation becomes even more intricate when they fight over shells.  Then they must assess not only the relative value of their shells but also the size, strength, and resoluteness of their opponents.  This competition often displays a hierarchy in which the most dominant crab gets first choice of a shell.  If the dominant crab moves into a new shell, the old shell is occupied by a less dominant crab, which creates another vacancy for a third crab, and so on down the hierarchy.  Sociologists who study the social structure of "vacancy chains," in which resources are passed from one individual to another down a social hierarchy, have discovered remarkable similarities between hermit crabs occupying vacant shells left behind by more dominant crabs and human beings occupying jobs and houses left vacant by those of higher status.

This shows the normative structure of animal movement as Aristotle studied it in The Movement of Animals: animals have natural desires, they have natural capacities for gathering information relevant to their desires, and they are naturally inclined to do whatever seems to satisfy their desires according to their evaluation of the information.  Thus, animal biology cannot be a value-free science, because of the inherently normative and teleological character of animal movement.  Nietzsche recognizes this in his middle writings when he speaks of "morality as animal," as covered in some of my posts (here).  Contrary to what people like Leo Strauss have said about modern science denying Aristotelian natural teleology, modern Darwinian biology--like Aristotle's biology--must affirm the immanent teleology of animal movement.  (I have written about this here and here.)

Peterson often invokes the is/ought or fact/value distinction in suggesting that science must be value-free (see, for example, 12 Rules, xxvii).  But he contradicts this in his biological psychology, because he knows that any biological science of animal movement must be value-laden and teleological.  In his practice as a clinical psychologist, he helps people solve their moral problems.  And, of course, 12 Rules is ultimately a self-help book showing how his Darwinian science of biological psychology can help his readers solve their moral problems.  Peterson implicitly endorses my point about the normative structure of animal movement when he says that every action manifests a value-judgment, and thus the idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms (12 Rules, 87).

He also shows this in what he says about lobsters in response to Newman.  Male lobsters fighting for dominance teach us about the importance of being combative to advance oneself.  They should also teach us that the idea that hierarchical structures are a social construction of the Western patriarchy cannot be true.  They show that hierarchy originated in evolutionary history hundreds of millions of years ago, long before the appearance of human beings. 

They also show a nervous system attuned to their hierarchy that runs on the neurotransmitter serotonin just like the nervous system in the human brain.  Their nervous system is so similar to ours that antidepressants (like Prozac) work on lobsters. 

It's the same system in your brain, he tells Newman.  Your brain has a serotonin system that tracks your status, and the higher your status, the better your emotions are regulated. (This is a nice move because it intimates to the viewer that she is showing her lobster psychology in fighting over dominance with Peterson.)

If Darwin evolutionary science is correct, Peterson observes, this is exactly what we should expect--that there will be continuity in the way animals and human beings organize their social structures.

Newman responds (28:00): You're saying we're hard-wired to act as men and women, and there's nothing we can do about it.  Here she's repeating the most common criticism of Darwinian evolutionary psychology--the charge of biological determinism.

Peterson responds to this charge--correctly, I think--by rejecting the implied nature/nurture dichotomy as a false dichotomy.

No, I'm not saying that, he says.  Rather, it's like a chess game.  There are lots of things you can do in playing chess.  But you can't break the rules of chess and continue to play chess.  Your biological nature sets the rules of the game.  But within those rules, you have a lot of leeway.  (I make the same point in Darwinian Natural Right in speaking about "nurturing nature.")

You cannot say, however, that hierarchical structure is the consequence of capitalist patriarchy.  That's patently absurd, Peterson insists.

Here again we see Peterson's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism.  He gives us a Darwinian explanation of aristocratic hierarchy that affirms liberal pluralism.  As he explains in 12 Rules (85-92, 302-303). liberalism does not deny hierarchy in the pursuit of absolute equality, as does utopian socialism, because liberalism accepts that as long as society has any standards of value at all, some people will be more successful than others in meeting those standards, because individuals are naturally different in their capacities and propensities.  This means: "culture is an oppressive structure. It's always been
that way. It's a fundamental, universal existential reality" (12 Rules, 302).  "Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself--and then there would be nothing worth living for" (303).

But then how can liberalism ensure that those at the bottom have something worth living for?  Peterson's answer in 12 Rules is that even those at the bottom--like the many failing young men--can choose to sort out their lives, take on adult responsibilities, and discover that they have a lot to contribute to their families, their friends, and their society.  Liberal pluralism makes this possible, because there is not just one game in which everyone competes, with winners and losers, but many good games, which allow people to find a game in which they can succeed. 

Aristotle points to this in the books on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, where one can see the liberal pluralism in Athens.  This is also the point made by Charles Murray in arguing that in a liberal society with equality of opportunity there will be inequality of outcome, with a "cognitive elite" at the top; but with many different domains of life, there will be "a place for everyone" to find their happiness (see my posts on this herehere, and here).

At the end of her interview, Newman brings up again the question of whether Peterson has had an unhealthy influence on his young male followers, who have often become vicious in harassing Peterson's critics on the Internet.  (Within hours after the interview, Newman will complain that she has become the victim of such threatening harassment.)

Peterson responds: I've had 25,000 letters since June from people saying I've brought back from the brink of destruction.  I will put that up against the vague accusations that my followers have made the lives of my critics miserable through Internet harassment.

After the interview, Peterson's critics were quick to ridicule his Darwinian lobster psychology of hierarchy.  One of the best of these critiques came from P. Z. Myers, and evolutionary biologist.  In my next post, I will look at his critique.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Darwinian Aristocratic Liberalism: The Cathy Newman Interview (Part 2)

At this point in the interview (21:49), Newman turns to her third topic by observing that Peterson got into trouble in Canada for refusing to call transgender people by their preferred personal pronouns.

No, Peterson responds, I got into trouble for not allowing the Canadian provincial government to dictate my speech.  I did not get into trouble for not calling anyone anything.

Newman asks: Why should your right to freedom of speech trump the right of a transgender person not to be offended?

Because, Peterson answers, to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.  Look at the conversation we're having right now.  Why do you have the right to risk offending me?  It's been rather uncomfortable for me here.  You're exercising your freedom of speech.  More power to you!

At this point (23:06), Newman drops her head, and she pauses for 10 seconds or more.

Peterson exclaims: "Ha. Gotcha."

Newman answers: "You have got me! I'm trying to work that out in my head. It took a while."

It's this "gotcha" moment in the interview that attracted the millions of viewers to this YouTube video.

Many of Peterson's young male followers have gleefully exulted in this moment of triumph for Peterson in defeating and even humiliating Newman.  But Peterson has said that this was not what he was seeking in the interview.  A few days after this interview, he was interviewed in the Netherlands, and he gave his analysis of what he thought was going on in this interview with Newman.  His analysis draws from the ninth chapter of 12 Rules--"Rule 9/ Assume That The Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don't."

In this chapter, he distinguishes eight kinds of conversation.  In his psychotherapeutic conversations with his clients, he listens and talks, but mostly it's listening, because listening is paying attention, and often the clients will tell him exactly what's wrong with them; and sometimes they will even tell him how they plan to fix it.  Sometimes, he says, this helps him fix something wrong with himself.  Learning how to really listen to someone is crucial for any genuine conversation.  One way to do this is to summarize what you think someone has just said, and then ask them to confirm that this is a correct summary of what they were trying to say.

A second kind of conversation is when people speak only to establish or confirm their place in the dominance hierarchy.  Here two conversational participants aren't playing off one another for mutual enjoyment, because they're actually jockeying for position.  You can tell when this is happening, because there's some feeling of embarrassment when someone says something false or exaggerated in fighting for dominance over others in the conversation.

A third, closely related form of conversation, is when neither speaker is listening to the other, because as each person speaks, the other person is thinking about what he or she will say next, which often has nothing to do with the topic of the other speaker.

In a fourth kind of conversation, one participant is trying to win a victory for his point of view, which is a version of the dominance-hierarchy conversation.  In a discussion of politics or economics, this becomes an ideological debate, where the debaters assume the truth of their ideology, they denigrate opposing ideologies, and they selectively use evidence that supports their ideology.  In this conversation, people are not really thinking together, because they are not listening to one another, and because they are not open to examining or even changing their pre-established positions.

Very different from this is the fifth kind of conversation, which is a genuine listening conversation.  One person at a time speaks, and everyone else is listening carefully.  The speaker might talk about some serious or even tragic event.  Everyone else responds sympathetically.  Here the speaker is organizing his or her thoughts about the troubling event.  Peterson explains: "people organize their brains with conversation.  If they don't have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds.  Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves.  The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind" (250).

A sixth kind of conversation is the lecture.  Although it sounds surprising, Peterson explains that a good lecture is really a conversation, or at least that's the way Peterson lectures.  He sees that as he speaks, his audience communicates with him non-verbally through their postural display and facial emotion.  A good lecturer will pick out particular individuals in the audience and watch their reactions.  He can tell when they are confused by what he says and need a better explanation.  He will respond appropriately to their nods, frowns, or shaking of their heads.

Peterson's seventh kind of conversation is the one where people display their wit.  This can have an element of dominance, but the goal is to compete for being the most entertaining speaker.  Here, you can say anything as long as it's funny.

Finally, the eighth kind of conversation is for Peterson the best--the philosophic conversation of mutual exploration.  It's a conversation of reciprocity between people listening and speaking as they organize their thoughts about some complex topic that is of great interest to everyone.  They are all trying to solve a problem, and no one insists on the prior validity of his position.  "All are acting on the premise that they have something to learn," Peterson observes. "This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living" (253).

"The people involved in such a conversation must be discussing ideas they genuinely use to structure their perceptions and guide their actions and words.  they must be existentially involved with their philosophy: that is, they must be living it, not merely believing or understanding it.  They also must have inverted, at least temporarily, the typical human preference for order over chaos (and I don't mean the chaos typical of mindless antisocial rebellion). Other conversational types--except for the listening type--all attempt to buttress some existing order.  The conversational of mutual exploration, by contrast, requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known" (254).
To participate in such a conversation, you must recognize that what you know is not enough to protect yourself from suffering and evil.  Knowledge is virtue, and so if you knew enough, you would be virtuous.
"If you just knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malevolence and evil.  You would neither betray a friend, nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics, or love.  However, your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition--radically, fatally insufficient" (254).
Knowing your ignorance and knowing how harmful that ignorance is for you, you might enter into philosophic conversations, where the masks come off, you are genuinely seeking the truth with others, and you are not trying to convince, oppress, dominate, amuse, or achieve victory over others.  You will meditate as you converse, listening to yourself and listening to the other person.  Then, you can "say the new and original things that can rise from deep within of their own accord" (255).

This ascent to philosophic conversation as the highest human activity leads Peterson to the concluding words of Chapter 9:
"So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.  It is for this reason that the priestess of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth.  She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing."
"Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't" (255-56).
That Peterson does indeed engage in such philosophic conversations is indicated by Norman Doidge's vivid description, in his Foreword to 12 Rules, of Peterson's intense and exciting conversations with his friends exploring the deepest questions of life.

Nietzsche experienced this philosophic life of friendly intellectual conversation most clearly in his "middle period," when he enjoyed the friendship of Paul Ree and Lou Salome.  In Human, All Too Human, he described this as the Socratic life of free spirited philosophers that was possible in a liberal social order that protects freedom of speech and thought for philosophers.  Similarly, Aristotle described this life of philosophic friendship in the books on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, and one can see here how this was made possible by the relatively liberal social order of Athens.  Also, Adam Smith and David Hume showed how their philosophic friendship was made possible by the freedom of a commercial society.  (I have written about that here, here, and here.)

In such a liberal society, it is no longer necessary or desirable for philosophers to engage in esoteric writing, which shows the success of liberalism in achieving a truly open society, contrary to the claims of Leo Strauss.  (I have written about that here.)

Likewise, Peterson sees the freedom for philosophizing as one of the greatest benefits of a liberal social order.  But he worries that the increasingly combative polarization in modern Western societies threatens that freedom.

In his analysis of the interview with Newman, he says that he had a friendly conversation with her before they sat down in front of the cameras, and so he was surprised when she immediately took on a hostile attitude in the interview.  He saw that she was engaged in a conversation of the second or fourth kind--a conversation of ideological combat seeking victory in a fight for dominance.  He was forced to fight back, but, he says, this was not the kind of conversation he was hoping for.

He says that he has tried to contact Newman to ask her if she would be willing to meet for a second interview, in which they would agree to set aside the concern for ideological dominance, and instead try to have a genuine conversation in which they listen to one another, assume that they might learn from one another, and really try to find the truth about the deep questions they care about.  He wants to have a philosophic conversation with her!

That might sound naïve, but it's remarkable that he is so serious in his quest for philosophic conversation.

It's also remarkable that Peterson admits that somewhere deep in his unconscious, there is a dark side to his soul, which he thinks lurks in every human soul--a dark desire for dominance over others that could be expressed in physical aggression in attacking someone like Newman.  Newman has complained that Peterson's followers have posted comments on the YouTube video of the interview that threaten her in ways that have made her worry about her security.  Peterson says that the dark side of his soul could respond to this by saying that if he wished to do so, he could provoke his followers into truly violent attacks, perhaps breaking the windows at Channel 4.

Peterson says this to underscore his warning that the polarization of debates in the West could easily go very wrong very fast in moving towards violent disorder.  Avoiding such polarization is what motivates his argument for philosophic conversation rather than ideological battle.  Peterson says that even if it looks like the interview with Newman is a victory for him, it's not a healthy victory.

Here's the video of Peterson's analysis of the Newman interview:

So, now, let's go back to the interview where we left off--just after the "gotcha" moment (23:25).

Newman says to Peterson: You have come voluntarily here and have agreed to be interviewed. Now, let's say a transgender person comes into your class and wishes to be called "ze." [This is one of the new gender-neutral pronouns proposed by some transgender people.]

Peterson answers: I would call them "ze."

Then you've changed your tune, Newman responds.

No, Peterson says, this is what I've said from the beginning.  I said that I would not cede the linguistic territory to radical leftist control. I've never mistreated transgender people, and I'm not transphobic.

Although he does not explain this here in the interview, Peterson does indicate in his book that his defense of the biological reality of sexual identity as male or female can recognize the biological reality of transgender identity.  In showing the incoherence of the claim that all gender differences are socially constructed, he writes: "Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman's body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored" (315).  The implication here seems to be that Peterson can accept that transgender people are biologically different from most people who are comfortable with their male or female bodies, and therefore transgender identity is not a social construction but a biological reality.  That might then motivate us to respect transgender people as people struggling as best they can to come to terms with their biologically confused sexual identity.  Here again we see Peterson's Darwinian psychology of human nature.

Peterson has said that the radical leftist transgender activists who attacked him are authoritarian ideologues like the Marxist ideologues in Maoist China.

Newman challenges this by saying that there's no comparison between Mao and the transgender activists, because the transgender activists are not killing millions of people as Mao did.

Peterson's response is to say that the transgender activists are guided by the same philosophy as that of the Maoists--the philosophy that led to the deaths of millions of people in China.  It's the philosophy that presumes that group identity is paramount.  That's identity politics.  It doesn't matter who you are as an individual.  It only matters who you are as a group member locked into tribal conflict with other groups.  That's a murderous ideology, Peterson insists.

Here we can see Peterson's fundamental theme--developed in his two books--of arguing for liberal individualism as superior to ideological tribalism.  Xenophobic tribal psychology--us against them--is what explains the brutal conflicts and genocide practiced by both left-wing and right-wing ideologues in the 20th century--Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others.  The only way to avoid this is to adhere to the classical liberal principle of individualism rather than to practice group identity politics.

One should note here that while Peterson has been identified by many of his critics as on the side of the alt-right white supremacists, he has actually criticized the alt-right for playing the game of identity politics and thus imitating their leftist opponents.  Peterson rejects this as a dangerous game to play.  And thus he takes a position of liberal individualism as an alternative to the identity politics of both right and left.

Similarly, Nietzsche in his middle writings warned against the violence of totalitarianism--both left-wing and right-wing--that would arise from an illiberal collectivist tribalism.

Here's a video of Peterson warning the alt-right folks about their identity politics:

To be continued . . .

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Darwinian Aristocratic Liberalism: The Cathy Newman Interview

If you are one of the few people on the planet who has not heard about Jordan Peterson, you should look at some of his YouTube videos.  There is also a good article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that surveys the story of how the Jordan Peterson phenomenon has developed over the past two years.  The fullest statements of his thinking are his two books: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999) and 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018).  12 Rules has become such a runaway bestseller that Peterson is likely soon to be come the bestselling Canadian author of all time.

One of the videos viewed by millions of people that reveals his philosophic understanding of human life is his 30-minute interview with Cathy Newman on the UK's Channel 4, in which Peterson criticizes the feminist social constructivist theory of patriarchy as contrary to the facts of evolved human nature.  After this interview occurred on January 16th, the YouTube video of the interview attracted millions of viewers within a few days; and the sales of 12 Rules jumped to the top of Amazon's rankings.

What I see here and in his books is what I have called "Darwinian aristocratic liberalism."  This is the term that I have applied to Friedrich Nietzsche's writings in his "middle period"--particularly, Human, All Too Human--as opposed to the "Dionysian aristocratic radicalism" of his later writings.  (Some of my posts on this are here, here, and here,)  Nietzsche is the one philosopher that Peterson cites and quotes from more than any other.  And he says that when it comes to the deepest questions about existence, Nietzsche "thought more clearly about such things than anyone in history" (12 Rules, 347).  But since he concentrates on Nietzsche's later writings, Peterson is unaware of how close he is to the Darwinian psychology of Nietzsche's middle writings.

Peterson's position is Darwinian, because he explains human nature through evolutionary psychology.  It is aristocratic, because he sees that the hierarchical structure of human society is rooted in evolved human nature.  It is liberal, because he argues that a liberal social order conforms best to that evolved human nature.

That Darwinian aristocratic liberalism puts Peterson in opposition to the leftist ideology of social constructionism, which denies the reality of evolved human nature in arguing for socially constructing human beings so that they could live in a socialist utopia of absolute equality.  And, thus, Peterson is opposed to the feminist theory of sexual differences as socially constructed by a capitalist patriarchy for the oppression of women, which assumes that overturning this patriarchal social construction could create a socialist utopia of absolute sexual equality.  Since Newman is a proponent of this feminist theory, this explains her aggressive attack on him in the interview.

After the interview, Peterson has publicly warned that the conflict displayed in this interview shows the deepening ideological polarization in Western societies that is dangerous insofar as it could easily lead to physical violence.  For that reason, he has argued for the liberal norms that secure peaceful societies--for protecting freedom of speech, for trying to have honest conversations about our differences, and for seeing all human beings as individuals rather than as members of groups in tribal competition.

Through her questioning, Newman divided the interview into four parts.  In the first part, she asked Peterson to explain why so much of his teaching was directed to helping young men with their troubles  In the second part, she asked him to agree that the gender pay gap was unfair to women.  In the third part, she challenged him to justify his refusal to accept a Canadian law requiring teachers like himself to call transgender students by their preferred personal pronouns.  Finally, in the last part of the interview, she asked him to justify his account of hierarchical dominance among lobsters as showing the natural basis for hierarchy among human beings.

Newman's questions and her quotations from Peterson's 12 Rules suggest that her reading of the book was concentrated on only two chapters: "Rule 1/ Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back" and "Rule 11/ Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding."

Newman began by asking Peterson why so much of his speaking and writing is about telling young men that they need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives.  Peterson responded by claiming that many young men today in Western cultures are not receiving the encouragement and the guidance that they need to become mature, competent men.  If these young men don't grow up, they become resentful, angry, sullen, and even nihilistic, in ways that make their lives miserable and of no use to others.  And the fact that many thousands of these young men have told Peterson that his video lectures have saved their lives from chaos and ruin indicates their need for such instruction.

Newman asks, what's in it for women?  Peterson responds: Do you want a partner who's an overgrown child?  Women want men who are competent partners, and such competence requires that they take responsibility for their lives.

But then some women, a minority, want a weak partner whom they can dominate, although this cannot sustain a successful marriage.

Newman objects here that Peterson is making "vast generalizations" about men and women.  To which Peterson responds: I'm a clinical psychologist.  Newman then says: So you've done the scientific research to support your generalizations?

Here at the beginning of the interview, one can see a fundamental difference between Peterson and Newman.  She assumes the feminist theory of patriarchy based upon the social construction of sexual roles that allows men to exploit women.  Peterson argues that the empirical science of evolved human nature as manifest in human behavior contradicts this ideological theory.  So for Peterson, it's science versus ideology.  But one might also say that the persuasiveness of his appeal to science depends on the credibility of his appeal to scientific research as supporting his position.

I would say that Peterson is implicitly appealing to what I have called the biological ethics of human nature: the good is the desirable, and the fullest satisfaction of the natural desires of evolved human nature over a whole life is the natural standard of the good.  So, here, Peterson is pointing to the natural desires of men and women for sexual identity, familial bonding, friendship, and social status, which allows him to judge the development of young men and the marriages of men and women as more or less successful in satisfying those natural desires.  This principle that the good is the desirable is implicit in various passages of 12 Rules (40, 101, 121, 143, 209, 213, 292, 299, 303, 320, 259).

At this point in the interview (5:23), Newman initiates a discussion of the gender pay gap that goes for about 15 minutes, which is about half of the entire interview.

Newman quotes from Peterson's book: "There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.  These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women" (12 Rules, 302). 

Then she cites the evidence of a pay gap in the United Kingdom--women being paid on average 9% less than men for the same work.  And she says that for this reason, many women do feel that they are being dominated and excluded by men, which is the patriarchal oppression that Peterson has denied in the quoted passage.

In response to this, Peterson argues three main points.

First, Peterson agrees that male bias against women is one factor contributing to the gender pay gap. But his claim is that this is only one of many factors, and that the multivariate analysis of the data by social scientists has shown that male bias is not the most important factor.

Second, he argues that equality of opportunity is eminently desirable for both individuals and society.  And, therefore, an inequality of outcome, such as the gender pay gap, is not necessarily unfair if it arises from equality of opportunity, with men and women exercising free choice in their decisions about their work life and family life, so that men and women on average will make somewhat different choices because of their evolved natural sex differences in personality and preferences.

Third, he argues that if gender equality means equality of outcome, it is almost certainly undesirable, because achieving an absolute equality of outcome would require an oppressive tyranny suppressing individual liberty, as happened in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

Running through all of this reasoning is Peterson's Darwinian psychology of evolved sex differences, his aristocratic assumption that these evolved sex differences will create a social hierarchy in wealth and status, and his liberal principle that a social hierarchy is fair if it arises from the equal liberty of individuals to sort themselves out.

In support of his first point--that gender bias is only one of many factors explaining the gender pay gap--Peterson insists that "the multivariate analysis has been done" (6:50), and that it confirms this conclusion.  But he does not cite any particular example of the "multivariate analysis" that he has in mind.  Nor does he survey the debate among researchers studying the causes of sex differences.

A few months ago, Jonathan Haidt wrote a useful survey of this research that shows that some researchers support Peterson's position, and some don't.

Now one might say that we can't rightly expect Peterson to lay out this research in a short television interview.  But in his book, he had the chance to do this.  And his book does have many endnotes citing empirical research on sex differences and the gender pay gap.  But the reader who looks at these notes and reads the publications that he cites will see that his citations are skimpy, and they don't demonstrably support his conclusions.

For example, Peterson claims that one of the factors explaining the gender pay gap is that women tend to be higher than men in the personality trait of "agreeableness," which makes women less inclined to the aggressive self-assertiveness necessary for winning pay raises.  As one of the Big Five personality traits identified by psychologists, "agreeableness" is manifest as politeness and compassion, and it tends to be higher on average for women than for men.  The problem is that insofar as women tend to be too agreeable for their own good, they don't stand up for themselves, and thus they accept lower wages than the men who are less agreeable and thus more assertive.

For women to compete with men, Peterson explains, they need to adopt some masculine traits in being less agreeable and more assertive.  He says that he has used "assertiveness training" to teach women in high powered law firms in Canada how to advance themselves in their firms.  To compete with men, women need to be formidable and not be pushed around.

Peterson addresses Newman herself in suggesting that she has had to be less agreeable and more assertive to be as successful as she has been in British TV journalism.  Newman responds by saying yes, I'm not very agreeable.

What predicts success in the workplace at the highest levels of status and wealth is personality traits such as conscientiousness and intelligence.  Women on average are equal to men in these traits.  But, again, their greater agreeableness makes them less successful.

Peterson agrees with Newman that companies could decide to promote the feminine traits of agreeableness, but Peterson argues that there is no evidence now that this would make companies successful, because the market tends to reward the more masculine traits at the higher levels of professional achievement.

Peterson's reasoning in the interview is that agreeableness is negatively correlated with the highest level of success in the professional and business world, women tend to be more agreeable than men; therefore men on average will have higher pay and status than women, but women who learn to be less agreeable can be as successful as the men who are less agreeable.

The problem, however, is that the research cited by Peterson in his book about the personality traits associated with success do not support this conclusion (12 Rules, 313, nn. 188-89).  Some of the best research on the correlation of workplace inequality and the personality trait of agreeableness comes from Timothy Judge and his colleagues (see T. A. Judge, B. A. Livingston, and C. Hurst, "Do Nice Guys--and Gals--Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 [2012]: 390-407.)  Surprisingly, Peterson never cites this research.  Judge has summarized his research in some PowerPoint charts, which show that the agreeableness of women does exacerbate the gender wage gap with men, as Peterson says, but they also show that there is still a wage gap between disagreeable women and disagreeable men: women can increase their pay by becoming disagreeable, but they will still be paid less on average than disagreeable men, which contradicts Peterson's implicit claim that the gender gap can disappear between men and women who are aggressively assertive.  As far as I know, Peterson never responds to this research.

Peterson is more persuasive with his other two points--that equality of opportunity creates inequality of outcome, and that enforcing equality of outcome would require a tyrannical suppression of liberty. The evidence around the world in more liberal societies, where women are close to having equal liberty with men, clearly indicates that women on average will choose different careers and different tradeoffs between career life and family life.  The best evidence, as Peterson indicates in his interview, is that in the Scandinavian countries, where the promotion of sexual equality has been pushed farther than other countries, women still prefer more typically feminine careers (like nursing) over more typically masculine careers (like engineering).

This does not mean that men will dominate every high-level profession.  On the contrary, as Peterson indicates. professional fields like law and medicine that were once closed to women are now predominantly female; and most of the academic disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences are dominated by women.

Moreover, as indicated by Peterson's effort to save young men from a life of miserable failure, many men are falling behind the women in a world dominated by successful women who cannot find men competent enough to be good marital partners.

Although Peterson here shows his opposition to the feminist theory of patriarchy, he does not have the opportunity to explain his alternative theory.  For that, one must turn to his book, particularly this passage:
"Here's an alternative theory: throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity.  Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength.  In addition to the filth, misery, disease, starvation, cruelty, and ignorance that characterized the lives of both sexes, back before the twentieth century (when even people in the Western world typically existed on less than a dollar a day in today's money) women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burdens of too many young children. Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill.  At least such things might be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism."
"It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease, and drudgery. . . ." (12 Rules, 303-304)
Peterson then surveys the history of the invention of tampons, the use of chloroform to make childbirth painless, and the invention of the birth control pills as examples of technological innovations by men that don't oppress women but rather free them.  His point seems to be that the economic and technological progress brought by liberal capitalism over the past two centuries has liberated women to have a fuller range of choices than was ever possible in human history.  So, for example, women today can choose to have fewer children, invest extensive parental care in those few children, pursue higher education, and also have a professional career outside the home.  Women still have to make difficult choices about how to balance the goods of family, education, and careers; but still they have more choices available to them than women in past history.  So, rather than scorning liberal capitalism as patriarchal oppression, women should celebrate it as the source of their liberation.

To be continued . . .

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Liberalism of the Benedict Option

An Austrian Monastery

The argument of Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option (2017) is fundamentally the same as Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed.  And like Deneen, Dreher's argument is incoherent, because while he claims to reject liberalism, his proposed alternative to liberalism is founded on the liberal principle of individual liberty by which social order arises through voluntary choice.

A few years ago, Deneen wrote an essay placing himself and Dreher on the same side of an intellectual debate among traditionalist American Catholics.  (Since then, Dreher has converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church.)   On one side, there were the Whig Catholics taking the position developed by John Courtney Murray that Lord Acton was right about Thomas Aquinas being "the first Whig," and that traditional Catholicism was compatible with the American tradition of liberal democracy, because liberal pluralism and religious liberty secured a home for Thomistic Catholics to live their Christian lives.  The proponents of this position included Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and others who wrote for First Things, the journal founded by Neuhaus. 

On the opposite side of this debate were the radical traditionalist Catholics--Dreher, Deneen, and others--who took the position developed by Alasdair MacIntyre that Thomistic Catholicism and American liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible, because the false anthropology of liberal individualism that sees human beings as essentially separate, autonomous selves destroys the conditions necessary for cultivating the natural and supernatural virtues in families, communities, and the Church.

Since Deneen wrote his essay in 2014, the journal First Things has moved away from Neuhaus's Whig Catholicism--Neuhaus died in 2009--and towards the radical traditionalism of Deneen and Dreher.  For example, in last October's issue, First Things published an article by Edmund Waldstein defending Catholic integralism, which Waldstein has summarized in three sentences:  "Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final end. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power." 

In particular, Waldstein recommends the medieval Catholic kingdom of St. Louis IX in thirteenth-century France as a historical model of a social order in which the temporal power of government was subordinated to the spiritual power of the Church.  Here then is a clear rejection of the modern liberal regime and endorsement of the medieval illiberal regime.

But what makes the argument of Deneen and Dreher so confusing is that while they reject modern liberalism, they also reject medieval illiberalism, because they want to build on the achievements of liberalism in promoting liberty, equality, and justice.  That's what I mean in saying that their argument is incoherent.

As I indicated in my previous post, Deneen condemns the medieval social order for its "practices of slavery, bondage, inequality, disregard for the contributions of women, and the arbitrary forms of hierarchy and application of law" (19, 23, 185).  Similarly, Dreher says that medieval Europe was "no Christian utopia," because "the church was spectacularly corrupt, and the violent exercise of power--at times by the church itself--seemed to rule the world."  And yet, "despite the radical brokenness of their world, medievals carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration.  In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning within the chaos" (25).

So, Dreher believes, medieval Christians had "a powerful vision of integration"--a metaphysical conviction that "meaning transcends ourselves and is grounded in God" (234)--but their medieval social orders failed to actualize that metaphysical vision of human beings living lives that are meaningful because they are part of a cosmos created by God with the promise of eternal life in Heaven. 

Liberal social orders must also fail to actualize that metaphysical vision of living in a sacred cosmos, because liberalism separates church and state, so that religious belief and practice become a private activity of individuals exercising their religious liberty, but without any public support from a political establishment of religion.

Through most of American history, Dreher observes, American Christians could be reassured by the thought that although there was a formal legal separation of church and state, there was an informal cultural consensus that America was a Christian nation.  Or as Neuhaus once said, even if America did not have a confessional state, it could have a confessional society.

In recent decades, however, Dreher laments, it has become clear that American Christians have lost the culture war--their Waterloo was in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, thus rejecting the biblical teaching about sex and marriage.  Orthodox Christians are now a small minority, and America has become a post-Christian society.

The only choice left for Christians who want to live a Christian life in a post-Christian culture, Dreher argues, is the Benedict Option.  With this term, Dreher is echoing the famous last paragraph of MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981).  MacIntyre had told the story of how the ancient Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics had been lost, how the modern attempt to ground morality in a shared, rational, and purely secular basis had failed, and how this had left us with a chaotic degraded morality of emotivist hedonism and Nietzschean nihilism.  He then concluded by suggesting that we are living through a time like that of the Roman empire declining into the Dark Ages, when men and women of good will set out to construct "new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."  Now, we today face a similar choice.  "What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . We are waiting not for Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict."

To think through what MacIntyre might be suggesting, Dreher tells the story of St. Benedict (480-543 A.D.) and the monastic tradition that he began.  Disgusted by the corruption that he saw in Rome under barbarian rule, Benedict turned to a life of prayer and contemplation, living for three years as a hermit in a cave.  After leaving his cave, he joined a monastic community, and founded twelve monasteries of his own.  To guide the monks and nuns living in such monasteries, Benedict wrote a book The Rule of Saint Benedict with rules for how each day in a monastery can be devoted to prayer, work, eating, fasting, and other orders of ascetic discipline, in which monks learn to live a holy life in this world to prepare for the eternal life to come in Heaven.  This guided the monastic tradition of the Middle Ages.

To show that this is a living tradition today, Dreher describes his time visiting the Monastery of St. Benedict in central Italy near Norcia--the modern name of Benedict of Nursia's birthplace.  This monastery was founded in the tenth century.  It was closed in 1810 under the tyrannical rule of Napoleon, who was trying to destroy the Catholic Church in the territories under French imperial rule.  The monastery was reopened in 2000 by some young American men who wanted to live the contemplative life of Benedictine monks.

Oddly, Dreher does not reflect on how this manifests the religious liberty secured by liberalism.  This monastery was closed under the illiberal rule of Napoleon, but then reopened under the liberal order of modern Italy.  Moreover, as Dreher indicates, all of the monks have voluntarily chosen to submit to the discipline of this monastery, because they want to live a Christian monastic life.  Therefore, the monastery is a voluntary association, which is possible in a liberal social order that secures the liberty for forming such voluntary associations.  So, if the Benedict Option is optional, if it's a product of individual choice without coercion, then it is founded on the liberal principle of social order arising by individual consent. 

Like the Amish children who choose to be baptized as adults and thus become members of the church, the men and women who choose to become monks or nuns are freely choosing to limit their choices by submitting to the rule of their religious community.

In his review of Dreher's book, Edmund Waldstein tells his story of how he became a Trappist monk in a Cistercian monastery in Austria as an illustration of Dreher's Benedict Option.  He came from a family of eight children, living in the United States and Austria. They were raised by Catholic parents, and they are all still practicing Catholics, because their parents took them to Mass everyday, prayed with them, and educated them to understand and appreciate the intellectual and artistic traditions of Christendom.  They lived in Catholic communities all their life.  Waldstein attended Thomas Aquinas College, a small Catholic "great books" college in California, and he sees the college and the community of families surrounding it as a Benedict Option Community.  All of this prepared him to seek out the monastic life.

But notice that the formation of Waldstein's Christian life was made possible by the freedom of liberal social orders in America and Austria--a freedom expressed in the free choices of his parents and of his siblings to live in Christian communities, and in his choice to live as a monk.  In fact, living the monastic life remains an option in liberal societies around the world, as indicated at the website with instructions for how one can become a Trappist monk or nun at one of the Cistercian monasteries in the United States.

Here is a video about the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a Cistercian monastery made famous by Thomas Merton, who was a monk there:

It is hard, therefore, to understand Waldstein's scorn for modern liberalism and his Catholic integralist longing for the medieval theocratic monarchy of St. Louis IX, which suggests that he doesn't appreciate how he has benefited from the liberty secured by liberalism.

Now, of course, few people will choose like Waldstein to live in a monastery.  But Dreher points to many other ways that people can choose the Benedict Option.  He writes:

"Here's how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option.  Secede culturally from the mainstream.  Turn off the television. Put the smartphone away.  Read books.  Play games. Make music.  Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church.  Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists.  Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer's market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department" (98).
Even without living in a monastery, Dreher argues, parents can turn their home into a "domestic monastery."  A Christian family can have regular times of family prayer.  The family can have strict rules limiting television and online media.  The family can live in neighborhoods with other Christian families.  And the family's life can be organized around their church's worship services and around their private Christian school. 

Much of Dreher's book consists of his reports from interviewing people who live in local Christian communities of families.  One example is the community of orthodox Catholic families who live in one district of Hyattsville, Maryland.  They moved there so that they could live in a neighborhood with other Catholic families.  Many of them are rooted in St. Jerome Parish. 

In 2010, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was planning to shut down the school attached to St. Jerome Parish because of the school's dropping enrollment and increasing debt. Parents organized to persuade the archdiocese to allow the school to be turned into a "classical Christian education school" based on a "Great Books" and Christian curriculum.  The new St. Jerome Academy was so successful that it has become a model for establishing other classical Christian schools around the United States.

But here, again, one sees the incoherence in Dreher's argument as soon as one notices that the flourishing of these Benedict Option communities depends on the liberal principles of tolerance and religious liberty that Dreher rejects as threats to Christian life.

In his chapter on "The Roots of the Crisis," Dreher writes:
"The U.S. Constitution, a Lockean document, privatizes religion, separating it from the state.  Every American schoolchild learns to consider this a blessing, and perhaps it is.  But segregating the sacred from the secular in this way profoundly shaped the American religious consciousness."
"For all the good that religious tolerance undoubtedly brought to a young country with a diverse and contentious population of Protestant sectarians and a Catholic minority, it also laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice.  In the American order, the state's role is simply to act as a referee among individuals and factions.  The government has no ultimate conception of the good, and it regards its own role as limited to protecting the rights of individuals."
"When a society is thoroughly Christian, this is an ingenious way to keep the peace and allow for general flourishing.  But from the Christian point of view, Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity's undoing." (36) 
Notice Dreher's evasiveness here.  Is privatizing religion and separating it from the state a "blessing"? "Perhaps it is."  Religious tolerance brought some good--"to keep the peace and allow for general flourishing."  But it also "contained the seeds of Christianity's undoing."

Elsewhere in his book, however, Dreher declares that religious liberty really is "a blessing to us" (80). And he explains:  "Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option.  Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values" (84). 

So here it seems that rather than planting "the seeds of Christianity's undoing," the religious liberty in a liberal order is the critically important opening for the Benedict Option. 

Far from being anti-liberal, the Benedict Option is made possible by liberalism.