A profound crisis of meaning currently afflicts, destabilizes and demoralizes the sovereign citizens of the West and the social institutions upon which we depend. That crisis has increasingly spread to the remainder of the world’s people, generating confusion and sowing distrust; producing a counterproductive discord in place of the peaceful, voluntary cooperation and competition that could instead reign over and unite us.
That crisis is in the first place the consequence of a corrosive doubt sowed not least by the careless intellect regarding the value of the principles of value, aim and action that have heretofore inspired, guided and stabilized us.
That crisis is in the second place the consequence of the historically unprecedented realization of our ignorance about the ultimate source, nature and reality of those principles, and our resultant inability to formulate and communicate a clear moral justification for their existence.
That crisis is in the third place the consequence of the presumptuous, premature, and finally narrowly self-serving insistence, arising from that doubt and ignorance, that nothing but the will to power — the willingness and desire to dominate and exploit — motivates all individual perceptions and actions and gives rise to and maintains all social institutions.
That crisis is, finally, use of the frustration and resentment that necessarily arises when doubt, ignorance and intellectual pride combine to demonize, divide and exploit; to insist upon an impossible and final conceptual certitude; and to demand recognition of a false and unearned moral virtue.
That crisis manifests itself in the idolatrous battles, simultaneously petty and terrible, that currently divide our world — in the disputes about identity that lead astray and render hopeless; in the stoking of distrust between men and women, in the insistence that distrust must divide black, brown and white; in the subjugation of the education that should enlighten to the ideologies that possess; in the cycle of accusation that threatens the trust upon which peace and prosperity necessarily depends; and in the panicked, antihuman, apocalyptic doomsaying that undermines the spirit of our sons and daughters.
What can those who attempt to abide by and manifest a courageous faith in the traditional values of our past offer, in such times? Not the thoughtless and instrumental appeal to cynicism and bitterness, associated with the insistence that our social and political institutions are fundamentally unreliable, corrupt and untrustworthy. Not the harsh and condemnatory exhortation or demand to accept and uphold a moral code noteworthy only for its joylessness, sterility and tendency to forbid and damn. Instead, the confident and forthright transmission of the abandoned eternal verities to all of those who currently wander, thirst and starve in their absence.
What are the values, of paramount importance to the conservative temperament, currently crying out for rediscovery, reconsideration, and discussion? An inevitably incomplete but crucially necessary list might include humility, liberty, autonomy, truth, agency, identity, merit, responsibility, tradition, community, stewardship, justice and unity. To that list might be profitably appended a set of propositions about the true nature and source of absolute privation, the inevitability of economic inequality, and the practical realities of the individual competence upon which psychological integrity and social contract equally and mutually depend.
Humility is the opposite of the prideful, authoritarian arrogance that insists upon the possession of comprehensive and final skill and knowledge. To revere humility is to accept the insufficiency of current presumption; to acknowledge the value of attending to what is not yet known; to listen to, value and attempt to truly understand the opinions of others (no matter how ill-formed); to strive to gain further knowledge; and to convince and invite instead of insisting and compelling. Humility is therefore a fundamental precondition for learning; for the revivifying, meaningful engagement that learning produces; and for the maintenance and renovation of what has already been validly learned, established and universally valued.
Liberty is valuable not because it enables the hedonism that heedlessly sacrifices the future and the community to the narrowly conceptualized present and the impulsive needs and wants of the individual. Liberty is valuable because it allows all free and unique people the opportunity to best confront the potential of the future; to engage in the voluntary, productive reciprocal interactions that make peaceful, mutually-sustaining social life possible; to speak the truth that redeems and renews; and to adopt the responsibility of citizenship and ethical endeavour. Liberty enables people to think authentically and without arbitrary constraint, privately and publicly. Liberty allows people to employ that unconstrained authentic thought to imagine a diverse set of possibilities; to singly and jointly assess, criticize, prioritize, and improve them; and to choose from those diverse criticized and improved possibilities the most evidently valuable, compelling path forward.
The emergent problems that constantly beset us and simultaneously offer new opportunity can only be addressed by the continual provision of equally unpredictable and variable set of solutions. Such provision is best ensured by valuing and encouraging development of the widest possible range of productive activities and enterprises, from which variation might be drawn the most appropriate solutions. Autonomous citizens can bring the individual differences of their temperament, experience and skill to bear on the problem of adaptation itself. Autonomous people and institutions—as widely distributed as possible — are free to vary in their response to the particularized demands of their local environments. From that variant pool all individuals free to communicate and assess can derive the solutions most apt and efficiently matched to their current situations and problems. Widely distributed autonomous local activities allows for the establishment of resilient, large-scale, unified systems, optimally resistant to the rapid and dangerous spread of any given unpredictable emergent problem, optimally able to respond with timely and particularized solution. The principle of autonomy therefore enables abundant provision in relation to the necessities and luxuries of life; maximal choice regarding the manner in which that provision will occur; and diverse opportunities for meaningful, sustaining engagement in the voluntary, productive, and sustainable private and social endeavours that best produce abundance and choice. Free markets best fulfill the need for autonomy, local activity, and wide distribution. Their superiority to all other known and likely possible systems, given that fulfillment, should be unapologetically recognized and promoted by those dedicated to the canonical values of the West. No other systems allow for the crucial and ever-changing decisions about what is currently valuable to be made by the uncompelled choice and voluntary endeavour of the widest possible number of people. No other systems allow for the sampling and aggregation of the myriad of widely varying and particularized thoughts and decisions constituted by that free choice and voluntary endeavour. No other system therefore does or apparently can operate in the manner that makes continued adaptation to the unpredictable horizon of the future both possible and desirable.
The future genuinely and unpredictably differs from the past. In consequence, a continual array of complex and unforeseen problems array themselves before us, demanding solution. A diverse, honest and freely-exchanged range of thoughts pertaining to those problems is the eternal precondition for the possibility of solution itself, as well as for its dissemination. There are many valid, productive and attractive ways of looking at and acting in the world, and a variety of perspectives is simultaneously necessary, strategically appropriate, and inevitable. It is also forever the case, however, that disciplined striving in a single direction fortifies and unifies, that an ethic capable of uniting diverse citizens in trust and peace is necessary and desirable, and that truth itself is never to be found in a particular set of facts or body of knowledge. The genuine striving forward, ethically, instead, is the very embodiment of truth and, therefore, the most valid manifestation of truth itself. The humble attempt to advance ourselves and others through discourse—as a consequence of listening and spontaneous response — is, instead, the very embodiment of truth. The willingness to reach in good faith across the divides of race, sex, economic class, and political temperament is, instead, the very embodiment of truth. The divisive insistence on the absolute relativity of truth can be combatted not least with the realization that truth is a process, not a state. The realization, finally, that the adventure of life is to be found precisely in pursuit of the truth constitutes the only real antidote to the corrosive nihilism that justifies deception, hopelessness, cynicism, and the abdication of responsibility. The most fundamental freedoms upon which virtuous states and polities depend—freedom of speech and thought foremost above them — exist not for the impulsive gratification of momentary pleasures but so that the truth that redeems can find its living expression.
The insistence that we are all most appropriately conceptualized at the level of the group — whether by sexual preference, race, gender, political belief, or ethnicity — provides the counter-opportunity for conservatives to re-establish and reinforce the bedrock notion and principle of the sovereignty of the individual, which attributes to each person the capacity to advance and progress in the face of uncertainty, malevolence and adversity. Those with truly canonical Western views can, as well, oppose the demoralizing notions of the essential corruption of all human activity and its putative basis in nothing but oppression and compulsion with the knowledge that the desire to strive forward is its essential form a manifestation of the spirit of voluntary cooperation, the desire for productive reciprocal social interaction, and the reality of genuine good will. The ambition that overcomes privation and penury, the urge to adventure toward greatness, the desire to marry, the wish to have a family, the willingness to shoulder responsibility: all this is truly and genuinely admirable and worthy of recognition and reward; all this constitutes the basis of any truly stable and desirable state, psychological and social alike, with attendant duties voluntarily undertaken and attendant rewards validly earned and distributed. All this is, furthermore, the most reliable basis for any true sustainability.
A sophisticated and adaptive identity is in no wise established through the mere insistence that a felt sense of subjective feeling must dominate and prevail. Identity is instead the result of continual and iterated communication, cooperation and competition between parents and children, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, colleagues, subordinates, superiors and the present and future selves of sovereign individuals. Identity is, therefore, and must remain a carefully and justly negotiated agreement between the individual and society, at every level of that society. Conservatives can therefore offer a revitalized conception of sovereign citizenship as the most meaningful and significant form of identity: the sovereign citizenship that makes each person a credit to themselves, a reliable partner in marriage, a caring, judicious and discriminating parent, a trustworthy and competent partner in enterprise, an active participant in local and distal civic institutions, and an informed, enlightened and ethical political actor and voter. This is all predicated upon conceptualizing and articulating the need for a shift in the Western individual’s moral outlook, away from the narrowly hedonistic blandishments of endless rights and externally bestowed privileges and toward the constructive rewards attendant upon a mature sacrifice, duty, responsibility, and reciprocity.
Individuals vary widely in their abilities across the entire range of human endeavour. A small number of highly productive people operating within all domains of human creative endeavour account for most of the production and progress. A direct relationship therefore obtains between the recognition and promotion of excellence and the ability for societies to ameliorate absolute privation; to generate and disseminate creative solutions to new and unexpected problems; to provide opportunity for individual and social flourishing and advancement; and to justly and effectively reward those endeavouring to be productive, successful and generous. The tight causal connection between merit and consequence means that pure merit can defined objectively by the ability to undertake the work and build the social networks associated with goals valued by the free choice of actors in the free marketplaces of friendship, community association, consumer choice, employment opportunity and political decision. Such merit has been, validly — however partially and imperfectly — and must remain the fundamental principle governing selection, placement, and advancement in our social institutions.
Every individual requires a purpose to offset the tragedy of life. Every person needs something of true value to set against the anxiety, frustration, disappointment, grief and pain of mortal existence. That purpose is not to be found in the cynicism that too easily replaces an initial naivete, or in a short-sighted, narrow and reactive hedonism, but in the establishment of stable, reliable, truthful and productive intimate relationships, friendships, apprenticeships, civic bonds, political duties, philosophical commitments, and religious habits and practices. In the absence of the structure and direction produced by such bonds and activities, the tragedy of life looms unacceptably large. Individuals subjected to suffering in the absence of an orientation toward meaning and responsibility become cynical, unstable, hopeless, and alienated — then resentful, vengeful and dangerous. Conservatives can offer personal responsibility, the committed social bonds of marriage, family and job, and true civic engagement as valid and reliable antidotes to the nihilism of unearned cynicism, the temptation of narrow short-term pleasure, and the demoralizing consequences of faithless hopelessness. Such advocates can remind us all that sacrifice — the willingness to forestall the gratifications of the immediate moment; the willingness to engage in difficult endeavours in the present to build something worthwhile for the future; the moral obligation to withstand the trials of immediate, timely disagreement and conflict, to ensure a lasting peace — is a laudable, necessary, and ultimately redeeming activity. Such advocates can, finally, define a pathway through the pitfalls of guilt, offering atonement through responsibility as the proper response to the inevitably unequal distribution of talents and privileges.
The West has rightly emphasized the value of the individual, drawing on traditions derived from Rome, Athens and Jerusalem. The admirably liberal west has properly and useful articulated a doctrine of individual rights, grounded in natural law, in consequence, and that has led to an era of freedom unparalleled in its productivity, generosity and universality. But the highest ideal to which an individual might aspire cannot be grounded in an atomistic individualism, or predicated on the assumption that the highest manifestation of human striving be akin to an isolated self-actualization. Conservatives can rightly insist: the highest must serve the lowest, communally, in the truly religious sense; can rightly observe that we find our very sanity in relationship to community. Conservatives can note that sanity itself, both personal and social, is something continually and inescapably negotiated; that there can simply not be the happiness or even the pursuit thereof at the individual level in the absence of the optimally functioning social surround. A purely individual ethos is shallow, unsustainable, unworthy, and fragile (what do we do when our happiness vanishes?). A purely individual ethos fails to provide the orientation crucial for the upward striving that constitutes hope, the integrity necessary to resist temptation, the antidote to the dangerous and narcissistic expansion of ego and presumption, or the bounds of love that support us through tribulation, trial and tragedy.
Those who uphold the conservative ethos can offer responsible stewardship as the appropriate response to the necessity of maintaining harmony in our relationship with the natural world upon which our lives ultimately depend. This is an extension of the proper canonical response to the treasures of the historical past: that which is valuable should be recognized, valued, maintained, guarded and passed on down the generational chain. The scope of human activities has expanded in recent decades to a scale that makes of those activities a genuine planetary force. This presents us with real dangers, as well as unparalleled opportunities. Panicked apocalyptic thinking in relation to the former demoralizes, invites a careless and self-serving demonization and derogation, and justifies the kind of impulsive, incautious, reactive global response that can easily produce unforeseen problems of the same magnitude or greater than the original problem. Thoughtful stewards of the natural world, governed by the doctrines intrinsic to the Western canon, can as an alternative recognize the particulars of the problems characterizing the relationship between our industrial culture and the natural world; can confidently note the fact that the human ingenuity most effectively manifested in free societies has and might endlessly and more ever-more efficiently continue to ameliorate poverty and rectify excessive inequality; can encourage conceptualization of the human population and its constituent individuals as a net good in the planetary context; can deliver to young people first and foremost the message that people of faith, courage and good will can manage the very real problems that confront us and make the future not the apocalypse that is always threatening but the eternally productive and abundant garden that we may all tend and inhabit.
Every individual who strives upward in the optimal and socially-beneficial manner deserves and must be granted the benefits attendant upon the consequences of that striving. This is the judicious and discerning recognition, rewarding and reinforcement of productive and generous ability. This is the justice that fosters and maintains that productive generosity at the individual and the social level. This is the justice that applies discriminating attention to the endeavours and utterances of past and present and enables constant separation of wheat from chaff. This is the justice that has in the past and must continue to be in the future the irreplaceable, necessary and corrective complement to what would otherwise be the incautious, too-forgiving and infantilizing universal compassion that too easily masquerades and demands recognition as moral virtue itself. Conservatives can rightly insist: it is this true and comprehensive justice, grounded in the irreplaceable traditions of our forebears, that has been and must continue to be both available to and applied equally to all citizens, regardless of birth or circumstances.
Conservatives must state, with courageous faith and confidence: The fundamental institutions of the West are solid, philosophically and practically. The idea that each individual is equal before the law and of divine intrinsic worth is inextricably associated with the presumption of the sovereign citizen, as well as the associated insistence that the stability of the state rests upon the careful and truthful judgement of that citizen. The idea that honest and untrammeled discourse among men and women of good will constitutes the eternal pathway to the truth that refreshes and redeems is a realization whose profundity of conceptualization and reliability in application is unparalleled in human history. The parliaments, congresses, and senates where those of us in the West transform the inarticulate but reliable and trustworthy sentiments and desires of the people into the articulated body of laws we all abide by are fundamentally good and functional but require the wise trust and active engagement that conservatives would do well to embody and promote. Marriage, not sexual satisfaction, is the most appropriate goal for love. Children and adults flourish in stable two-parent families. The broader community is best served by stable marriage and family. The needs of those in absolute poverty are best served by an uncorrupted and genuinely cooperative and competitive free-market economy. The very real problem of inequality is best solved by a commendable combination of productivity and generosity, within the framework that such structured systems provide. All of this nests within the overarching framework of the Abrahamic canon bequeathed to us by our forebears, and should be presented in a spirit of gratitude and humility as an inextricable part and parcel of that inheritance.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. Respect for individual sovereignty, appreciation for the intact family, responsible engagement in civic institutions, gratitude for the traditions that bind us and protect us from chaos, and courageous trust in the essential goodwill of others means unity in both appearance and reality. Conservatives are, at their best, characterized by profound appreciation for the necessity of such unity, apprehending it properly as the basis for the peaceful cooperation and competition that made, makes and keeps us strong in the face of both adversity and enmity. Such unity also provides for the psychological and social predictability and structure that keeps the destabilizing terror of uncertainty at bay, as well as for the shared communal purpose that provides the very framework for individual hope. The notion that no such unity is possible, or that it is always purchased through the use of self-interested power and compulsion, means only in the first case that disunity and the chaos that accompanies it is inevitable and in the second that a profound misunderstanding is in place regarding the causal relationship between true stability and productive peace and the principles of free choice, voluntary association, reciprocal exchange, mature capacity to forestall gratification, and responsible action. The acceptance of these twin presumptions dooms their holder to a counterproductive and destabilizing anxiety and aimless hopelessness and a consequent bitter cynicism and with no conceptual or practical alternative to the personal wielding of arbitrary force. This is a recipe for personal doom and social catastrophe.
The blind and instrumental insistence that truth is an illusion and that nothing but power truly rules has left virtually everything of true and enduring use as a guide to purpose and a bulwark against despair abandoned on the wayside. The demoralized people of the West and, indeed, in the rest of the world, are therefore crying out for the restoration of the abdicated values of individual sovereignty, responsible and genuine social service and purpose whose acceptance and embodiment make our free societies possible, productive, admirable, generative and stable. Conservatives who abide by the dictates of the eternal Western canon have the opportunity beckoning in front of them to once again make the case that the principles upon which we operate, the virtues in which we believe, and the freedom upon whose existence truly constitute the basis for the life more abundant which people of good faith desire and which we have every ability to establish and maintain.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.