Appendix 1: On Poverty And Inequality And Their Nature And Amelioration
It is of crucial importance that conservatives understand and discuss the true nature of material privation and the unequal distribution of both resources and rewards.
Absolute poverty, per se, is not primarily the consequence of individual sin or the corruption of social systems. It is instead a brute and irreducible fact of nature. All living things are fated to exert costly effort and garner expendable resources to survive. Thus, the poverty that must be overcome so that privation, pain and death can be kept at bay and reproduction ensured is not most fundamentally or properly attributed to the exploitation of one individual by another or the corruption and oppression of social institutions. The overcoming of dire want, in the first place, is to be regarded instead as unlikely and as the direct result of laudable personal endeavour and functional and sustainable social enterprise.
All the same is true of relative poverty. The equally brute fact of disproportionate gain and loss is neither attributable, in the most fundamental sense, to the inadequacies of individual aim or the insufficiency of communal institution. It is, instead, something deeply and mysteriously built into the structure of natural reality itself, both natural and social. It characterizes the distribution of matter within galaxies (a small number of stars have most of the mass), the movement of water within ecosystems (a small number of rivers carry most of the world’s water), the habitation of people within geographical regions (a small number of cities have the majority of the people), the severity of natural disasters (a small number of earthquakes destroy the most buildings) and the distribution of natural resources (a small number of oil fields have most of the deposits). The same principle applies to performance and the receipt of attendant rewards within social domains (a small number of classical composers wrote all the music of the common classical repertoire), scientific endeavours (a small fraction of scientists publish the majority of scientific papers; a small number of scientific papers accrue the majority of citations), and book sales (a small number of authors dominate the bestseller charts). This inequality exists, equally, on the production side, in that a small number of people in every enterprise undertake the vast bulk of the valuable work, and on the compensation side, in that a small number of people garner most of the income and wealth. A diverse range of natural processes and every known productive and creative endeavour produces an inequality that must therefore be both recognized and managed.
Neither the fact of such facts, which are a small fraction of the full domain of such facts, nor the act of reference to such facts, constitutes any justification for the existence of relative poverty (any more than the fact that absolute privation is justified by the a priori reality of its existence). They are recognized and cited, instead, to ensure that the reality of inequality and the difficulty of its amelioration is both recognized and taken with sufficient seriousness (rather than, say, attributed unthinkingly and so dangerously to say, the mere fact of capitalism or the inadequacy of democracy or free markets).
It is also true and needs to be said that the willingness and ability to exploit, however motivated, and the degeneration and corruption of social systems from the family through the state and church can of course interfere with or even destroy the necessary trust and attitudes and practices that underly a sustainable, productive, generous citizenry and community.
But — and it bears repeating—that in no wise means that such desire, decay and interference is the root cause of the most fundamental economic problems that beset ourselves and our institutions. Individual ambition and action, rightly manifest, and social institution, properly established and maintained, instead produce and distribute abundantly and generously and are compromised in those functions by greed, resentment, nihilistic faithlessness and confusion, and the political, economic, sociological and theological consequences of those pathologies of motivation.
The fact of a priori deprivation and the operation of deep laws of unequal production, distribution and compensation means that individuals and societies alike must structure themselves so that productive people have the freedom to be productive and are optimally incentivized to continue producing. However, it is incumbent upon conservatives to appreciate in the deepest sense possible the catastrophe of absolute need and the danger and potential tragedy and social danger of radical inequality, to sympathize with the plight of those afflicted by such realities, and to note the danger posed to community order by unchecked disparity of ownership and opportunity. Those who abide by the Western canon must therefore support and work for the existence of a plethora of productive enterprises, so that many people can strive hopefully for success in many different directions and as well must also strive to foster, promote and maintain an ethic and culture of productive generosity. This best ensures a place for everyone, regardless of the vagaries of innate ability, as well as the proper taking of responsibility for and atonement in the face of absolute and relative poverty.
We are all fated to both arbitrary and unequal degrees of deprivation and privilege. Some are born poor, dim and unhealthy; others rich in both resource and opportunity, as well as ability and health. The proper response to such apparent injustice of placement is, in the first place, forbearance and gratitude, manifested courageously; and, in the second, cultivation of the desire and ability to employ those unequally distributed talents and gifts in the service of the poor, downtrodden, marginalized, and infirm. Such service satisfies the demands of both conscience and state, in the truest and most long-lasting senses. Such service also serves as the most valid and reliable source of the meaning that most truly sustains us all, protecting us from despair, individually and collectively, as we find ourselves exposed to the dramatic and challenging vicissitudes of fate. It is truly better to give, than to receive; and conservatives would do well to balance their demands for liberty, autonomy and tradition with the pledge to be caring, generous and charitable.
Appendix 2: On Personal Responsibility And The Practicalities Of Meaning
In the absence of deep, sustaining meaning, the tragedy and betrayal that inevitably accompany life undermines motivation, engendering a suffering that can be unbearable, and tempting us all toward hedonism, cynicism, hopelessness, bitterness, envy and, ultimately, the delights of vengeful cruelty. That meaning has become questionable, not least in the aftermath of the philosophical and theological confusion manifesting itself in the aftermath of the so-called Death of God. Young and old alike have become ignorant of their heritage, skeptical of the benefits of adulthood, unsupported in their agency, accused of prejudice and unseemly ambition, and fed a continual diet of apocalyptic doom and historical guilt. They have become, in consequence, dangerously demoralized, despite the wealth and security of the present day and the vast horizons of opportunity now available to everyone. This most unsettling of conditions engenders an increasing distrust, as the worth of human endeavour becomes questionable and the motivations of others the target of increasing suspicion. This manifests itself as a dangerous and accelerating polarization, as shared aims disintegrate and claims of corruption, exploitation and victimization multiply.
Conservatives can offer not only a philosophical and theological alternative to the deterioration of faith producing such distrust and suspicion, but a practical guide to the ordering of life such that its suffering might remain tolerable and its stability and adventure sufficient. The values of maturity, responsibility, duty, tradition, commitment, industriousness, and civic engagement are now criticized and rejected; deemed anachronistic, even pilloried; regarded as problem, not solution; treated as unvirtuous and exploitative. They are, in fact, the opposite: the daily virtues of attitude and habit that stabilize, provide hope, and unify — that offer a true and time-tested and immediately implementable antidote to the anomie of moral relativism, cultural dissolution, philosophical ignorance and personal confusion.
Maturity, Sacrifice And Resistance To Temptation
The ability to delay gratification is the hallmark of maturity, and a crucial part of the process of adapting to the reality of the future (as present actions have future consequences) and to the complexities that emerge from the necessity of adjusting short-term individual needs to the demands of sophisticated social reciprocity. This means that we must each undertake to bear difficult burdens in the present to ensure the survival of our future selves and, equally and similarly, our families and communities now and later. That maturity can well be recognized and promoted by conservatives as the appropriate and admirable goal of childhood and adolescent development — as a state of being preferable to those earlier stages of development; as a respectable, valid and worthwhile ambition for development; and as a precondition for the establishment of complex, productive social institutions.
The idea that sexual intimacy is best contained within the confines of a stable relationship, that a man and a woman should come together as a permanent unit, and that children require a minimum of two opposite-sex parents for optimal development is a notion as close to universally human as any so far discovered, distributed and established. Marriage provides each individual with the opportunity for true intimacy, physical and spiritual; the possibility of genuine, elevating communication and psychological development; a solid platform from which to engage in the challenge of raising children; and the profound satisfaction of engaging in a difficult, worthwhile, mature enterprise. A culture firmly based on the principal of stable monogamy is less prone to hyper-competitive youthful male aggression, often manifested as a consequence of jealousy, loneliness and existential frustration; provides women with the stability necessary to dare pregnancy and the vulnerability associated with the care of young children; and offers to boys and girls appropriate role models for the development of a stable identity and pattern for adulthood. Conservatives should be forthright in their admiration for and promotion of this most fundamental of social arrangements; all other options—however desirable in principle; however associated with some hypothetical utopia — as doomed, at minimum, to comparative and perhaps unforeseeable dire failure. This does not mean that alternative arrangements, whether formulated by necessity or desire, should be carelessly, opportunistically or cruelly devalued. It does mean, even given that caveat, that the gold standard of permanent traditional monogamous relationships should be broadly socially recognized and rewarded.
A man or woman who has loyal, caring parents; reliable, true and honest brothers and sisters; and children bonded in love and mutual regard is an individual valued, celebrated, supported, remembered, and respected. We all therefore need to be encouraged to work with good will and honest courage to value, mend and maintain our relationships with our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, to stabilize and strengthen our families and to make of them veritable pillars of the broader community. Conservatives can and should discuss and publicly and explicitly support the attitudes and actions necessary to foster such familial integration, and should strive to do so in the absence of a compromising doubt or guilt. The actions necessary to unify families and make them strong in the face of adversity are fundamentally akin to those that also make for reliable, productive social institutions at levels of social organization that surround and subsume the intimate and personal. Proper and caring practice at the local level thus properly prepares us all for proper and caring practice among our friends, neighbours, colleagues and fellow citizens. There is nothing in any of that to justify a corrosive doubt or undermining guilt.
Every individual is well served, and well supported, by a network of friends, united in good faith, aiming at the mutual good, capable of providing reassurance in times of tragedy and betrayal, able and willing to honestly celebrate in times of success and triumph. Such friendships can neither be established or sustained in consequence of dominance, force and compulsion, but by the spirit of reciprocity and voluntary play, the hallmark of the most productive, stable and desirable forms of human social organization. People surrounded by friends who genuinely want the best for them, but who stand by them equally during times of uncertainty, confusion, cynicism and despair are in a much more stable position, existentially — psychologically and practically; are much less likely to drown in chaos and much more likely to maintain and flourish in an optimal order. Societies composed of individuals ensconced within such friendships are more likely to be stable, productive, charitable and generous.
Work — job or career — is socially-valued productive activity, most typically a sacrifice of present impulse to the broader community and the future. It is necessary (to say it again) not because one class, or sex, or race dominates another but because privation is the basic condition of life and effort must be expended to address it. Work is often viewed, cynically as a curse, or as an indication of exploitation and victimhood, and can indeed make itself manifest in the form of degrading, unsustainable and hopeless toil. Under optimal conditions, however, both psychological and social, work is a blessing, not simply because absolute poverty can be ameliorated through effort but because genuine and sustaining meaning can be found in a task well and faithfully undertaken, even at the most basic level of participation in an enterprise or endeavour. Work, properly undertaken, can offer the opportunity for genuine social contribution; the possibility of establishing lasting friendships and working relationships; the opportunity for learning and growth, personal and practical; the provision of rewards attendant upon participation in a worthwhile, valuable enterprise; and the experience necessary for informed and skillful movement forward into broader, more complex, sophisticated, productive and generous endeavour. Conservatives can make a case for work; can nest that case within their efforts to uphold, justify and promote free markets; can endeavour to make the rules governing work just and fair and arranged so that commitment, effort and merit are rewarded appropriately, sustainably and justly.
The stability of state and country is, in the final analysis, dependent on the integrity of the individual and the family. The local civic level functions as a necessary intermediary. Participation in small-scale local institutions — which is often where real, valuable and necessary fortification and change occurs — is therefore another necessary precondition for psychological health, social unity and productive peace. Sports teams, book and drama clubs, charitable foundations, business organizations, political parties, and churches, synagogues and mosques all offer social value and the sense of genuine contribution that interpersonal communion and mature and voluntary service to others inevitably provides. Conservatives can remind the alienated and lost that the many serious problems that need to be solved — and the many enjoyable games that could conceivably be played — provide a horizon of opportunity dependent only on pure willingness to engage. Conservatives could invite the disaffected, young and old alike, to make their services available so that the community could benefit and those offering welcomed, recognized and valued.
Ambition, in the highest and truest sense, is the motivation to move forward in the face of difficulty — disappointment, frustration, privation, tragedy, betrayal and malevolence — and to engage in life courageously, honestly, productively, honestly and generously. This is the wish and the willingness to develop genuine competence, not the striving for narcissistic self-gratification; not the expression of the will to dominate, exploit and oppress; The desire for accomplishment is, in its deepest manifestation, the motivation to first see and then traverse the path that provides the best for all, at all levels of ability and opportunity. It is this instinct to engage in and value such accomplishment that is part of our most admirable moral sense. Ambition itself, seen in this light, is nothing less than the entirely admirable desire to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering, to promote a sustainable happiness, and to create the wealth and prosperity that makes for security, opportunity and further adventure. It is better to give, than to receive — for these reasons, as well as those previously delineated — and the purest and most admirable form of accomplishment is more for all, in a manner simultaneously just, sustainable, and generous.
Every person does not have to participate in every social institution or social action, but it is a rare person indeed who can live without a degenerating misery and cynicism in the absence of all activities and social bonds. This does not mean that creative exception — even rejection, when required, of certain otherwise self-evidently necessary social norms — is either unnecessary or without value. It does mean, however, that the creative production that does not merely and heedlessly decimate and destroy must be undertaken within a broader framework of shared assumption, perception and action — of shared bedrock value. The conservatives desiring to uphold and promote the canon of Western values can therefore offer to all those who are hopeless and lost — even if they are truly exceptional — the purpose, adventure and support to be found in striving forward in all these varied domains of traditional endeavour. That practical orientation and accomplishment constitutes the most reliable bulwark against the oft-otherwise demoralizing tragedies, betrayals, disappointments and grievous losses that characterizing human, all-too-human, conception and existence. That practical orientation, provision of hope and stabilization serves as the genuine antidote to the despair and bitterness that can undermine all hope, engender a cruel and vindictive resentment, and dangerously destabilize and threaten society itself.
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.