The View from a High Horse: The Harris/Peterson Debates

There is an odd tendency within some philosophical communities to look down on public discourse, as though we were mid-twentieth-century Frenchmen. For years, philosophers have sat in their offices and lunch rooms, slightly frustrated by the banalities and obvious untruths which permeate public discourse. And yet, whenever public discourse threatens to turn interesting, philosophers are nowhere to be found. Why?

I’m betting it’s lack of curiosity more than anything. Why pay attention to the fact that Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, and Jordan Peterson can pack 8, 000 people into a room just to hear a discussion about the central topics of life—and therefore of philosophy? After all, we philosophers have these conversations every day, so what are the odds that they are conducting them better than we do?

But it’s sad that, when the public starts actually caring about philosophy, as it seems to do every five years or so, we philosophers should respond with silence. Granted, quite a few philosophers took an active part in the last grand conversation: namely, the feud between religion and atheism and the discussion of humanism—a discussion that owes a great debt to the philosophers A. C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, and others.

The current conversation, which Harris, Murray, and Peterson are conducting at their large-scale events, can be viewed as an extension of the last quarrel between atheists and the religious, and represents a reaction that some of us suspected was sure to follow, sooner or later.

Harris and Peterson have been holding a series of public conversations, in which they debate what it is to be, in David Foster Wallace’s phrase, “a fucking human being.”

One of their themes is Peterson’s contention that there is normativity built into experience. Harris, a utilitarian, argues that the way to know what to do is to gather all the facts, and deliberate on which action would produce the best outcome. Peterson feels that this misses something important: that, when we step back from a situation, we are unable to discern the normativity that is only detectable when we are fully engaged with the world.

This conversation has had a significant recent history. In this article, I’ll explain some aspects of the wider debate that Peterson and Harris’s conversations have thus far failed to acknowledge. I’ll situate their debate within three well-known philosophical traditions, without attempting to provide a definitive solution. Peterson is right that there is something off about Harris’s cold, instrumental view of reason. However, Peterson is wrong about precisely what is off—advocating a pseudo-religious view, when better theories are available.


Let’s start with rationality. The debates are a more watchable version of what has come to be called the Dreyfus/McDowell debate. Hubert Dreyfus fired the first shot in 2007, in what was later published as “The Return of the Myth of the Mental.” Dreyfus argues that, when we are acting well, we are in a state of coping or flow, and reason is not present. There is no “I,” no reflection, no conceptual content in the experience when an expert workman carries out his work, or an athlete excels at her sport. Dreyfus uses the analogy of an airplane guided by a beam, whose noise signal intensifies as the plane approaches its limits: we only notice things when they go awry. When we are acting well, and all is going well, there is no experience of being on the beam. We only experience the beam when we deviate from it. On the beam, there is only silence and contentment.

This argument has become more sophisticated over the years. Dreyfus later defends it in his 2011 book All Things Shining, co-authored with Sean Kelly. The authors argue, much as Peterson seems to, that the world we inhabit does not consist entirely of facts—i.e. neutral, descriptive inputs, which we use to deliberate on what we ought to do. In fact, the world consists of solicitations. It calls out to us. It is never merely neutral. But, when we are successfully engaged with the world, we are so absorbed in it that responding to solicitations (or calls) is perceived as simply being in the world. In this sense, we perceive normatively. The football player just reacts to the world, moving to where the ball tells him to be. Judgments about what is to be done or what to aim for are built into non-conceptual perception.

The hero of Dreyfus and Kelly’s book is Ishmael, as in “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael, as portrayed by Herman Melville in Moby Dick, is a synthesis between Captain Ahab, the man who wants to find out the Truth (with a capital T) about the world, and Pip, the little sailor, who is lost at sea and almost drowns in relativism. Alone at sea, Pip becomes no one and loses his ability to discern truth and falsehood. For Pip, there are only different points of view. So he goes mad.

Ishmael, the synthesis of the two men, knows who he is and has the ability to stand for something—unlike Pip—but he resists Ahab’s lunacy by acknowledging the deeply personal aspect of his own convictions. It is not that there is no such thing as truth, but Ishmael approaches it carefully, willing to experience other ways of being in the world (by taking part in pagan rituals, for example). As they say, his mind is open, but not so open that his brain has fallen out.

John McDowell first fired back at Dreyfus shortly after Dreyfus’s  initial speech on the topic. An extensive back-and-forth ensued, after which McDowell explained that his view that our world is permeated with rationality does not mean—contra Dreyfus’s representation of his view—that being rational implies keeping a constant distance from the world.

This was a very important point in the whole debate, and I think it captures Peterson’s concerns about Harris’s insistence on establishing the facts of the matter, as a detached exercise. Peterson seems to agree with Dreyfus’s view of meaning. Experiencing the world in a meaningful way is not a merely subjective matter, as in Pip’s outlook, but nor is it a matter of simply discovering the facts of the matter. This is why Peterson argues that there is a gap between “is” and “ought.”

Let me give an example of why this matters. In Michel Houellebecq’s wonderful novel Submission, we meet what I call a “reflective nihilist” called François. I call him a reflective nihilist because he experiences the world, in the first instance, as mattering. He too is solicited by the world, and experiences it in a deeply valenced way (it often carries a negative valence). When he begins to reflect, however, all the world’s values and calls quickly dissolve, leaving him perpetually unfulfilled. In a crucial passage of the book, François is sitting in front of the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. He perceives the statue coming to life, rising from her seat cradling the baby Jesus, calling out to François, and inviting him into her arms. “Or,” he says finally, “maybe I was just hungry.”

This approach to life worries people like Dreyfus and Peterson. They argue that discovering what to care about is not a matter of coldly evaluating facts and arguments. In a fantastic review of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters (2011), Roger Scruton notes that the almost superhumanly analytical philosopher ironically fails to mention any of the things that actually matter to us, such as art, stories, and community. A lot is riding on this question. For, if Harris’s approach of talking only about well being (in a fairly open sense) which is, in principle, reducible to brain states, cannot capture what we care about—if it is the equivalent of reducing a mystical experience to hunger—it probably has no persuasive value.

But I don’t think that’s the right way of reading Harris. What McDowell attempts to make clear is that when we say the world is permeated with rationality, we do not mean that we are always instrumentally rational. That is, we are not constantly creating and following syllogisms, say, or calculating the probability of whatever fact we encounter being true. What we mean is that all our experiences, every aspect of what it is like to be beings like us, is available to reason. We may also mean that, although we don’t think that we follow explicit rules when we act, when we encounter a wrongful action, we are ripped out of our trance, and left scrutinizing what went wrong.

Harris’s insistence that facts matter is no more than this, at least initially: even the most transcendent experience is in principle available to scrutiny. This need not take anything away from the experience, as long as the scrutiny is unconstrained by bogus descriptions of how the world works. It is entirely legitimate to describe an instrument or some other object as calling out to us, demanding to be used. In Coming Up For Air, Orwell’s protagonist reminisces about seeing fishing tackle as a child and captures the difficulty of grasping the experience fully rationally:

Is it any use talking about it, I wonder—the sort of fairy light that fish and fishing tackle have in a kid’s eyes? Some kids feel the same about guns and shooting, some feel it about motorbikes or aeroplanes or horses. It’s not a thing that you can explain or rationalise, it’s merely magic.

What does it mean to say that it is “merely magic”? This is where Harris goes too far for some—including Peterson and Dreyfus. If Harris were to argue that the facts of the matter—the neurophysiology of the child, or the series of causes that made him interested in fishing—are in principle available to us, someone like Peterson would say that Harris has completely missed the point because those are not the facts that matter. While I do not think that phrases like “metaphorical truths” are helpful, there is a practical difference between this absorption in the world and the availability of merely descriptive facts. The detached, calculating view of reason, often called “instrumental reason,” doesn’t capture how we experience the value of something. This is Peterson’s argument. If we ignore the experienced normative force of the world, which requires that we always maintain a distance from the world, we risk becoming like Houellebecq’s reflective nihilist.

The problem with Peterson’s strategy of grounding meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, is twofold. One concern is voiced by Harris himself, who is quick to remark that this strategy emboldens religious fundamentalists. To argue that we ought to find meaning in the dogmas we have worked hard to dispense with since the Enlightenment is to go too far the other way, unnecessarily abolishing reason. Even if the language of instrumental reason might not capture everything that matters to us, we should not take the view that meaning requires irrationality.

The other, related, concern is addressed by Dreyfus and Kelly. The monotheism exemplified in the character of Ahab—he who seeks the one Truth—is unlivable. Like instrumental reason, it closes the door to many experiences that might otherwise disclose themselves as meaningful. Instead, Dreyfus and Kelly advocate a return to polytheism in the Homeric sense: an openness to all the various moods (Stimmungen in German) that might “woosh us up.” It is in these various moods—exhilaration at a Martin Luther King rally; rising up along with the other spectators at a baseball game; a loving relationship with one’s wife, etc.—that the world presents itself as meaningful, they argue.

The problem with this view—which Dreyfus and Kelly attempt to solve without only partial success—is that we might also be “wooshed up,” or dragged along, by all sorts of harmful experiences. That problem can only be solved by reason, by being able to step back and evaluate the actions the world has presented to us.

Harris and Peterson have therefore hit on a serious tension. The failure to reach a sustainable equilibrium between reason and meaningful experiences is caused by the language of instrumental reason. To shy away from the “fairy light” described by Orwell, to find what is good only when we step back from a situation and evaluate the descriptive facts of the matter, is to leave out something crucial. Reason is the most important recourse we have when things go wrong, but characterizing it only as calculating and instrumental plays into the hands of those who argue that some things are beyond the domain of reason. This could bring about a return to dogma, to an irrational hunt for a whale that cannot be slain. So what role ought reason to play in deciding what is worth aiming for?

What to Aim For

The idea that reason cannot tell us what to aim for surely springs from the instrumental view of reason. Existential angst—being directionless—is not an entirely modern phenomenon. As the author of Ecclesiastes famously points out, nothing is new under the sun. Moby Dick tells us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity” and attempt to find what is good and worthwhile in our everyday lives, instead of pursuing some phallic whale. Humans have long struggled with the absence of a single grand, clearly discernible dream to drive us. And yet, there is something modern in the way in which this aimlessness currently manifests itself. How can reason help us decide what to aim for?

In his modern classic After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested an answer. MacIntyre is skeptical about the idea of a pure reason that unites all human beings, but he points to some things that we might all have in common. Essentially, writers like MacIntyre attempt to capture what it is we are doing when we act. In MacIntyre’s view, we don’t act as nobody: we always act as someone within a given community, and this frames reason within a specific context. This might seem to make the question of what to aim for relative. However, the mere fact that we always act within a community, practice, and tradition requires us to develop certain virtues.

Perhaps the most striking difference between modern, trivial conceptions of what to aim for and those that served our ancestors so well, is that our current goals all seem to be finite. We want a job, maybe a new iPhone, maybe even a wife, if we can be bothered to actually talk to someone we met on Tinder. Maybe that description is a little too bleak, but the point is that most of our goals are finite. We have no on-going, perpetual, continuous aim. The religious are perpetually striving, however, for heaven or some form of salvation. The good life, the one that sustains us, seems to involve not just episodic attempts at achieving something, but being able to perpetually strive for something.

This is the need that MacIntyre has identified. He notes that we cannot view ourselves in this episodic way. Instead, he argues, we are “narrative beings.” We need a coherent narrative, of which the episodes form part, and which can make sense of the individual episodes as parts of a greater whole. Living a complete life, consisting of a variety of activities and interactions which can be identified as parts of a greater story, requires us to develop what he calls the “cardinal virtues.”

Virtues, in Aristotle’s view, are not means to an end. You don’t just need to be brave enough to bring about some result, after which your bravery is no longer required. The virtues of a life are what sustains that way of life. Some specific virtues might be associated with teachers, some with builders. But the cardinal virtues are those needed to sustain anyone’s life. They enable us to better ourselves, engage in activities and understand who we are. In a way, developing these virtues is what bettering ourselves means, as generic people at least. The virtues of honesty, courage, and justice in the sense of non-arbitrariness sustain our lives and we should continually aim to develop them.

But try telling that to the Houellebecqian character who refuses to engage meaningfully with the world. The real difficulty of our age is how to discover the depth of these and other virtues, and see whether they have been developed profoundly enough. There are a whole host of things we can care about, so the development of these virtues alone might not seem to encompass all we mean when we describe a life as meaningful. A subjective part of meaning—something which justifies the claims normativity makes on us, thereby successfully grounding our aims and desires—seems to be missing here.

A third conversation within the philosophical community might be of some help. This debate emerged as an almost explicit attack on utilitarianism, the consequentialist ethic which Harris endorses. Reason plays a role in the perpetual striving described by MacIntyre and others. The cardinal virtues are not means to an end, and identifying and developing them is therefore not a matter of cold calculation. They are, however, subject to scrutiny—and for that we need reason. And, although MacIntyre himself is a Catholic, the kind of engaged rationality that detects beauty, love, and justice is also able to detect nonsense. It is all matter of unpacking concepts and figuring out how to sustain a life. No coldness, idiocy, or superstition is necessary.

Utilitarianism and Meaning

Christine Korsgaard has noted that “we seem to succeed in disproving one utilitarian doctrine, only to find ourselves caught in the grip of another.”  She attributes this problem, in part, to our failing to grapple with the fundamental precept of utilitarianism, accepted by all three utilitarian high priests, Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Henry Sidgwick: that the function of action is production. The question of what a good action is, therefore, is a question of what is to be produced and how to produce it most efficiently.

Utilitarianism, as Bernard Williams has noted, fails to capture what it is like to be an agent acting in the world. In a thought experiment sometimes called the “one thought too many” argument, Williams asks us to imagine ourselves standing near a pond. Two people are drowning: your wife [or husband] and a stranger, and you have to choose whom to save. Most people acknowledge that it is acceptable to choose your wife, but the kicker of the argument is that we may even be wrong to reflect on whether or not to do so. Indeed, there is something deeply wrong with having to take time to reflect on whether or not to save your wife. If your moral system demands that you respond coldly to the world, it fails to capture what it is to be an agent, and act in a meaningful way, as you do when you are directly motivated by love for your wife, or, indeed, by Orwell’s “fairy light.”

Peterson seems to be on to this. He appears to get flustered when Harris describes ethics as merely knowing all the facts and acting on them in the right way. That is too cold a conception of what it means to act well in the world.

But, of course, such a conception would be justified if the function of action were production. Then ethicists would essentially be happiness economists, attempting to understand how to best bring about a desired state of affairs. The instrumental view of reason would then be all that matters.

Korsgaard’s argument against this position is that, when we act, we are not merely producing. We are also obligating each another. To perform an action is to declare that action worth undertaking and suggest that it should be respected by others. To act, then, is to place yourself in a certain relation to others and to yourself:

Ask yourself, what is a reason? It is not just a consideration on which you in fact act, but one on which you are supposed to act; it is not just a motive, but rather a normative claim, exerting authority over other people and yourself at other times. To say that you have a reason is to say something relational, something which implies the existence of another self. It announces that you have a claim on that other, or acknowledges her claim on you. For normative claims are not the claims of a metaphysical world of values upon us: they are claims we make on ourselves and each other. It is both the essence of consequentialism and the trouble with it that it treats The Good, rather than people, as the source of normative claims.

Acknowledging the claims we make on others, and the claims they make on us, opens up the possibility of a meaningful world. A reason can be my reason because I stand in some mutually normative relation to another specific person. I may be a son, a friend, a husband, etc. These identities are ways of describing which people have normative claims on me, and what those claims are. I am not merely a generic anyone when I try to act morally. I am someone. And being someone gives us something to perpetually aim for in life, something deeply personal, and therefore meaningful. I ought not merely to be a friend, but to be a good friend. By acting, I am also placing myself in a certain relation to myself, which renders the virtue MacIntyre refers to essential. I obligate myself to be a good person, a person who leads a complete, coherent life. As Korsgaard comments, what we are trying to do is be a certain kind of person, and he who is good at being that kind of person is a good person.

None of this is non-rational or irrational. Harris fails to acknowledge the deeply personal, engaged aspects of reason, what is sometimes called the “embodied” view of reason. Peterson fails to identify this problem, opting instead for a vague, pseudo-religious form of meaning that dispenses with reason in certain contexts. However, I am very glad to live in an age in which such questions attract so many people to attend debates. So I choose to deceive myself into thinking that it is the themes under debate, rather than Peterson’s and Harris’s wonderful performances, that attract these audiences.




  1. Peter Singer and other animal rights thinkers impress me as being more interesting to think about than Harris or Peterson. FFS most animals other than humans probably try to avoid the same worst-case type suffering and demise that naval-gazing, internet-users try to….

  2. I liked this essay and found it insightful – although the reference to a ‘phallic whale’ made me think of an old joke:
    what’s big and white and drags across the bottom of the ocean?

  3. The author oversimplifies the ideas of Sam Harris, who has used a utilitarian framework, not as a prescriptive way to box in our experience (subjective and objective) but to provide some common ground to speak about moral values and actions as standing apart from the need for any supernatural authority. We don’t need God or any of the rituals that might be comforting to some to live a moral life. Now that I have put out this rather simple premise, I must say that this read like some kind of epistemological hair-splitting that could perhaps allow a few PhD philosophers to feel comforted but that is essentially useless in any practical sense. Also, he references several works, such as Dreyfuss’ “All Things Shining” as examples of how we should approach moral reasoning, irrespective of the total dismissal of this work by any serious critic. I think the subject of phenomenology is important: how we conduct ourselves as rational and emotional beings. But I don’t see how his Harris/Peterson dichotomy moves us forward at all. Of course not all of our experience is rational and utilitarian in the ways described by Jeremy Bentham and others. But this can be much more simply characterized as subjectivity, which is not rational. We can use reason to make sense of the world while still having feelings that seem difficult to explain. I am not sure why the author finds reason to dissect this at such length, to very little effect

  4. The idea that we may stand in particular normative relations to others (parent to child, friend to friend, promiser to promisee, etc) reminds me of the views of W.D. Ross in “What Makes Right Acts Right.”

  5. Thank you for this. It was helpful to me. It’s good that Harris and Peterson are demonstrating a public hunger for reasonable and nuanced discussion of first principles. It’s much needed.

    I have not studied ethics or philosophy in detail, so please forgive me if this is a naive comment: I consider ethics and meaning to be external, but created by individual choices. When Peterson talks of meta-narratives, he’s speaking of the gathered and distilled wisdom of generations past, that both informs our current ideals but also are shaped by modern insights. We apply our limited human reason to those principles both before and after our choices, prescriptively and judgmentally. This drives the individual and collective development of ethics forward. Thus slavery is abolished and women get the vote. Like God, it’s difficult to prove an ultimate, exterior Good. Our best representation of it is as limited as our representations of subatomic particles or understanding of the brain, but we get better through the Eons, and may all just be a useful model. We need Reason to examine that gathered wisdom and improve upon it, but we need those stories and principles to guide us when we don’t have time to muddle through all the details.

    In this sense, Peterson is correct that we abandon traditional narrative wisdom at our peril, but Harris is also correct that we must apply reason (and science) to move our understanding forward. Is a synthesis of these ideas possible? In my view, Kant’s categorial imperative isn’t a prescriptive rule, but a creative act. Each person’s choices are a spark in a vast neural network of humanity, pushing the human cosmopolis towards a better cultural conception of “The Good”. Our personal responsibility, through space and time, is to, by our own choices, move that understanding forward towards a Good that is both utilitarian and virtuous.

    I save my wife, not the stranger, because I want to live in a world that doesn’t just value human life equally in the moment, but also values personal relationships over time.

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