the higher selfishness and the long defeat

Here’s a typical passage from Jordan Peterson:

We have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.

About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.

On the one hand, Peterson teaches children to be generous, polite, thoughtful, caring of others, responsible for others, and so on. On the other hand, he tells them to behave in these ways because it is in their own interest to do so. The consistent theme is: act generously to others not because those others will benefit but because you will benefit.

There are, it seems to me, several possible ways to evaluate this theme in Peterson’s writing. One could say that Peterson is simply counseling selfishness and that that’s wrong. Or one could say that Peterson knows that people in general and children in particular won’t accept any rule that commands discipline and sacrifice of personal desire unless they see what’s in it for them, so he starts there. Or one could say — this is the view that I think I prefer — that Peterson believes in a kind of higher selfishness, that if we all act not in a narrowly and stupidly self-interested way but in the kind of self-interested way he sketches here, where my self-interest coincides with generosity towards others, then everybody wins. Or, anyway, more people win. And Peterson is deeply committed to winning. He especially disdains “victimizing yourself in the service of others,” and believes that if you stand up for yourself against unfairness and (petty or grand) tyranny you are reducing the scope of unfairness and tyranny in the world and therefore helping others too. He’s trying really hard to imagine a social situation in which each individual is trying to win but somehow in the process makes more winning possible for everyone.

Maybe this makes a kind of sense, I don’t know. I just know that in this context I find myself thinking of what Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners in Health, says to Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: “WLs [White Liberals] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.” And then, late in the book, borrowing a line from Tolkien:

I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory…. You know, people from our background — like you, like most PIH-ers, like me — we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.