STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS

Part I: The Parable of The Workers in the Vineyard

  Rembrandt's 'The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard', 1637, Oil on Panal

Rembrandt's 'The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard', 1637, Oil on Panal

A parable from the Bible keeps returning to my mind, most likely because I don’t fully understand it. It is Matthew chapter 20 verses 1-16, and it’s known as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

In it, Jesus tells how a landowner went out at the crack of dawn to hire some day labourers for his vineyard. The labourers agree to work for one denarius for the day. At 9am the landowner goes out again and finds more workers and says to them: go and work in my vineyard and I will pay you “whatsoever is right” (I feel like if I was one of the labourers I would have sought clarification on this point, but the story continues).

The landowner repeats this process at midday, 3pm and 5pm, each time hiring more labourers to go and work in the vineyard.

At the end of the day he tells his steward to round up and arrange all of the labourers into a line starting with those who had begun work at 5pm. And then he tells the steward to pay each of these men, who had worked no more than an hour remember, one denarius.

And so the guys at the back of the line who began work at mouse fart are licking their chops at this point because they’re thinking that if the going rate is one denarius every hour then they’ll be taking home the princely sum of XII denarii.

But to their surprise the steward fishes out the same one denarius and drops it into the hands of the 3pm labourers although they’ve worked triple the hours of the 5pm lot. Imagine the outrage.

And now imagine the outrage escalating as the steward works backwards down the line shelling out the same one denarius into the increasingly blistered hands of the midday cohort, the 9am cohort and finally the 6am cohort, by which point the denarius feels more like an insult than payment, as evidenced by the furrow of indignation on the 6amers’ sweaty brows, furrows almost as deep as the ones they’ve been digging since six in the fucking morning as one of them points out, indicating as he does so an alternative location where the steward might shove his denarius.

Before things get nasty the landowner intervenes. He says to the most vociferous of the 6am cohort: “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a denarius? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”

And off they went.

I’m guessing that your instinctual reaction to this story is much the same as mine was when I heard it for the first time aged nine or whatever, and that this reaction probably goes for most readers who grew up in a market economy: this is just straight up unfair.[1] [IT'S WORTH SCROLLING TO THE BOTTOM FOR EACH FOOTNOTE]

Analogous situations pop up in life quite frequently and they tend to engender similar responses. I’ll briefly mention a couple.

Example No. 1

My mum grew up next to the river Wye and when she was young they used to go canoeing. The canoes they had were canvas-bottomed, which means they were extremely fragile and would rip with the slightest contact with the rocks on the river bed, of which there are many. As a result my mum and her siblings took great care when canoeing and became pretty skilled at avoiding any rocks.

Nowadays she watches all sorts of tourists come crashing mindlessly down the weir opposite our house with bangs and scrapes clearly audible over the sound of the rushing water, although these collisions seem to do no damage whatsoever to the hard bottomed green and red Canadian rental canoes from Wye Valley Canoes in Glasbury.

And this pisses her off.

Example No. 2

When Shazam transferred to a smartphone app and became really big, one of my friends who is a hardcore music fan and a real purist wrote an article about what a shame it was that any old twat with a smartphone could now press a button and find out whatever song it was that the DJ was playing and download the mp3 on iTunes and then mix it effortlessly on Traktor which matches the beat for you automatically, thus circumventing all of the arduous time and skill and money that people like him had invested digging for records, curating a vinyl collection and learning how to mix manually on turntables.

The sentiment of the article was basically that only those who were willing to put in the dedication should deserve the pleasure of spinning banging tunes and that for this to be available to just about anyone with half an ear and the interest was a travesty.

Ways in which these examples are faithful to the parable

They both involve people who have put in a lot of time and effort feeling a sense of injustice towards people who have started much later and put in less effort but have achieved the same result.

Ways in which these examples differ from the parable

Both the canoeing and the DJing involve learning a skill which can be considered a kind of art form, whereas there is no indication that the 5pmers are any less skilled than the 6amers although they’ve worked for less time. I mention this to acknowledge the fact that if advances in technology meant that we were to lose the art of skilful canoeing or turntable mixing altogether then this would indeed be a shame. But I don’t think there’s any danger of this: kayaking is an Olympic sport and vinyls have made a comeback.

Plausible interpretations of the parable

The most common interpretation is that the denarius refers to the reward of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Point being that if a sinner converts to Christianity on their death bed then God will love them just as much as someone who converts at a young age and leads a long life of virtue.

Or if you prefer the Gnostic understanding that The Kingdom of Heaven is Bible speak for spiritual enlightenment (“the kingdom of heaven is within” etc.), then the lesson is that enlightenment is the same however much painful self-enquiry you go through in order to achieve it.

But perhaps there is more to be learned from the parable. The New International Version of the Bible translates “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” as “Or are you envious because I am generous?”.

This changes everything. If the feeling of righteous injustice is really cheap envy in disguise, then perhaps the lesson is: stop comparing yourself to others. The 6am workers were quite happy to agree to one denarius at the beginning of the day, my mum was quite happy canoeing as a child and my friend was quite happy digging in record shops. It was only when they compared themselves to others that they became unhappy.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t rail against injustice. It could be that one denarius is simply bad pay in and of itself, or that the landowner is ripping off or abusing the workers in any variety of ways. The nepotistic structures whereby the landowner owns land in the first place might be unfair and worth dismantling.

But there is no suggestion that the landowner is anything but fair, and one denarius anything other than fair wage for a day’s work, or the 6amers wouldn’t have agreed to it so readily.

So it’s not that the 6amers have been short changed, it’s that the 5pmers have been paid exceptionally well. And so if the 6amers aren’t comparing themselves to the 5pmers then there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be happy for the 5pmers, just as you’d be happy to hear that a rich person had given some money away to a poor person.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Is this a valuable life lesson? I think it is.[2]

 

 

 

Part II: Integral Theory/Spiral Dynamics and what they tell us about Jordan Peterson & Sam Harris

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Enjoyable though it may be, this kind of exercise raises the question of whether we should even be using an old book like the Bible as a source of wisdom in the first place.

Recently I watched Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson argue out exactly this point at the O2 Arena in London. The argument went roughly like this:

Jordan Peterson says, yes, we should. He argues that a book like the Bible is the product of many generations of evolved wisdom. That the moral teachings in the Bible have passed the test of cultural evolution and have survived competition with endless different moral teachings because they are adaptive. For thousands of years groups of people who held and followed these moral teachings (or similar) have been more likely to survive and prosper than those who didn’t. To put this in the context of the parable in question, Peterson might say that a society which tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard (or similar) and therefore which considers comparing yourself to others unwise, is less likely to suffer from jealousy and conflict, more likely to prosper and propagate, and so the parable itself, or the teachings within which the parable is contained (Christianity – or similar) is likely to spread: the parable has adaptive value.[3]

Sam Harris argues, no, we shouldn’t. He argues that the Bible is, at best, a good work of fiction, although mostly it’s not even that. He says that we should give no more weight to the moral lessons in the Bible than we should to the moral lessons in Shakespeare. He argues that most of the moral teachings in the Bible are no longer relevant, and the few that are have been better expressed elsewhere.

Both are right. The moral teachings in the Bible are indeed evolved wisdom and their success in helping promote stable cooperation amongst large groups of people is testament to their enduring value. However, the moral truths to be found in the Bible are still old. They speak to a certain stage of cultural evolution, solving problems relevant to that stage, but not necessarily modern ethical problems like climate change or the gender pay gap.

This evolutionary perspective reveals the fact that Peterson and Harris are speaking from different developmental stages. Both are right. But both are partially right.

Stages of Culture and Consciousness Evolution

Here is an overview of the evolution of consciousness and culture through a series of widely corroborated developmental stages or worldviews.

Stages Evolution.JPG

There are a few things we need to get clear about this diagram before I can explain how it applies to Harris and Peterson.

Firstly, each stage evolves out of and in response to the stage before it. Although this progression represents genuine moral progress, each new level also brings its own set of problems and pathologies. For example, the modern stage emerged to solve the worst pathologies of the traditional stage: e.g. religious persecution, nationalism and genocide. But modernity taken too far results in a different set of problems e.g. materialism, consumerism and environmental destruction which prompt the emergence of postmodernism with its ecological values and so on and so forth.

Nonetheless, my claim is that there is something better, more inclusive, and more moral about the higher levels than the lower levels.

This is not to say that the lower levels don’t have their insights and truths. They do, and these truths evolved for a reason. Often in their attempts to emerge from the problems of one stage, people end up rejecting that stage in its entirety, throwing out the truths along with the pathologies, the insights with the blind spots, the baby with the bathwater.

This may simply be part of the process, but it also leads to problems. You cannot do away with the lower levels of development any more than you can remove year 7 from the school system. Just don’t, you know, put those people in charge of anything.

One further qualifier: a culture may generally be at a certain stage and still have individuals within it who are at different stages. Even individuals themselves can oscillate between stages. If you were to find yourself at watering hole in the desert with a stranger but only enough water for one, this would become startlingly clear: you would see a side of yourself that we generally prefer to pretend isn’t there.

The Western world is generally split between the modern and the postmodern stages. However, the traditional stage still abounds and regressions are possible, as evidenced by Brexit/Trump. It’s not all plain sailing.

Where am I going with all this?

Okay, so according to this developmental framework, Jordan Peterson is speaking from the traditional stage[4] (albeit viewed through the lens of modernity), and Sam Harris is speaking from modernity (with the occasional light sprinkling of postmodernity). Their entire dialogue is best understood as a clash between these two worldviews, a clash which has been going on since modernity first emerged during the historical enlightenment (although clearly we’ve come a long way since then because at no point during the discussion did Peterson suggest that we burn Harris at the stake).

The Bible can now be seen as a set of moral teachings which helps individuals (and cultures), evolve from the warrior stage to the traditional stage, and it will always be effective at doing this.

Thus even today, traditional moral authority can be incredibly valuable to a young teenage gang member for example, precisely because gang culture is largely predicated on the warrior stage. This explains why Peterson has had such a positive impact on the lives of many disillusioned young men.[5]

It’s also why Peterson clashes so vehemently with postmodernists.[6] For people who are at the postmodern stage but have yet to integrate the insights of the previous stages, Peterson seems like nothing more than a regression. And Peterson, unable to see that his worldview is merely one stage in an evolving process, confuses progression with regression, focussing obsessively on the pathologies of postmodernity (denial of objective reality, moral relativism) but ignoring its merits.[7]

Similarly, this developmental perspective explains why Sam Harris has been such a shining light for people who are trying to emerge from under the shadow of religious dogma and oppression. It also explains why he misses the true value of Peterson and postmodernism simultaneously.[8]

In Summary

Yes, the Bible does still have important lessons to teach us and not just for those at the warrior stage. Because in their haste to resolve the excesses of modernity and the oppression of traditionalism, fanatical postmodernists have thrown out the good with the bad.[9]

Jordan Peterson is popular precisely because he brings the good parts of traditionalism back in a public sphere that has all but forgotten them, and which has therefore cut great swathes of people off from further development.

On the other hand, putting the Bible, or Peterson, on a pedestal opens the door to the pathologies of traditionalism, e.g. racism, sexism. It’s not a coincidence that the alt-right are big fans of both.

Likewise, Sam Harris is popular because he brings the lucidity of modernity to bear on topics where reason is otherwise in short shrift, e.g. religion and the more extreme fringes of the social justice movement.

But if you go too far down that path you commit the philosophical error that is Harris’ undoing which is to reduce reality to the material world, ignoring subjective interiors, spirituality, and most of all people’s feelings, in pursuit of objective truth.[10]

In summary of the summary, I believe that an evolutionary perspective which sees that consciousness and culture are evolving in a dialectical process gives us the best possible footing from which to move forward. It allows us to avoid the pitfalls and retain the best which each worldview has to offer.

Challenge

I think philosophy is at its best when it has practical implications so my challenge to you is this: try and identify your current worldview within this framework and have a think about what it might take to pop up a level.

So, if you’re at the warrior stage: you’re probably not reading this, but if you are then stop fucking around, learn some manners and grow up (this is my attempt at being disciplinarian – luckily there are others who are better at this).

If you’re at the traditional stage, have you considered how irrational it is to value the welfare of people born on one side of a line over the welfare of people born on the other? On what basis should I prioritise the needs of someone in Swindon over the needs of someone in Swaziland? Is their happiness not worth exactly the same? It literally makes no sense.

If you’re at the modern stage, have you noticed how many of your friends are having mid-life crises but keep thinking the answer to this problem is buying a bigger car? Have you noticed that people who devote their lives to helping others tend to be fulfilled? Have you noticed that the earth is going up in flames?

And if you’re at the postmodern stage, try and integrate the best bits of the previous stages into your thinking. Are there times when discipline can be helpful? Could the social justice movement benefit from being a bit more pragmatic? Can we make room in our thinking for facts which don’t fit our worldview?

And maybe, just maybe, stop comparing yourself to others, and instead compare yourself to who you were yesterday.[11]

 

 

 

[1] At the very least you feel like the landowner could have paid the 6amers first and dismissed them so that they never realised that the 5pmers received the same wage. There’s something deliberately obstinate about insisting that the steward pay the 5pmers first, like placing a treat on the floor in front of a dog and then hitting it on the nose when it goes to eat it.

It may be comforting to reflect that the landowner would get his comeuppance – just how many people do you think showed up for work at 6am the next day? And how many at 5:55pm?

[2] N.B. Although I wouldn’t bring the parable up in a chat about the gender pay gap. And not just because people would get angry with you: the gender pay gap stretches the relevance of the parable further than either of the examples I gave because the landowner did not systematically discriminate based on any inherent differences between the 6amers and the 5pmers. It was just a matter of chance who he found first. On a different day their roles could have been reversed. Not so with the gender pay gap, which, to be clear, I agree is a problem.

[3] N.B. The fact that Christianity is a package deal paves the way for some less adaptive/unhelpful/obsolete teachings in the Bible to survive past their sell by date by piggy-backing on the success of the more adaptive/valuable/timeless teachings. This line of thought plays nicely into Harris’ unsurprisingly unpopular desire to edit the Bible and the Koran. Would be fun though.

[4] One of Peterson’s twelve rules for life (even a list of rules is enough to rattle the quinoa brigade) is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”. You don’t get much more Victorian than that.

[5] It also accounts for the success of ‘No Excuses’ schools in certain deprived areas. See <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15582159.2017.1286210?journalCode=wjsc20>

[6] It is telling that in all the hours of lectures and podcasts I’ve consumed, I’ve not heard Jordan Peterson mention climate change once.

[7] He seems to think that postmodernism is going to bring back the Gulag, whereas in fact it’s played straight into the hands of Trump and the post-truth era.

[8] For an example of Harris’ crashing inability to see that rationality isn’t everything see his controversy with Charles Murray/Ezra Klein.

[9] This is why social justice warriors can have such a hard time facing unpalatable facts or dealing with reasoned arguments which don’t fit their egalitarian ideology. For an excellent discussion of some of these facts/arguments and a brave attempt to bring the reason of modernity to bear on a postmodern concern listen to: <https://samharris.org/podcasts/134-beyond-politics-race/> .

[10] This is a seriously huge point to make in a single sentence and if you are a hardcore materialist then you really need to read Ken Wilber’s The Marriage of Sense and Soul. There’s an audiobook too.

[11] Jordan Peterson, Rule for Life No. 4

Robert Cobbold