Recently John Stossel interviewed psychology professor and Internet sensation Jordan Peterson for Reason magazine to talk about the curious phenomenon surrounding his notoriety—that he advocates for seemingly difficult and even unpopular concepts, like responsibility and truth.
“It’s in responsibility that most people find the meaning that sustains them through life. It’s not in happiness. It’s not in impulsive pleasure,” Peterson says. “To adopt the responsibility for your own well-being and to try to put your family together and to try to serve your community and to try to seek for eternal truths and to live them. That’s the sort of thing that can ground you in your life enough so that you can withstand the difficulty of life.”
But the interview takes a turn after Peterson says, “It’s very helpful for people to hear that they should make themselves competent and dangerous and take their proper place in the world.”
Stossel scoffs, “Competent and dangerous? Why dangerous?”
“There’s nothing to you otherwise,” Peterson replies. “If you’re not a formidable force, there’s no morality in your self-control. If you’re incapable of violence, not being violent isn’t a virtue. People who teach martial arts know this full well. If you learn martial arts, you learn to be dangerous, but simultaneously you learn to control it … Life is a very difficult process and you’re not prepared for it unless you have the capacity to be dangerous.”
Stossel counters, “By dangerous that implies I should be ready to threaten someone, to hurt somebody.”
“No, you should be capable of it. But that doesn’t mean you should use it,” Peterson finishes.
As an ethicist and martial arts teacher, I can attest that Peterson is correct. His point regarding virtue is not only logical, it is common sensibly true: we cannot be virtuous in a particular endeavor if we are incapable of actually accomplishing it. The virtue stems from the fact that we are competent first, without which no virtue can be achieved.
Sacred Things Are Worth Defense. That Requires Strength
Pacifists, who believe life is so sacred no violence should ever be visited upon it, contradict themselves if they are unwilling to protect or defend themselves or others from harm. For if life is truly sacred, then it ought to be protected and defended even by violence.
However, let’s not get confused. Some might argue from all this that a criminal who is adept at violence and chooses not to leverage it against others is just as virtuous, then, as the person trained in the use of violence who defends an innocent person from attack. This is wrong. Choosing not to do the wrong thing is not the same as choosing to do the right thing. Virtue is moral excellence, as it reaches toward the good.
This is why Peterson’s point is actually much deeper: being competently dangerous is not enough. We also need to be specifically ethical in its practice, which means justifiable in the use of violence. Peterson’s statement, “But that doesn’t mean you should use it,” is the normative stamp on the doctor’s counsel. This moral feature should not be overlooked or taken for granted and for a simple reason: man is fallen—the human condition is a dark landscape that bears few lights that we must choose to orient ourselves toward.
With Power Comes Responsibility
There is a sexiness associated with being “dangerous” for the same reasons people are attracted to action, mobster, and comic hero archetypes: human beings are primevally obsessed with the application of physical power over themselves and others. When one attains such power and becomes proficient, such as through martial training, there is an inherent obligation, a burden even, to learn to wield it wisely.
Without a prudential sense of when to act and how, there can be great difficulty in determining whether we ought to act at all. This aspect cuts both ways: we might act when we should not, or not act when we should. There may be grave consequences at both ends.
Thus in the training and usage of violence to become a “dangerous” person, the application of justifiable force must be carefully studied and, more importantly, inculcated throughout. Without it, techniques, tactics, and the strategies that rule them are merely hammers looking for heads.
This leads to the question of questions: why ought I act? Competency and dangerousness are both ruled by the deep-seated understanding of motive that most people ignore to their detriment. Here is a true-life example.
A young man went to the aid of a young woman who was being beaten. This fellow thwarted the attack by attacking her attacker. But, unbeknownst to our hero, the aggressor’s friends were not far behind, and when they came upon their comrade receiving a knuckle sandwich, they served up several of their own. Whatever happened to the girl is anyone’s guess.
Question: Did the hero do the right thing? He saw the violence and knew it was wrong. The young lady did not deserve to be beaten by a cretin. Our hero, a trained martial artist, took the bully out. Now, had the violence stopped at that point, perhaps he could’ve tipped his hat and walked into the sunset. But the question remains: Did his “dangerous” action provide him with the best option to stop the violence and prevent more?
We can be dangerous without being ethical. It’s easy, really—far easier than being both, for sure. Even though our hero had approached and ambushed unseen from the rear, he had not acted on the ethical first. If he had, he would have given himself the best opportunity for the outcome he was initially compelled to effect.
Let’s remember why he intervened to begin with—it wasn’t to deliver justice to the villain and tie him up with a note for the cops. He did it to protect a young woman who could not protect herself. Why, then, did he choose a tactic that endeavored the former and neglected the latter?
Once the aggressor’s friends attacked our hero, it created a new issue: now he needed defending. And the young woman was left in the very same predicament our hero found her in to begin with—at the mercy of those who meant her harm.
By unnecessarily attacking the attacker, the hero placed himself, the girl, and even his attackers in potentially deadly harm. Yes, even his attackers: had the hero or someone else been carrying a concealed firearm, it might have turned into a turkey shoot with no turkeys.
Here’s a More Responsible Approach to Attempted Heroism
What should the hero have done? He ought to have placed himself between the young woman and her abuser and separated them. This ethical action is also the best tactical option, as it protects everyone.
By standing up for the girl, he becomes a guardian to protect her from further violence. By not immediately attacking the attacker, our hero protects himself because the attacker isn’t forced into a fight. Fighting becomes a choice the attacker has to make. It also protects the attacker from harm by the hero, as well as harm he may incur to himself as a result of his own poor behavior.
Tactical options, on their own, are devoid of meaning without orientation. Choking out someone from behind is simply a procedure. The technique gains priority and consequence only when aiming toward the good, which in the context of the ethical use of violence is always moral-physical.
This is why I would advocate to define Peterson’s “dangerous” as acting as an honorable and vigilant protector of self and others, including the enemy, if at all possible. Protecting self and others can certainly be challenging, but protecting an enemy is absolutely the most difficult and dangerous thing anyone can attempt. Doing so doesn’t just speak to expert competency, but also to a moral maturity, by a remarkable willingness to self-risk for others, because there is no higher ethical standard in using violence than to subdue an enemy without killing him.
True wisdom results from the ethical use of knowledge. So becoming a competently dangerous person ought to be affixed to a protector-driven physical philosophy so one is able to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons.