This essay draws on Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei’s recently released book Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
Imagine a country with no social hierarchies: let’s call it Equality. People in Equality treat each others as equals regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, religion, family background, class, or position in the workplace. There is no clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Equality treats all other countries as equals on the global stage regardless of their size, wealth, or military power. The people of Equality regard animals as equals. Even intelligent machines are respected as equals.
Equality sounds like an ideal society. But it’s a dangerous ideal. In history, efforts to consciously build large scale organizations or societies without hierarchies have failed miserably. Edmund Burke famously criticized the French revolutionaries for seeking to equalize relations of command and obedience in the military and predicted such efforts would lead to the rise of “some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, [and who would] draw the eyes of men upon himself [and become] the master of the whole republic.” In China’s Cultural Revolution, the effort to stamp out social hierarchies similarly led to mass violence and populist tyranny. In contemporary China, the populist legacies of the Cultural Revolution still poison the political atmosphere, aided by an internet that allows anonymous masses to hound social undesirables into submission. In the United States, the populist backlashes against elites empower strongmen such as Donald Trump with scant regard and respect for traditional constraints on political power. The effort to combat all forms of hierarchy will not only fail, but may lead to something even worse from a moral point of view.
It’s worth asking why hierarchy is necessary in the modern world. For one thing, hierarchy is a ubiquitous organizing principle in biology: it helps to explain why evolution produced complex, evolvable mechanisms. With a degree of centralization in connection-making, complex biological systems need fewer connections and things run more efficiently. Similarly, hierarchy helps to explain why society produced complex organizations. The only way large human groups can arrive at common course of action is by hierarchically structuring interpersonal connections. In history, as Peter Turchin explains, “societies that were larger and better organized outcompeted smaller and more shambolic ones. Hierarchical organizations was one of the cultural traits that was heavily favored by the new selection regime in the Holocene [which started roughly 12,000 years ago with the end of the ice age] … It’s a pipe dream to imagine that a large-scale society (e.g., a million or more – a small nation by today’s standards!) can be organized in a non-hierarchical, horizontal way. Hierarchy (in a neutral sense) is the only way to organize large-scale societies.” Just as it’s impossible to efficiently connect large numbers of engineered components without hierarchy, it’s similarly impossible to connect large numbers of people in an efficient way without a hierarchically structured social organization. In short, efficiency is a clear benefit of hierarchy.
The efficiency of hierarchy may help to explain why we like hierarchies at some unconscious level. According to one study, an abstract diagram representing hierarchy was memorized more quickly than a diagram representing equality, and the faster processing led the participants to prefer the hierarchy diagram. And participants found it easier to make decisions about a company that was hierarchical and thus thought the hierarchical organization had more positive qualities. Whatever the negative feelings about hierarchy at the discourse level, it seems that the efficiency benefits of hierarchy in our evolutionary history and practical experience often prompt us to like hierarchy. But efficiency per se is not morally justified. It depends on the ends being pursued. The Nazis built super efficient concentration camps, but they were put to use for despicable purposes.
From a moral point of view, we need not endorse hierarchies that seem natural to us, even if they arose for reasons of efficiency. This is not pure theory: upon reflection, it seems obvious that many of the hierarchies from the past are morally problematic today. As historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination … Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners, and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.” But we have changed our moral intuitions with time: today, educated people recognize and condemn the seemingly ‘natural’ hierarchies of our past history. Most Americans, for example, now endorse statements about equality and reject statements about the value of hierarchy and complain that hierarchies are inhumane, immoral, and undemocratic.
The sense of unease with hierarchy comes from an idea of what it means to be modern. The mainstream narrative of modernity in Western societies is that traditional hierarchies expressed and institutionalized unjust values such as racism, sexism, and aristocratic privilege. Modern enlightened thinkers criticized dysfunctional and abusive traditional hierarchies and argued for the ideals of social equality and individual freedom that set the moral standard for future progress. There remains a large gap between the ideal and the reality, but hardly anybody openly argues for a return to the bad old days of rule by powerful white men from aristocratic families. The default moral position is a commitment to social equality and deep skepticism of the value of traditional hierarchies. So, in the modern view, if we care about the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, we need to reject the particular social hierarchies that characterized past societies.
It seems, then, that social hierarchies are both necessary and considered to be bad. We might need to tolerate them, just as we tolerate pornography and other bad things. It may not be possible to totally eliminate social hierarchies from large-scale, modern societies, but we should aim to minimize their social effect.
That’s the usual view, but it is not our view. We defend the claim that hierarchies are necessary and also that some social hierarchies are morally desirable and should be promoted rather than resisted.
For a more positive account of hierarchy, it helps to look at other social contexts. In China, for example, traditional hierarchies were typically viewed in a more “progressive” light. Early Confucian thinkers criticized rulers on the grounds that they oppressed and impoverished ordinary people. In this sense, they were political progressives. But rather than invoking new or future-oriented values as a moral standard for criticizing present-day injustices, they invoked standards from a golden age in the past in the form of morally desirable hierarchies that benefited the people as a whole, including the weak and the poor. The self-declared First Emperor of China, inspired mainly by Legalist ideas, implemented harsh policies that destroyed aristocratic privilege and built up a complex hierarchical bureaucracy that expressed a commitment to social mobility based on merit as measured by examinations. This system of course had its own potentials for abuse and dysfunction, but subsequent imperial history was largely informed by Confucian commitments to both traditional social hierarchies and proto-socialist political ideals such as poverty reduction, equality of opportunity, and infrastructure projects designed to benefit the large majority of people.
The imperial system broke down in 1911, and Western-influenced intellectuals blamed Confucian-style hierarchies for China’s backwardness. The tradition of anti-traditionalism culminated in the Cultural Revolution, a disastrous attempt to abolish all forms of hierarchy from social life. Today, it is widely recognized by both government officials and leading intellectuals that China’s way forward needs to draw on both conservative and progressive values. There is widespread attachment to forward looking socialist and liberal values, as well as strong attachment to tradition, including commitment to hierarchical values from the past such as filial piety. The default moral position often favors social hierarchy, and the question is how to make those hierarchies serve socially and politically progressive goals.
Needless to say, this somewhat crude sketch of political history overlooks important counter-current, such as virtue politics in the political thought of Renaissance Italy, which has striking parallels to Confucian-style political democracy. Nor do we want to overplay cultural differences between China and the modern West. It’s true that social hierarchies are taken for granted in Confucian-influenced East Asian societies. Japan and South Korea institutionalize social hierarchy by practices such as bowing at differential angles depending on a person’s age and social status. In China’s Shandong province, the seating arrangements at formal meals are rigorously determined by social status and age based hierarchies, notwithstanding theoretical adherence to communist egalitarian ideals. At the conscious level, however, few East Asian intellectuals openly defend social hierarchies. In Chinese, the term for hierarchy (dengji) has the same pejorative connotations as the English term. The main reason, arguably, is the influence of “Western” ideas of what it means to be modern over the past century or so. East Asian Marxists and Liberals, in theory, also favor societies governed by the ideal of social equality.
There’s another reason why social hierarchies tend to be viewed negatively: it’s easier to understand what we mean by “bad” hierarchies because they all have the same very salient character. Bad hierarchies are relatively fixed relations of power that are abused to benefit the personal interests of those with power and harm those on the bottom of social hierarchies. So when we think of hierarchies, we tend to think of social rankings based on race that benefit whites, based on sex that benefit males, and based on class that benefit the rich. But it takes only a moment’s thought to realize that not all social hierarchies, meaning the ranking of individuals or groups with respect to a valued social dimension, have that negative character. For example, we take hierarchies of esteem for granted. Whatever the disputes about the moral worthiness of particular Nobel Peace Prize winners, few object to the principle that we can and should reward those with great moral achievements of some sort. What’s more controversial is the claim that morally justifiable social hierarchies should structure our social lives on an everyday basis, including our relations with loved ones. That’s the claim we’d like to defend. But it’s a bit complicated because there are different justifications for “good” hierarchies, depending on the nature of the social relation.
In the social realm, hierarchies need not be fixed, nor need they only personally benefit the powerful, nor harm the powerless. Consider an important Confucian-inspired justification for age based hierarchies. From a Confucian standpoint, emotional intelligence—meaning social skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to understand others—normally increases over time. As we age, we experience different roles (such as dealing with bosses, colleagues, and subordinates in the workplace) and deepen our experience in particular roles (a community organizer with ten years experience should be more effective than a brand-new organizer), and thus we increase our ability to understand and cooperate with different kinds of people for the purpose of achieving desired ends, so long as we maintain the quest for self-improvement and our desire for social interaction.
As it turns out, scientific research bears out this Confucian insight: “One thing is certain: Emotional intelligence increases with age.” Fredda Blanchard-Field’s research compares the way young adults and older adults respond to situations of stress and “her results show that older adults are more socially astute than younger people when it comes to sizing up an emotionally conflicting situation. They are better able to make decisions that preserve an interpersonal relationship.… And she has found that as we grow older, we grow more emotionally supple—we are able to adjust to changing situations on the basis of our emotional intelligence and prior experience, and therefore make better decisions (on average) than do young people.” Other research shows that older adults seem particularly good at quickly letting go of negative emotions because they value social relationships more than the ego satisfaction that comes from rupturing them. In short, we have good reason to empower elderly parents in the family context—to give them more voice, and let them decide in moments of emotional conflict—because they are more likely to have superior social skills.
Note, however, that roles in age-based hierarchies, by definition, change over time. The child will become an adult, and then an elder, who will eventually have the same authority over adult children that her or his own parents had. Moreover, the hierarchy between adult children and elderly parents often ends up with a complete role reversal. Beyond a certain age, the elderly parent often loses the capacity to make decisions due to physical and mental deterioration. In the case of Alzheimer’s patients, elderly parents literally regress over time, to the point that they become like helpless babies. At that point, there is a complete role reversal, with adult children taking charge of the decision-making.
In the case of hierarchies between strangers, the justifications will differ. Any political community needs rulers who exercise power over the people. But hierarchies between rulers and citizens can be justified if they benefit the latter. As Plato famously argued in the Republic, a community’s guardians are supposed to serve the community without regard to merely personal interests. The means he proposed were extreme—to strip the rulers of property and families—but the ideal remains with us today. The same is true in China. Both traditional Confucians and progressive socialists argue that, in principle, rulers are supposed to be other-regarding. They are supposed to serve the community. Conversely, they lose the moral right to rule when they misuse their power for their own benefit or the benefit of their families while neglecting their larger duties. We can argue about how to implement the ideal but there is little disagreement about the ideal.
In international relations, hierarchies are justified in yet another way. We can’t expect powerful states to be entirely, or even mainly, other-regarding. But hierarchical relations can be justified if they benefit both strong and weak states. Notwithstanding the legal fiction of equality between sovereign states, it’s obvious that some states exercise more power than others. Relations between states often involve hierarchical relations between strong and weak states. And those relations can be “win-win” for both strong and weak states.
Consider Canada’s relation with the United States. Canadians take pride in being different from Americans. But Canadians know they are a small country (in terms of population and global influence) and the government usually refrains doing things that antagonize the bigger and more powerful southern neighbor. Canada can occasionally object to U.S. foreign policy (for example, the Canadian parliament objected to the 2003 invasion of Iraq), but Canadians would never dream today of, say, inviting the Russians or Chinese to build military bases in Canada as a buffer against the United States. So, the United States benefits from exercising power over its weaker ally. But such arrangements also benefit the weaker party: good ties with the Americans are valuable for Canadians because Canada does not have to spend much on the military, with the consequence that the Canadian government can devote more resources to improving the welfare of the Canadian people. So, yes, Canadians are not the equals of Americans on the international stage, but what’s the problem if a bit of inequality under the umbrella of an American-led regional hierarchical arrangement benefits the Canadian people?
Hierarchies between humans and animals are still different. We generally accept that animals should be subordinate to humans. In Cincinnati, zoo keepers had to kill a gorilla that potentially threatened the life of a child. It was a tragedy, but few argued against the principle that human lives should have priority in cases of conflict. That’s not to say we should be cruel towards animals. The principle governing our relations with animals is subordination without cruelty.
In the case of our relations with machines, the principle is that machines are supposed to serve humans without any regard for the machine’s interests. Technological developments are justified if they are put to use for human purposes. To be blunt, machines are supposed to be our slaves. But we need to worry if developments such as artificial intelligence threaten to upend the hierarchy between humans and machines, with humans as slaves of machines.
In short, Equality is a mirage. The choice is not between a society with no hierarchies and one with hierarchies, but rather between a society with unjust hierarchies that perpetuate unjust power structures and one with just hierarchies that serve morally desirable purposes. Our task is to distinguish between just and unjust forms of hierarchy and to think of ways to promote the good forms and minimize the influence of bad forms. Bad forms of social hierarchies can be relatively easy to diagnose: hierarchies are bad when they become ossified and when they only personally benefit the power holders and harm those at the bottom of the hierarchies. But building good hierarchies is more complex. They can take different forms depending on the nature of the social relation. Different hierarchical principles ought to govern different kinds of social relations: what justifies hierarchy among intimates is different from what justifies hierarchy among citizens, countries, human and animals, and humans and intelligent machines. Morally justified hierarchies can and should govern different spheres of our social lives, though these will be very different from many of the unjust hierarchies that have governed us in the past.