Can Hierarchy Be Justified?

Editors Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson assess the case for hierarchies, and what they mean for the rocks and minerals.

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of some assholes telling everyone else what to do. There are people “at the top,” who rule, and there are people “at the bottom” who have to clean up those people’s shit. The people at the top always come up with some reason why they deserve to be at the top. Their powers were bestowed by a divinity. They have the correct blood. They worked the hardest. They are Great Innovators whose wisdom and creativity is the source of all wealth. They are Atlas carrying the whole world on their backs, and if they disappeared, society would fall apart.

All of these justifications, needless to say, are myths. They are exactly what you would say if you were a person in charge who didn’t want to feel any guilt. And nobody wants to feel like a bad person, even the assholes giving the orders, so they need to come up with some picture of reality in which they are right for reasons beyond their might. As Max Weber put it,

“The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced he ‘deserves’ it and above all that he deserves it in comparison with others… Good fortune thus wants to be legitimate fortune.”

There are a million stories you can tell to legitimize your status, using everything from cranial science to graphs showing a strong statistical correlation between “you having all the power” and some imaginary measure of social well-being (e.g. “GDP”). The explanations don’t have to be very convincing, because one of the nice things about being in charge is that few people in your circle will dare to call you out when you are talking rubbish. Some people will be afraid to get on your bad side, while others will be looking to flatter you into dispensing favor. But hardly anyone is going to rudely pop the sycophancy bubble by pointing out that your rationalizations for having more than everybody else are blatantly fallacious.

For instance, King James, of Bible fame, anonymously published a book in 1598 called the True Law of Free Monarchies which laid out what seemed to him like a sound argument for the Divine Right of Kings. He argued that “the state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth” because kings are “God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne,” and thus, while “a good king will frame all his actions to be according to the Law; yet is he not bound thereto but of his good will.” The relationship of the king to the people was, James thought, like that of the head to the body, and he  pointed out that while sometimes we cut off a limb here and there if it gets gangrenous and unruly, few diseases lead us to cut off our heads:

And for the similitude of the head and the body, it may very well fall out that the head will be forced to garre cut off some rotten members (as I haue already said) to keep the rest of the body in integritie: but what state the body can be in, if the head, for any infirmitie that can fall to it, be cut off, I leaue it to the readers iudgement. 

The phrase “motivated reasoning” comes to mind when considering James’ treatise arguing in favor of his own absolute power and exemption from the law. The British people were evidently not persuaded, as James’ successor Charles I was indeed treated as an infirmity curable by the removal of the head. 

But the king was not the only one with a fixed position in the hierarchy. A Great Chain of Being ordered all matter, living and nonliving, from top to bottom. God, of course, was the Supreme Being. Next came angels, but all angels were not created equal, and there was a hierarchy of sub-angels; St. Thomas Aquinas divides them into 9 “choirs”: “angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, ophanim [alias thrones], cherubim, and seraphim.” After the angelic choirs came the humans, where kings stood highest, followed by princes, nobles, etc., with peasants taking their place at the bottom. The other animals followed us, and had their own rankings of greatest to least, with immobile do-nothing creatures like oysters at the bottom. (There were sub-categories within sub-categories, with worm-eating birds the superior of seed-eating birds, possibly due to winning a worm-eating bet.) Plants and vegetables followed animals, in a descending order from oak trees to moss. Lowest of all were the minerals, which had their own ranking from gemstones down to soil, dust, and sand. 

Art by Nick Sirotich

All of this may sound rather risible, but before we laugh, we should reflect on just how much of this mindset we have retained into the present day. Animals are still considered lesser beings, most of whom can simply be slaughtered at will, without any moral calculus whatsoever. Factory farming, despite the scale of suffering it inflicts, does not trouble most people’s consciences enough to spend much time thinking about it. And the hierarchical orderings of human societies are still so accepted as to seem like natural law. 44 countries are still outright monarchies, but even the Chief Executive of the supposedly democratic United States is endowed with such huge power that most of our political discourse seems to revolve around a single person’s conduct. Workplaces are often strict hierarchies, the justice and propriety of which cannot be questioned by those at the bottom, even though the justifications for the difference in power between Jeff Bezos and Amazon fulfillment center workers are little more persuasive that appeals to the Great Chain of Being. 

Anarchist thinkers have always put “hierarchy” at the center of their diagnosis of what’s wrong with everything, because so much of what is unjust about every society does seem to boil down to this one simple fact: there are some people who give the orders, and some people who have to take the orders, and the people who give the orders are generally cruel, stupid, and/or greedy. Sometimes they got their position by birth, but even when they got it by “merit,” the main “merit” that usually distinguishes them is that they were more willing to trample on everybody else. Noam Chomsky describes the core of anarchist thinking as being based around a “presumption of illegitimacy” toward hierarchies, a principle that says if a hierarchy is based on tradition rather than reason, it needs to be gotten rid of: 

[Anarchist thinking is] generally based on the idea that hierarchic and authoritarian structures are not self-justifying. They have to have a justification. So if there is a relation of subordination and domination, maybe you can justify it, but there’s a strong burden of proof on anybody who tries to justify it. Quite commonly, the justification can’t be given. It’s a relationship that is maintained by obedience, by force, by tradition, by one or another form of sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual or moral coercion. If so, it ought to be dismantled. People ought to become liberated and discover that they are under a form of oppression which is illegitimate, and move to dismantle it.

Peter Kropotkin, too, put hierarchy at the center of his analysis, saying that anarchism meant “refusing hierarchical organization” and authority, while embracing cooperative social customs: 

Anarchy, when it works to destroy authority in all its aspects, when it demands the abrogation of laws and the abolition of the mechanism that serves to impose them, when it refuses all hierarchical organization and preaches free agreement—at the same time strives to maintain and enlarge the precious kernel of social customs without which no human or animal society can exist. Only, instead of demanding that those social customs should be maintained through the authority of a few, it demands it from the continued action of all. 

Hierarchy is common to bad governments, bad workplaces, bad relationships, and bad schools. When we look at societies throughout history and feel disturbed, the reason is usually something to do with hierarchy: some people were priests doing human sacrifices, while other people had to be the sacrifices. In our own country, some people have been slaves, others masters. Some people have been prisoners, others cops. Some are “non-citizens,” without basic rights, others are “citizens” who are Legitimate People. (Yes, the distinction between the citizens and noncitizens should be thought of as a formal caste system, whereby some people are more entitled to rights than others. It is only because we are used to it that we don’t comprehend how appalling it is to divide society into a hierarchy of “non-people” and “people” based solely on where they happened to be born.) 

Wherever you find distinctive ranked orders of social status, and some people with vastly more power and liberty than others, you find a situation that should be revolting to anyone who cares about universal justice. (That is, revolting to the sort of person who wants everyone to be served by our social arrangements, rather than having categories of “winners” and “losers.”) A truly just world has to be a democratic and egalitarian one, where hierarchies are minimized.

But is there a case for hierarchy? According to a new book from the Princeton University Press (which previously brought you such elitist classics as Against Democracy), there is indeed. Just Hierarchy by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei argues that while explicit racial and gender hierarchies may be bad, some hierarchies are Actually Good and worth preserving. Bell and Pei believe that hierarchy as a concept has been unfairly maligned, and they seek to show that there are circumstances in which it is not only morally unobjectionable, but “can and should govern different spheres of our social lives… including our relations with loved ones.” 

Bell and Wang list five kinds of hierarchies they seek to defend: hierarchies within intimate social circles, hierarchies amongst citizens, hierarchies of nations, hierarchies amongst animals, and hierarchies between human beings and robots. (We’ll note the curious absence of workplace hierarchies from this list: beyond a brief discussion of the relationship between employers and their nannies and housekeepers, the book does not discuss this topic at all, even though the workplace, for many people, is where petty tyranny is most keenly experienced.)

Each subset of hierarchies is defended with different arguments. Hierarchies amongst “intimate persons”—that is, in relationships between partners, between parents and children, and between employers and domestics—are viewed as morally acceptable by Bell and Wang so long as there is some changing of roles over time. This would suggest something quite radical in the case of domestic workers—namely that the rich would have to take care of their nannies’ children sometimes—but Bell and Wang wriggle out of this by saying that this reciprocity “may be asking too much of the employer.” Instead, the only actual “changing of roles over time” they envision is generational: perhaps the housekeepers’ children will be rich and the rich people’s children will end up housekeepers. (Extremely unlikely, but a good way for the rich to reassure themselves that the hierarchy is fair.) Their ultimate conclusion is that it’s fine to have a full-time housekeeper—who, notably, doesn’t get to keep their children in the same house with your children—so long as you pay them well.

Bell and Wang have a difficult time explaining why hierarchies within households are actually desirable, compared to the alternative of rough social equality. In the sphere of “intimate persons,” the justification for “hierarchy between partners” seems to boil down, laughably, to “it’s cool to periodically switch who’s on top during sex” (which sure, fine, maybe that’s the kind of entry-level sex advice that people who read political science textbooks desperately need to hear), while the justification for the hierarchy between parents and children is based on the observation that elderly people are more appreciated in societies where elders are owed deference within the family structure. The authors seem unable to grapple with the fact that “hierarchy,” fundamentally, is about the right to command obedience from others by simple virtue of one’s social role. That family members should appreciate each other, listen to each other, and divide difficult tasks fairly amongst themselves is an obvious good, but why these characteristics should be optimally actuated by “hierarchy”—by investing certain people with some specific right of command, even a temporary one, over their loved ones—is not really explained. At best, hierarchy seems like a very roundabout manner of promoting warm familial feeling, and, at worst, a great way to keep people guiltily obligated to family members who do not respect them.

Meanwhile, although their examination of “hierarchy amongst citizens” emanates (by the admission of the authors, who are both professors at universities in China) from a specifically Chinese context—drawing on the “Confucian” principles of imperial Chinese bureaucracy and modern Chinese administration—it’s nonetheless pretty much indistinguishable from the arguments in favor of meritocracy that are made by centrist commentators in the United States. The authors argue explicitly against democracy and in favor of governance by unelected experts. (Bell has written a separate book called The China Model defending the enlightened despotism of the Communist Party as superior to liberal democracy.) Too much democracy leads to populism, which is bad (cf. Donald Trump), hierarchical meritocracies are better because—once you get past pesky little problems like “nepotism” and “corruption”—they elevate people with talent and expertise, who are temperamentally suited for public life. 

Bell and Wang concede that this framework does exclude most human beings from formal political participation in decisions that affect them. But since the decisions that will be made on their behalf will be good ones, because wise rulers naturally know what they are doing, this will not matter. The authors suggest that people’s resulting sense of disenfranchisement can be combated through a) grassroots efforts to influence policymakers through suasion, and b) encouraging people to feel fulfilled by “non-political” things, such as pictures of cute dogs exchanged on social media. (We shit you not, this was the actual example they used. There is even a photograph of a cute dog reprinted in the book, as an example of the sort of thing we can look at to distract ourselves from our political powerlessness.) Here, as opposed to Bell and Wang’s flimsy justifications for hierarchy in the home, it’s a little bit more obvious why the idea of hierarchy amongst citizens is at least attractive, in a patronizing sort of way. Who wouldn’t want to sit around looking at pictures of animals all day while a group of highly virtuous public servants ingeniously and invisibly disposes of all boring policy matters?The only problem, of course, is that it is ludicrous: these Virtuous Policy Fairies do not exist in reality, and so what is in fact being proposed is not even a hierarchy between “good bureaucrats” and “indulged masses,” but fundamentally unchecked power in the hands of the sort of people who excel at standardized tests and subtle self-promotion. 

Hierarchy amongst nations—the third of the supposedly justified hierarchies—evidently involves major world powers politely paying “lip-service” to the sovereignty of smaller nations, while gradually drawing those smaller nations into their direct sphere of influence and control through the use of diplomacy and social ritual. This, Bell and Wang argue, is morally justified so long as there is some meaningful reciprocity and fellow-feeling in the relationship between the stronger and weaker nations. There’s of course a strong element of “might makes right” here—big, powerful countries may justly rule because they are big and powerful. The recurring pattern we begin to see, in these justifications of hierarchy, is that the “morality” of these hierarchies relies heavily on the notion that the person or decision-making entity in the higher hierarchical position will not be incompetent, thoughtless, or sociopathic, but suggests no actual mechanisms for ensuring that this is the case. Like King James, they say that these hierarchical arrangements will be good for the least well-off, but also like King James the argument is less based on appeals to evidence than appeals to tradition and religious text (in his case, Biblical authority, in Bell and Wang’s case, frequently Confucian ethics). 

The sections of the book on animals and robots are significantly weirder, which is saying something for a book that has already used sex positions as a philosophical justification for social dominance. The animals chapter aims to show that animals and humans are not moral equals and that there is a hierarchy of concern for different animals:

…[I]t is morally justifiable to care more for humans than for animals, as well as to distinguish between different levels of moral concern for different kinds of animals, depending on their capacity to suffer and their relations with human beings. Ugly insects such as mosquitoes and cockroaches that reproduce in the billions and carry diseases that harm human well-being should be at the bottom of the hierarchy.

It is not clear with whom Bell and Wang are arguing here, since few people (even among radical animal rights advocates) see killing a mosquito as equivalent to killing a human being, and distinguishing between animals on the basis of their capacity to suffer is broadly uncontroversial (though the deprioritization of “ugly” animals is obviously more questionable). Bell and Wang present a multi-page anecdote about the time Bell adopted a cat that ended up jumping out of a 22nd story window, after which he subsequently replaced the dead cat with another, which had diabetes, as part of an argument that people are morally permitted to regulate their pets’ activities so long as they treat them well—which is, again, a fairly widely-held position. But there’s a reason Bell and Wang include this strange chapter: by offering rigorous argumentation for a widely-accepted kind of “hierarchy,” they want readers to think that a general principle of hierarchy is justified. In other words, if we can show that people accept the “humans over animals” part of the Great Chain of Being, it will be easier to get them to accept the “humans over other humans” part.

The robots chapter, similarly, argues for a hierarchy most people would agree with: that of humans over machines. Bell and Wang make the case that artificial intelligence should be made to serve human ends, rather than human beings being made to serve artificial intelligence. Then things take a turn: they suggest that the Chinese government alone is correct in its understanding of the purposes of artificial intelligence, that it is building a post-scarcity kind of communism in which robots will do all the labor. By contrast, Silicon Valley capitalists are reckless in their development of new technology: “the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley militates against any serious attempt to curb research that threatens to develop… malevolent AI.” The final sentence of the book (it has no formal “conclusion”) is: “If we are unlucky, the last war involving humans will be a clash between the Chinese Communist Party and Google’s unfriendly creation, and for the sake of humanity we need to pray for the victory of the CCP.”

Thus, the book Just Hierarchy does not necessarily offer the best material for inquiring into the question of when hierarchies are just, for there are parts that make one suspect it is mainly intended as an elaborate apologia for the Chinese Communist Party, published, again, by the Princeton University Press. (Possibly, we should have abandoned our review of this book once we realized how bizarre it was, but by that point we simply couldn’t tear ourselves away.) Many of the hierarchies the book defends are China-specific, and the writing can be digressive and the examples off-the-wall. Most of the evidence provided is laughably unsound. For instance, the authors note that in a 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.” This might be a compelling case for the aesthetic superiority of pyramids over lines, but it has very little to do with justice, ostensibly the subject of the book. Bell and Wang also say that “the populist backlashes against elites empower strongmen such as Donald Trump” thus showing that “the effort to combat all forms of hierarchy will not only fail; it may lead to something worse from a moral point of view.” But surely if the backlash is against “elites,” what we have is an argument against hierarchy; without a division into elite/non-elite, there is no grounds for a populist backlash to begin with. If people are resentful of “elites” who are above them and control them, then a more egalitarian society would help reduce resentments. 

If we’re evaluating the main question, though, which is “have these five hierarchies been justified?” the answers would seem to be: 1) hierarchy between intimates—no, not at all, because sex positions don’t legitimize the giving of commands to family and domestics; 2) hierarchy between citizens—also no, seems like a recipe for an unjust dictatorship; 3) hierarchy between nations—no, seems like proof by assertion; 4) hierarchy between humans and animals—sure, bugs are not people; 5) hierarchy between humans and robots—sure, but not so sure we can sign onto VICTORY TO THE GREAT CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY as a valid ultimate conclusion. 

So how should we evaluate what the legitimate and illegitimate hierarchies are? It seems easy to say that there should be no “intimate hierarchies”: friends, partners, and family members should meet each other on equal footing, and should give and expect mutual respect as individuals. Trying to treat other people well is a dynamic struggle, and one always littered with daily failures. Hierarchical relationships and pre-assigned roles within households are not a realistic shortcut for avoiding these inevitable difficulties. That’s not to say that people don’t fall into patterns or roles in their close relationships, but this seems like something that people should figure out one-on-one with their loved ones, according to their needs and temperaments. (To the extent that “respectfully figuring out relationship roles on a case-by-case basis” is what Wang and Bell mean by “intimate hierarchy,” this doesn’t really seem like a hierarchy at all, in the way the term’s conventionally understood.) As leftists, we can also say with some confidence that global hierarchies in which wealthier states exercise authority over poorer client states are normatively bad, although it’s much less clear how to stop that from happening (short of a revolution for disarmament and global labor reform, of course).

But when thinking about smaller political units—workplaces, neighborhoods, municipalities, states and provinces, perhaps countries—the question of whether hierarchies are “good” or “bad” does start to feel more muddled. Certainly, there should be a high burden to justify the existence of hierarchies, which inherently involve one person having power over another, or over many others; certainly, bland appeals to tradition are not sufficient justification. But even if you are an absolute egalitarian, practically speaking, there’s a lot of shit going on in the world at any given time, and it simply isn’t possible to hold referenda on absolutely everything.

The idea of a hierarchical system that elevates the most talented and trustworthy people to decision-making positions is one that many people find deeply attractive, and in the United States, we’ve often conceived of electoral democracy as the best way to achieve this end. In the U.S. conception of political “meritocracy,” the general theory is to elect political leaders with the right “vision” or “values,” whom we then trust to surround themselves with people of appropriate “expertise.” Of course, as we all know, this frequently goes horribly wrong: the pool of candidates that voters choose amongst, and the pool of experts from which those candidates then choose their advisors, staff, and other appointees, are both shaped by a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with goodness or talent, and a lot more to do with things like wealth, ambition, and luck. Elections produce better results on average than pure nepotism because they contain some limited element of randomness—the system undergoes a shake-up at fixed periods during which new people, potentially, can enter. But in this country, elections still haven’t managed to produce governments on the national or state level that resemble the composition of the general population in any way: lawmakers and executives are mostly rich (as well as mostly white, and mostly male), and their choice of expert staff reflects their own interests and biases. In this way, our governing hierarchies are static in form and also frequently static in content.

Some people, admittedly, think that this is a feature, not a bug: the “steady hand at the wheel.” But if climate change, vast economic inequality, mass incarceration, and a precarious, unfranchised immigrant population sound like a bad status quo, then these stable hierarchies in which power is always concentrated in the hands of the same type of person, over and over, are clearly harmful. One way around this problem is to dismantle the hierarchy itself as much as possible, and create processes for participatory decision-making that involve the people affected by a given problem. However, there’s always a problem of scale: as the number of people affected by a single policy or decision becomes larger, direct participation becomes more and more unwieldy. In that case, to the extent we think that some decisions do need to be made at such a scale, it may be hard to get around having some hierarchy of decision-makers.

Staffing these arguably necessary hierarchies through non-electoral “meritocracies,” as Bell and Wang suggest, means reposing a naïve level of trust in the goodness of unaccountable bureaucrats; but we also concede that elections (of nominal decision-makers, who then choose bureaucrats that are accountable only to them) tend to not produce brilliant results, either. A third option, which we submit to be the least of these three evils, is to make the appointment of decision-makers as random as possible, with a strictly fixed term limit. We’ve previously written about “sortition”—random selection by lot—from the general population as being the best conceivable way to create a demographically representative senate, one that’s slightly less susceptible to monied interests than previous elected senates. In the same way, sortition could be used to fill a variety of decision-making positions.

But one reason hierarchy is so enduringly appealing is that the creation of effective non-hierarchical institutions is incredibly difficult, and even institutions that start off being egalitarian have a tendency to turn hierarchical over time (the sociological concept of the “iron law of oligarchy” is that an oligarchy always emerges no matter how much you try to do to prevent an oligarchy emerging). Occupy Wall Street, which operated on an anti-hierarchical structure, was in many ways phenomenally successful in the face of extraordinary state challenges and repression, but also struggled with the difficulty of trying to organize without leadership. Many of the internal disputes that have riven the left, like the conflict between Marxists and anarchists, have involved arguments over the legitimacy of hierarchy, and whether it is possible or desirable to pursue the socialist project without it.

Yet while hierarchy is an enduring feature of societies, and it is not yet possible to envision a perfectly non-hierarchical world, a fair starting point is to treat social hierarchies as presumptively illegitimate. If we now recognize that King James was full of shit when he claimed a divine right to be exempt from the law, we should suspect that there are plenty of justifications for hierarchy in our own time that might fall apart under scrutiny. Bell and Wang’s weird-ass book shows how empty many of the justifications for hierarchy are; they often come down to “the boss is the boss because he’s the boss, do you think you could do a better job than the boss?” Hierarchical social orders are asserted to be superior without any examination of what the non-hierarchical alternative would look like, or much evidence (beyond anecdotes and a generalized terror of “the mob”) that such an alternative would be less functional. The hypothesis we should work under is that hierarchies tend to be great for people endowed with the power to give the commands, and less great for those whose job is to obey. The elimination of hierarchy would tend to improve the lot of the vast majority of us, but especially the millions of human “minerals” at the bottom of our present-day Great Chain of Being.

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