March 28, 2020 - 10:57am

As the world turns against China, with its unsanitary ‘wet markets’, slippery public health statistics and relentless geopoliticking, this week’s long read pick nonetheless looks at what we might learn from East Asian thought about the social value of hierarchy. In The Case for Hierarchy, China-based political science academics Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei draw on their book Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World to argue the case at Palladium magazine for a critical reappraisal of our valorisation of equality at all costs.

While equality sounds good and attractive, the authors argue, it is not without pitfalls: witness the ‘mass violence and tyranny’ that resulted from Maoist efforts during the Cultural Revolution to stamp out all forms of social hierarchy.

Conversely, hierarchy brings many benefits: the authors argue, for example, that no society can develop beyond very primitive conditions without some forms of hierarchy to structure its interactions.

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.
- Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei, Palladium

But hierarchies, equally clearly, bring their own dangers. Such structures may enable societies to organise efficiently at larger scale. But historically many forms of hierarchy have become vehicles for the dominant groups to further their own self-interest, whether via the oppression of women, ethnic sub-groups or the poor. And even efficiency on its own is not an intrinsic good: just because something is efficient, the authors point out, does not make it virtuous — witness the Nazi death camps. But rather than rejecting hierarchy, the authors argue that we should embrace them — but do so thoughtfully and critically.

For example, the familial hierarchy encoded in East Asian culture by notions of ‘filial piety’ is backed by some evidence that shows how humans do indeed become more emotionally intelligent with age:

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.
- Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei, Palladium

From this, they suggest, it follows that it may be both desirable and advisable to respect our elders and listen to their advice. Political hierarchies, meanwhile, also have value, but need to be evaluated critically in terms of how they benefit the citizens:

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.
- Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei, Palladium

By the same token, the authors argue, rather than seeking an unattainable form of flat equality, we must also think critically about hierarchical relations between humans and other creatures, between nations around the world and even between humans and machines. This is so because to do otherwise leaves us at risk of defaulting to hierarchies that serve us less well than they might:

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.
- Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei, Palladium

If the authors are correct, the challenge for our politics is less an abolition of hierarchy than the cultivation of virtue in both the polity and its leaders: a return to ancient political questions indeed.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.