Utopian AntiHierarchicalism

by Tim Sommers

Suppose that we are better at recognizing and diagnosing injustices than we are at imagining what an ideal society looks like – much less redesigning our social institutions to achieve that ideal. Elizabeth Anderson, for one, has argued that egalitarians “have always been better at criticizing inequality than at devising a coherent and successful conception of a society of equals.” And Amartya Sen has argued that we don’t need any overarching ideal of justice to identify “manifest injustices”.

Suppose that justice has something to do with, or even is a kind of, equality.

The so-called Founding Fathers first principle (sans racism and sexism) was that “All… [people] are created equal.” Ronald Dworkin famously suggested that all modern theories of justice occupy the same “egalitarian plateau”. The “priority of equality” or the “presumption of equality” – the idea that equality is the default position when it comes to justice, and only departures from equality demand justification – is widely held.

Think of it like this. Aristotle said that justice was giving each person their “due” – and almost two and half millennial later Rawls and Cohen both (more or less) still agree. The presumption of equality is that what I am due is the same as what anyone is due. So, when I demand justice, aren’t I always demanding that I be treated the same – in some way or another – as others. Injustice, or at least the most basic kind of injustice, is a failure to treat like cases alike in a way that privileges or benefits some over others.

What have real life egalitarians and social justice activists wanted, then?

Those who demand monarchies obey the rule of law, those that fought for suffrage and/or political independence, Feminists, the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements, the Gay rights movement all focused on discrimination that created inequalities that constituted hierarchies. What about the labor movement and Occupy Wall Street? The objection was to the gap between the haves and the have nots, rich and poor, boss and worker. Historically movements for justice have demanded an end to slavery, serfdom, debt peonage, feudalism, monarchy, oligarchy, caste and class inequalities, racism, patriarchy, colonialism, and stigmatization based on sexuality, disability, and appearance. Among other things.

Justice demands equality. Equality means that people ought to stand in relations of equality to each other. When people fail to stand in relations of equality, it’s because of social, legal, or political hierarchies. So, the point of social equality is to dismantle hierarchies. We don’t need to know what an ideal society would look like to know what justice is. Justice just is: End All Hierarchies!

Let’s call that position: Utopian AntiHierarchicalism. It’s a negative principle. It doesn’t tell us what society is supposed to look like. It tells us what to oppose. It’s Utopian because it’s an absolute prohibition, rather than a qualified rejection or mere suspicion, of all social hierarchies.

Here, for example, is a more modest alternative. “Prima Facia AntiHierarchicalism” says that we should always be suspicious of social hierarchies and that, all other things being equal, social hierarchies always require justification. The appeal of a more modest AntiHierarchicalism is that we may think that some hierarchies are necessary – even desirable. Which? Parent/Child. Teacher/Student. Supervisor/Worker. Expert/Nonexpert. Add your own. How can we oppose all hierarchy?

What we need, maybe, is a way of distinguishing between pernicious and non-pernicious social hierarchies.

Anderson’s approach is to sort social hierarchies into kinds. She distinguishes hierarchies of domination – where inferiors are subject to the arbitrary and unaccountable power of their supposed superiors and gives the examples of slavery and wage slavery – hierarchies of esteem – where inferiors are stigmatized and publicly stereotyped and shamed for their sexual identity, ethnicity, or the like – and hierarchies of standing – where those higher rank “enjoy special, rights, privileges, opportunities or benefits.” She suggests that these should be analytically distinguished, even if they invariably overlap. It seems to me, however, that she misses an obvious category of hierarchy: hierarchies created by very unequal distributions, especially of material goods, wealth, and income. I think that in distinguishing her relational view of equality from distributive views of equality she misses that distributive inequalities plausibly constitute their own kind of hierarchy.

I see two problems with the sorting approach to distinguishing good hierarchies from bad ones. One problem is that it replicates, rather than eliminates, the problem of distinguishing pernicious from non-pernicious hierarchies. Are all hierarchies, of all these sorts, always, every one, pernicious? If not, that puts us back where we started. The second problem is, why think these are all the relevant pernicious hierarchies that exist? The same thing that motivates us to choose a negative, rather than positive, foundational principle of justice – the fact that we are better at recognizing injustices than imagining ideal alternatives – should make us more modest about thinking that, from where we are now, we can anticipate what all the objectionable social hierarchies are or will be or which benign contemporary hierarchies we will come to regard as pernicious.

We could, instead of trying merely to sort hierarchies, offer a principle or principles to distinguish the bad social hierarchies from the good, or at least necessary, ones. Egalitarian liberals would say that we should object, politically, to hierarchies that either violate certain basic liberties or fair equality of opportunity or deny anyone a fair of share of social wealth – and count other hierarchies as subject, maybe to social, but not to political, censure. But then we don’t need all this “hierarchy” talk after all, do we? We should just be liberals. And here we are back to an “ideal” theory rather than an all-purpose principle for identifying injustice. Maybe, too, in any case, as so many of its critics (socialists, feminists, critical race theorists, etc.) have insisted, liberalism is insufficiently ambitious.

Ironically, I think the way to save AntiHierarchicalism is just to stick to the most ambitious, unqualified version – Utopian AntiHierarchicalism. All social hierarches are bad. No exceptions. End all hierarchies. Justice demands it. Full stop.

But, wait. Here’s another, more moderate, possible position. Call it “Rawlsian AntiHierarchicalism”. Rawlsian AntiHierarchalism says we should oppose all social hierarchies except hierarchies that are directly to the advantage of the person (or persons) at the bottom of that specific hierarchy. (https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2019/09/john-rawls-philosopher.html)

Just as the Utopian AntiHierarchicalism suggests that we should be wary of attempts to sort hierarchies or introduce principles to  distinguish between good and bad kinds of hierarchies, we should also be wary of anyone who claims of any hierarchy that it is actually good for the person who is at the bottom of it. That is literally what Aristotle said about slavery. It’s justified because it is to the benefit of the enslaved. Forget that. End all hierarchy.

Take a hard, maybe the hardest, case. That is, here’s one hierarchy that probably almost everyone would take to be a non-pernicious, even positive, one – and that Rawlsian AntiHierarchicalism likely would say benefits the people at the bottom of it. Nonetheless, I suggest that we should reject this hierarchy in the name of Utopian AntiHierarchicalism. I am thinking of the insidious and ancient hierarchy that exists between children and their parents.

We might argue that a very young child is not in a hierarchical relation with their caregiver(s). They are dependent, and require dependency-care, in the same way a person who is ill or injured might. At a certain point, however, say four or five, children are able to take some minimal care of themselves, move around on their own, express desires, etc. At that point, parents have an obligation to think of their relation to their children as nonhierarchical and to work to ensure that it is.

We could go the Plato route and abolish the family in favor of group caring arrangements, but ones that (unlike Plato’s) gave as much autonomy as possible to the children. Or we could create more robust, welfare-state style “family services” institutions ready to monitor and step-in to insure nonhierarchical parenting. But here we are, in either case, both (a) falling into the trap of thinking we can redesign social institutions to fit our preconceived, idealized version of justice; and (b) exchanging one hierarchy for another.

Utopian AntiHierarchalism need only say this about the parent/child relation. Wherever possible, however possible, justice demands that parents relate to their children in as nonhierarchical a way as possible. The very fact that we are tempted to think of the parent/child relation as a hierarchical relation shows that we have gone far and long wrong. Like all social relations the ideal parent/child relation eschews hierarchy in favor of care, mutual respect, and the nurturing of mutual autonomy. What precisely a less hierarchical version of that relation will look like is hard, maybe impossible, to say ahead of time. But justice demands it.

Here are some possibilities. Children’s nonlife-threatening choices should be honored more often – even when parents disagree with them. Children should have a wide latitude for freedom of expression. Children should be able to drive, vote, and take on other responsibilities at the earliest age that they demonstrate the competency to do so. Children should have, at some early age, perhaps ten or twelve, the right to divorce their parents and ask for a new family or become wards of the state. Children should be able to choose for themselves between a wide range of schools and schooling relationship.

It’s easy to dismiss or parody the idea that children and their parents might could be, in some sense, equals. But I think it is actually, at least to a certain extent, the kind of parenting that we have been moving towards for some time.

In any case, I would argue this. If you are at all tempted to take AntiHierarchalism this far, then you too, my friend, may be a closeted Utopian AntiHierarchialist. Justice is simple. End all hierarchy. Welcome to the Revolution. No one’s in charge. Hold on. It’s going to be…well, some sort of a ride or another.

(A too brief postscript on Anarchism. How is Utopian AntiHierarchialist not just another name for Anarchism? If it is, so be it. It’s another route to Anarchism, an equality rather than a liberty route. But I am not sure that it is Anarchism. It doesn’t necessarily call for the abolition of the state, if a nonhierarchal version of the state is possible. And it calls for social, as well as political, equality – and an equality that is more thoroughgoing that some anarchisms. Most importantly, Utopian AntiHierarchicalism is not an answer to the question of how society should be organized nor a prohibition on organizing, it is a negative principle to critique the forms of organization we do or will or can have. But, again, if it is a form of anarchism, so be it.)