Hierarchy vs. Inequality

I’m on record (all over the place) as stating that the distinction between Left and Right basically boils down to a battle of equality vs. hierarchy. Some people might however be tempted to view the Right as simply being for ‘inequality’ — as that’s the obvious antonym of ‘equality.’ But this is incorrect; the worldview and tradition we call the Right centres around a vertical arrangement of relationships between superior and inferior – with expectations and obligations for both sides in their dealings with one another (e.g. noblesse oblige.)  The true Right has never been about the desirability of the mere existence of inequality between people. Therefore, it’s important we develop a clear understanding of the conceptual difference between hierarchy and inequality. It’s the central pillar of our worldview – and people will want a firm explanation of what it is we’ll replace egalitarianism with.

So here’s Jonathan Haidt on authority (still interesting despite his silly naturalistic explanations for everything):

‘The obvious way to begin thinking about the evolution of the Authority foundation is to consider the pecking orders and dominance hierarchies of chickens, dogs, chimpanzees, and so many other species that live in groups. The displays made by low-ranking individuals are often similar across species because their function is always the same — to appear submissive, which means small and nonthreatening. The failure to detect signs of dominance and then to respond accordingly often results in a beating.

So far this doesn’t sound like a promising origin story for a “moral” foundation; it sounds like the origin of oppression of the weak by the powerful. But authority should not be confused with power. Even among chimpanzees, where dominance hierarchies are indeed about raw power and the ability to inflict violence, the alpha male performs some socially beneficial functions, such as taking on the “control role.” He resolves some disputes and suppresses much of the violent conflict that erupts when there is no clear alpha male. As the primatologist Frans de Waal puts it: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.”

This control role is quite visible in human tribes and early civilizations. Many of the earliest legal texts begin by grounding the king’s rule in divine choice, and then they dedicate the king’s authority to providing order and justice. The very first sentence of the Code of Hammurabi (eighteenth century BCE) includes this clause: “Then Anu and Bel [two gods] called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak.”

Human authority, then, is not just raw power backed by the threat of force. Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice. Of course, authorities often exploit their subordinates for their own benefit while believing they are perfectly just. But if we want to understand how human civilizations burst forth and covered the Earth in just a few thousand years, we’ll have to look closely at the role of authority in creating moral order.

When I began graduate school I subscribed to the common liberal belief that hierarchy = power = exploitation = evil. But when I began to work with Alan Fiske, I discovered that I was wrong. Fiske’s theory of the four basic kinds of social relationships includes one called “Authority Ranking.” Drawing on his own fieldwork in Africa, Fiske showed that people who relate to each other in this way have mutual expectations that are more like those of a parent and child than those of a dictator and fearful underlings:

In Authority Ranking, people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are military hierarchies … ancestor worship ([ including] offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms), [and] monotheistic religious moralities … Authority Ranking relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative.


The Authority foundation, as I describe it, is borrowed directly from Fiske. It is more complex than the other foundations because its modules must look in two directions— up toward superiors and down toward subordinates. These modules work together to help individuals meet the adaptive challenge of forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies. We are the descendants of the individuals who were best able to play the game— to rise in status while cultivating the protection of superiors and the allegiance of subordinates.

The original triggers of some of these modules include patterns of appearance and behavior that indicate higher versus lower rank. Like chimpanzees, people track and remember who is above whom. When people within a hierarchical order act in ways that negate or subvert that order, we feel it instantly, even if we ourselves have not been directly harmed. If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station.’


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