Much in our interior mental lives and in our exterior social structures presupposes that we, human beings, are conscious of social hierarchy, of differences in rank and status. We are “conscious” of hierarchy in both senses of the word: “aware” of and “anxious” about. This consciousness appears to be rooted in our natural history. Many social animals are likewise preoccupied with “pecking order.” These animals include not only chickens, who literally peck, but also our closest primate relatives. And this consciousness of hierarchy, transformed by our species’ special bent for symbol and self-reflection, has driven much of our non-natural history. The main chapters of the human story might be defined by the prevailing answers to the questions of who among us, if anyone, would be above, and who, if anyone, would be below. For most of the career of homo sapiens, we lived in hunter-gatherer bands, and then pastoralist or settled tribes, which were vigilantly egalitarian, at least for adult men. As civilization was born, in several places and times, this was upended, with the great many being subordinated to the very few. Modernity is in large part the tale, at times inspiring, at times cautionary, of our experiments with reconciling the hierarchy of society with the equality of individuals.
Suppose this is all true. What question does it raise for philosophy, as opposed to social science? First, there is the analytical question of what we mean by “hierarchy.” This paper answers that it consists in asymmetries of power and authority, as well as disparities of regard. Second, there is the normative question why, if at all, we should care. Perhaps hierarchy matters only insofar it breeds other evils: an unfair division of material goods, or heightened cortisol levels for those on the bottom rung. But what might follow if hierarchy should matter in its own right: if hierarchy —not in all forms, to be sure, but when not adequately tamed or managed —should itself be something to avoid or regret?
To situate the question, let us ask: What, in the most basic and general terms, may we ask of others? At a minimum, it would seem, we may ask that others respect the boundaries of our persons. We may ask, for example, that others not subject us to gratuitous violence. Beyond that, we may ask that, where it does not burden them too much, they make things better for us. We may ask, for example, that others help us to secure clean drinking water. That others respect the boundaries of our persons, and make things better for us, at least when it does not cost them too much, already is a tall order. It is an order so tall that perhaps no society has ever filled it for each of its members, or ever will. Indeed, it is an order so tall that one might be forgiven for stopping there, and so overlooking that we also ask for something further and distinct. However, I doubt that we can fully understand our own moral sentiments unless we recognize that we ask for something further and distinct. We ask that others not make us their inferiors, or anyone else’s. This is to say that I suspect that many commonplaces in our social and political thought can’t be fully explained by appeal to “rights against invasion”—that others respect the boundaries of our person—or by appeal to “interests in improvement”—that others make things better for us. Nor can these commonplace claims be explained by a combination of rights against invasion and interests in improvement. There is a stubborn residue left unaccounted for. And I conjecture that it is accounted for by claims against standing in a relation of inferiority to another natural individual. I leave the pursuit of this conjecture, about the normative significance of inferiority, largely to other work. In this paper, I try to make some progress on the analytical question of what relations of inferiority are, with special attention to what I call “disparities of regard.”
Larry Alexander & Steven D. Smith
"Towards an Analysis of Social Hierarchy,"
The Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues: Vol. 23:
2, Article 5.
Available at: https://digital.sandiego.edu/jcli/vol23/iss2/5