Angle Reviews Bell and Wang, Just Hierarchy

My review of Daniel Bell and Wang Pei’s book Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World (Princeton, 2020) has been published in Ethics; see here. The review ends as follows:

…Perhaps a different approach is in order, one more rooted in China’s dynamic traditions than in the modernism that colors some of Bell and Wang’s thinking. Recalling Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription, we could think about the relationality inherent in the entire, ever-changing cosmos and conceptualize these relations through various degrees of kinship. Care, attention, reciprocity, mutuality, learn- ing, and growth would be the watchwords of such a perspective. There is an important place for just—or maybe more accurately, humane or harmonious—hierarchy in such a vision, and Bell and Wang can be important conversation partners in working out what is and what is not valuable among both traditional and more recent forms of social differentiation. Much of this differentiation (such as sexism and racism) needs strong critique, but at the same time, there is reason to agree with Aaron Stalnaker’s concern that modernity in many societies has been characterized by a “systematic pathologization of dependence” (Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020], 24). Drawing on Wang and Bell’s book and also on more thoroughgoing efforts to engage with traditional philosophical resources from around the world, it should be possible to identify and defend unequal but healthy forms of social cooperation.




2 replies on “Angle Reviews Bell and Wang, Just Hierarchy”

  1. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and engaging review! Let me add some reflections, and I welcome further comments, either by yourself or others on your website. Let me first note that our book is meant to be a conversation opener, definitely not the last (or second to last 🙂 word on this important topic. It’s the first systematic, book-length work on morally justified social hierarchies in the modern world, but there’s a lot more to say on the subject. As other critics have noted, we do not say anything about hierarchies in the workplace, in the military, and in religious organizations, and we more than welcome thoughts on what may justify these hierarchies so we can develop accepted standards for criticizing the bad forms and promoting the good forms.

    I very much like the points you raise about the different Confucian justifications for filial piety and our relation with the animal world, though I wonder if they would lead to different conclusions. For example, you write:

    “If one devotes oneself to cultivating filial piety, multifaceted virtuosity will grow, and with it an increasingly humane world”

    That’s also an instrumental justification for filial piety: if one is filial, one will be virtuous in other ways, which will make the world as a whole more humane. As you know, Mengzi famously argued that the love informing filial piety in the family can then be extended to elderly parents outside the family. I guess we should have developed this argument, though I’m not sure it can be supported with any empirical evidence.

    I’d be very curious how the Zhang Zai view on our relation with animals might lead to different (and more persuasive) conclusions that those we argue for in chapter 4. It seems very obscure to me, though that’s probably just my bias against “metaphysical” claims that seem strange to my “modernist” ear 🙂

    I’m a bit puzzled by aspects of your review. It’s a long and thoughtful review, but you don’t mention, much less comment on, the main argument: that different principles inform different kinds of morally justified hierarchical social relations. We start with the principles informing the most intimate hierarchical relations then moving gradually to the most distant in the form of our relations with advanced machines that may become more human-like in the future. So here’s my question: do you agree that different principles should inform different kinds of morally justified hierarchies? And do you agree with the principles we suggest?

    I’m also puzzled why you don’t mention that we were inspired by your own approach: as mentioned in the introduction, our approach is similar to what you call “rooted global philosophy,” that is, taking one own philosophical tradition as a point of departure, but being open to stimulus from other philosophical frameworks as one strives to make progress. Our book is inspired mainly by Confucian ethics, but we freely draw on other traditions such as Daoism and Buddhism (my coauthor Wang Pei is a specialist on Daoism) if it helps us to answer, for example, the question how to justify hierarchies with animals. We think the Confucian tradition, no matter how rich and diverse, is not sufficient.

    Ultimately, as you note, we appeal to the considered intuitions of “progressive conservatives” and we recognize that this seemingly oxymoronic idea has more appeal in China, where intellectuals commonly view themselves as attached to both backward-looking traditions such as Confucianism and forward-looking traditions such as socialism. But we argue that parts of the book that draw on heavily non-Chinese traditions, such as chapter 4, may also appeal to the rest of the world.

    As to chapter 2, I do think our main argument has been misunderstood. I was a bit surprised you think “some” people can read what we say as a kind of naive apology for the political status quo. As mentioned in the introduction, chapter 2 in particular is meant for the mainland Chinese political context. We strongly argue that the defense of political meritocracy in China is meant only for China and we argue it is extremely difficult to export to other countries without a long tradition and political culture endorsing the ideal political meritocracy and its institutional manifestation in the form of a complex bureaucracy. And for the reader embedded in the Chinese context, the chapter surely reads as a fairly pessimistic account of the huge gap between the ideal and the reality of political meritocracy in China, a gap that has been growing larger over the past few years (James Hankins’s review highlights our critical intent: I regret to report that the censors in China will pay more attention to this chapter if it’s published in Chinese.

    Chapter 2 is not meant to criticize liberal democracies. My own hope is that the United States can improve based on its leading political culture and constitutional foundations, just as China should improve based on its own leading political culture and constitutional foundations. Of course, there are some universal values – such as basic human rights against murder, slavery, and genocide – and different countries should make an effort to learn from best practices elsewhere. But we should allow for legitimate variations when it comes to, for example, what’s the right way to select and promote leaders at different levels of government. Again, it’s a question of ideals and there is a giant gap between the ideals in both China and the U.S. – China is a highly imperfect political meritocracy, just as the U.S. is a highly imperfect democracy – but the ideals matter when it comes to assessing what counts as political progress and recess.

    One more point. It’s true that we listed several advantages of political meritocracy and perhaps we should have ranked them. One advantage not listed in your review — and I think it’s the most important advantage — is that systems informed by the ideal of political meritocracy can engage in more long-term planning compared to electoral democracies that change leaders and priorities every four years or so. This advantage is hugely important for climate change which requires a decades long planning horizon and I do think the Chinese government is best placed to deal with this crisis (see also and
    ). Of course, nothing would make me happier than if China and the US cooperate on climate change and somehow the US can plan for the long term too. The Biden administration’s commitment to climate change does provide some hope.

    Long-term planning is also essential to bring about higher communism where advanced machines do the bulk of socially necessary labor and people are free to develop their creative talents and to regulate dangerous forms of AI, as we argue in chapter five. The metaphor of machines as slaves is not exact (as we say in a note, which you mention in your review). But it’s an old trope. Aristotle’s defense of slavery (as we note in chapter 1) hinges on technological backwardness: he recognizes that there wouldn’t be a need for slaves if advanced machines can do the work. Marx himself criticized machines under capitalism because they enslave workers (, And in higher communism the relation would be inverted with humans as masters and advanced machines as slaves (he doesn’t explicitly use this metaphor for machines under higher communism; in fact, he said hardly anything about higher communism). Perhaps we could have used the metaphor of master-servant to describe the morally desirable relation with intelligent machines. In any case, what motivates the chapter is the worry that advanced AI could turn humans into the slaves or servants of machines and we try to think of ways to prevent that from happening. We argue that the best case scenario would be an international and enforceable consensus on regulation of dangerous forms of AI that comes from the bottom up, but we worry that may not be feasible, which is why we argue for the second-best possibility that a communist party truly committed to the ideal of higher communism can provide some leadership in the future..

    Take care,

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