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Rebuking Hierarchism

Updated on May 26, 2019


A pillar of a society is a concept without which the entire philosophical tradition of said society collapses. There are several such pillars in Western society, but the one we will focus on today is the concept of hierarchy; that some people and people-groups are inherently and rightfully superior to others, and as such, are better suited to rule over their inferiors. This idea has been among the bases of most mainstream Western philosophies and ideologies, and only rarely has it ever been challenged. But it is wrong, and wholly and horridly so. A simple dive into it can reveal this, and so, a simple dive we are about to take.

Hierarchism in History

The first part of the aforementioned concept of hierarchy (henceforth called hierarchism) is, again, that some people and people groups are inherently and rightfully superior to others. This is asserted everywhere in the West; in philosophy, with the massively influential Socractics’ criticisms of egalitarianism, in history, with Greek, Roman, medieval, colonial, etc. upholding rigid hierarchies, in economics, with the domination of cutthroat capitalism in the 19th century and onwards, and more. The West was and is still riddled with masses who wholly agree to their own inferiority and elites who revel in their supposed superiority. But their views are problematic, to say the least, and cannot go unscrutinized.

Hierarchical Order: Objectivity

It is a given that some people are more skilled or gifted than others at some things. Physical abilities, for example, often lend themselves to this part of hierarchism. If some handily beats someone else in a particular race, then it can be safely assumed that person is better than the other at running that race. But such a straightforward assertion rarely works without question. It is considered very nearly impossible to devise a single measure of intelligence, as intelligence is fuzzily defined and sparsely understood. And if even these specific attributes cannot be fit into hierarchism, then certainly people as wholes cannot either. There is no universal standard or method to determine which people are better and which are worse than their peers. And, if we cannot determine this, then we should never pretend otherwise.

Hierarchical Order: Social Darwinism

For some people, however, it is no issue that we ourselves cannot determine hierarchical orders. This point is irrelevant, they protest, for nature determines hierarchies for us. These are the social Darwinists of the world; the colonialists, crony capitalists, fascists, and other such ideological sects. They claim that hierarchy is objectively decided by natural selection; that is, that those who are best able to get to the top of society deserve to be there. They claim that any resulting hierarchies are just and are to be defended. However, many Darwinists, even of the 19th century, refuted such claims by saying that natural selection ceased to have a real effect on humans after the formation of societies. In addition to this, before the formation of societies, humans lived in tribes much more communal and egalitarian than any modern civilization, so rigid hierarchies are clearly not the work of nature. In recent times, people have pushed back against the social Darwinists by arguing that no hierarchy supported artificially (as in government interference and monopolistic practices) is really natural. The vast majority of the modern world has rejected social Darwinism, and it can confidently be discredited as an argument supporting the existence of objective hierarchies. Thus, the first part of our definition of hierarchism seems wholly unsupported.

Hierarchy and Authority

The second part of hierarchism is authority, that some people must rule over others and that superior people are better suited to rule than their inferiors. Obviously, if we cannot determine which people are superior in the first place, then this idea is automatically invalid. Unfortunately, things are not so simple in the real world. Authority is necessary to a functioning society. Without it, nothing would get done. This is a common argument among authoritarians, but just because it itself is true does not mean its authoritarian interpretations are as well. Leadership, and thus, authority, is often necessary to efficiently organize groups of people. However, since we cannot determine hierarchical orders in an objective way, it would appear we have to dismiss all of our helpful hierarchies as unjust. But this is not quite right, for there is one kind of hierarchy that does deserve our defense.

Hierarchy: Subjectivity

In our earlier examples, we determined that hierarchical orders cannot be objectively determined. They can, however, be subjectively determined. I, for example, can say that one work of art is better than another, and while my declaration may not hold true in others’ views, it still holds wholly true for me. It is no crime for me to claim that one work of art is better, so long as I confine my opinion to myself and do not try to force it upon anybody else. It is only when I try to say that my declaration is objectively true that I veer into wrongdoing. Consensual hierarchy is thus introduced.

Hierarchy: Consent

A consensual hierarchy is a hierarchy agreed upon by all parties involved. If one person claims superiority over another in something, and another person disagrees, then there can be no consensual hierarchy between them. If the other person agrees, though, and both people agree to a set of authorities the superior person can justifiably assume, then a consensual hierarchy arises. Consensual hierarchies are, therefore, subjective; an objective fiction. Fiction is often useful, though, and this fiction is no different, as economic and political relationships often heavily rely on hierarchy. There are, of course, those who advocate they be fully cleansed of all their hierarchies, but even if they should, they cannot without some transitional state between the total hierarchies of today and the absent hierarchies of tomorrow. Consensual hierarchy, then, can stand as that transition. So long as they are truly consensual (i.e. mutually agreed upon and not coercive), they can serve us well in our day-to-day relationships.


Thus it appears that a hallmark of the Western tradition is built on a foundation of falsehood. Obviously, this interpretation is up for debate, but for those who agree with it, there is just one thing left to do; abandon those systems that perpetuate coercive hierarchism, and encourage those that do not.

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, a 1911 anti-capitalist political cartoon
The Pyramid of Capitalist System, a 1911 anti-capitalist political cartoon


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