22 March 2017

Justified and useful

Over on Aeon, there is an excellent essay by Stephen Angle, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Julian Baggini, Daniel Bell, Nicholas Berggruen and a number of others, exploring the merits and potential pitfalls of a political-philosophical case for hierarchy.

I do have my disagreements with Stephen Angle (notably over the merits of the institutionalist strain of Confucian thinking which rose to prominence in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties – that may be part of what he’s aiming at when the reference to ‘ossified’ hierarchies gets made), but he and his colleagues have got a lot of worthwhile things to say here, things which I fully endorse.

When I claim that equality is a conditional rather than an absolute good, this is largely what I mean, particularly when I refer to Confucius and (more recently) Plato in making such a claim. Indeed, the authors appear to be referring directly to a Socratic-Platonic defence of knowledge when they say that ‘[w]e prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns’. Further, I agree wholeheartedly with the authors that ‘[t]o the extent that hierarchies are inevitable, it is important to create good ones and avoid those that are pernicious. It is also important to identify the ways in which useful and good hierarchies support and foster good forms of equality.

The authors, I presume, do indeed care a great deal about equality, and are concerned by the ways in which our cultural detestation of reasonable and proportionate hierarchies is, ironically, creating for us irrational, unhealthy and cancerous ones. Equality, as a conditional rather than an absolute good, is a value which is necessary to retain; it’s unfortunate that many who are now disillusioned with democracy are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as that philosophical concept is concerned.

In light of that, the question of ‘meritocracy’ is one that needs to be further explored. The Qing ‘gerontocracy’ which is highlighted in this piece as being at least partially meritocratic is a fairly mild and modest example. It also happens to be one which I personally admire, in that lower-income families had access to political power, and in that the material welfare of the poorest families (in this essay, represented by life expectancy) was not that grossly different from that of the wealthiest families. In fact, Branko Milanović, in his studies on historical inequality, cites the Qing Dynasty of the late 19th century as one of the more egalitarian societies in the world – and that in spite of its being an empire with a hereditary head-of-state.

But as a general concept, the idea of ‘meritocracy’, when not qualified, has its problems – firstly in that it potentially confuses bureaucratic competencies (as measured in a utilitarian fashion, by the material outcomes produced) for virtue; and secondly in that it can easily stratify itself away from the ideals of the Qing government, producing intolerable psychological and social pressures on the individual who gets left behind. As I’ve said before, the original Greek idea of ‘aristocracy’, or the Confucian idea of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct, may be better measures of merit than the ones we are used to using.

And lastly but absolutely not least – this piece mentions traditional hierarchies in Africa, but rather glosses them over where we should want to hear more about them. The wisdom of older generations in sub-Saharan Africa has neither been forgotten, nor is it going away anytime soon. And even though it may appear to the eyes of the global north to be the product of a culture which has not yet ‘progressed’ far enough in the desired direction, it is worthwhile to note that this traditionalism enables certain communitarian goals from which the global north can learn: solidarity, reciprocity, harmony, mutual respect, defence of the powerless.

However, this piece is well worth the read. Major kudos to the authors!

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