Daniel Bell and Pei Wang’s Just Hierarchy is a colorful exploration of the moral justifications behind elements of China’s success. Their thesis — a simple truism among Chinese but a potential setback for Western progressives — is that not all social hierarchies are bad, some are good, and a fixation on equality leaves little room to appreciate the benefits of the good ones. The authors are quick to denounce hierarchies on the basis of ascriptive categories such as race, sex, caste, and appearance (a qualification that injects a dose of progressivism into the aging corpus of Confucian thought). But this leaves other kinds of hierarchies, such as those based on age or merit, unexplained. We do not, for example, instinctively write off relationships between parents and children or teachers and students even though inequality is a shared feature of them all. What, then, makes these hierarchies different?
One justification, according to the authors, is reciprocity. We often assume that hierarchies result in an uneven distribution of benefits. But this is because the kinds of hierarchies we imagine — such as those based on race, class, and caste — are expressly designed to advantage the powerful. Some hierarchies, however, are meant to benefit the subordinates. Ask any teacher and they will likely tell you that their relationship with their students can be mutually beneficial. The authors even contend that some hierarchies exhibit more reciprocity than egalitarian relationships. In countries that value filial piety, for example, parents retain a higher status relative to their children over their entire lifetime. Generational hierarchies create a set of reciprocal obligations that are hard to replicate otherwise: parents must oversee their child’s emotional and moral growth when they are young, and, in return, children must take care of their parents when they’re old. This makes the egalitarian alternative — where children, upon reaching adulthood, are regarded as independent equals — seem less reciprocal by contrast.
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