Freedom And Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

Introduction and Posts in This Series with additional resources

The first two posts in this series discuss the idea of freedom from domination as used by Elizabeth Anderson in a chapter she wrote for The Oxford Handbook of Freedom and Equality, which you can find online through your public library, I hope. With this post, I begin looking at the concept of equality as she uses it. In subsequent posts I will examine her thinking on managing the relation between freedom and equality.

Anderson says that the type of equality relevant for political purposes is relational equality, as opposed to material equality. Material equality is the idea that we should all have the same quantity of resources, and no one actually advocates this, or anything like it, despite right-wing shrieks about socialism.

Relational equality is defined against social hierarchy. To get a better understanding of this idea, I turn to another chapter by Anderson, Equality, published in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Anderson argues for an understanding of equality as an “ideal of social relations”. In contemporary thought, including not least contemporary philosophical thought, equality is considered as a principle governing distribution of economic goods. The discussion is often based on the ideas of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Rawls has been interpreted as requiring some level of equality of distribution, leading to tedious (my word) discussions of what, how much, and who is deserving of such redistribution.

Anderson argues that relational equality is a much more accurate description of what egalitarians actually work for, what they actually are doing.

A Side Note On Method

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in the tradition of John Dewey. Another of Dewey’s disciples, Richard Rorty, wrote

Dewey’s philosophy is a systematic attempt to temporalize everything, to leave nothing fixed. This means abandoning the attempt to find a theoretical frame of reference within which to evaluate proposals for the human future.*

This means precisely that human beings created all the moral and ethical principles that we use to measure good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, decent and indecent, acceptable and unacceptable, edible or inedible, taboo and prized acts, included and excluded groups, and every other pairing of measures. Every social structure is created by humans. There is no external, no objective set of principles for any of these purposes. There are only human beings struggling with themselves and others to structure their mutual existence. It means that human beings create their own future.

That’s not to say that we don’t have standards for making decisions. We most certainly do. But we have to recognize that others are perfectly capable of forming other coherent standards that disagree with ours, and that living with others necessitates accommodation to their plans. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have absolutes in our lives, but it may mean that we do not attempt to impose those on others.

Anderson works from the principle that social choices are matters of argument among members of society. She says that choosing between relational equality and social hierarchies is a matter of values. She sets out the values she thinks are important and argues about which is superior in terms of those values. This kind of argument appears regularly in her work.

Social Hierarchy

By “social hierarchy”, I refer to durable group inequalities that are systematically sustained by laws, norms, or habits.

Anderson adds that social hierarchies are durable, they persist through generations. They are group-based: one group is superior, the other inferior. They are typically based on broad categories, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship and so on. She identifies three kinds of social hierarchy, hierarchies of command, hierarchies of esteem, and hierarchies of standing.

In hierarchies of command, the inferior class is subject to arbitrary and unaccountable control by the superior class. The inferior class must obey the orders of the superior class without questioning. Inferiors cannot exercise their liberty without the assent of the superior class. This is the opposite of the non-domination I discussed in the two previous posts in this series. This hierarchy is undone when the inferior class is able to govern itself directly or democratically.

In hierarchies of esteem the superior class stigmatizes the inferior class. The inferior class is marked for disdain, ridicule, humiliation and even violent persecution.

In hierarchies of standing, the interests and voices of the superior class are given great weight in social decision-making, legislation, and enforcement of laws and rules. The interests of the inferior class are given little or no weight in such matters.


Anderson follows John Dewey’s scheme of values in the following passage.

The realm of values is divided into three great domains: the good, the right, and the virtuous. Each is defined in relation to the perspective from which people make judgments about each type. Judgments of goodness are made from a first-person perspective—that is, from the perspective of one enjoying, remembering, or anticipating the enjoyment of some object, individually or in concert with others (“us”). The experience of goodness—the sign or evidence of goodness—is one’s felt attraction to an appealing object. Judgments of moral rightness are made from a second-person perspective, in which one person asserts the authority (in his or her own person or on behalf of another) to make claims on another—to demand that the other respect the rights or pay due regard to the interests of the claimant and to hold the other accountable for doing so. Judgments of moral wrongness, therefore, are essentially expressible as complaints by or on behalf of a victim that are addressed to agents who are held responsible for wrongdoing. The experience of encountering a valid claim of rightness is that of feeling required to do something, of being commanded by a legitimate authority. Judgments of virtue are made from the third-person perspective of an observer and judge of people’s conduct and underlying dispositions. The experience of virtue is one’s felt approval or admiration of people’s character or powers as expressed in their conduct. Citations omitted.

This is a lot to process. Perhaps the first step is to try to apply these ideas to your personal thinking about social issues. Consider the family separation policy applied to asylum seekers by Trump (Miller). When I think of it in terms of the good, the right and the virtuous, I immediately see that it makes me want to act, to demand justice. It makes me despise the people who instigated this policy and the people who carry it out. Therefore I perceive it as neither right (just) nor virtuous. I also see that it is evil, the opposite of good; it doesn’t make me happy, it makes me angry and hostile.

On the other hand, to judge from Twitter and what I see of Fox news on comedy shows, there are plenty of people who don’t see it that way. Is it possible to have a discussion of values with such people? Is there an argument that the policy is good or right or virtuous? Am I prepared to admit such arguments might be worth considering?

Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

This is the central argument of Anderson’s chapter. Anderson claims that egalitarians argue that social hierarchies are bad on all three counts. In general, social hierarchies are not right ( meaning they are unjust) towards the people placed in the inferior class and thus to society as a whole. They are morally wrong (virtue) towards both superior and inferior classes because it devalues the human worth and potential of the inferior class and inflates the worth of the superior class. And they are vicious (not good) because they treat the ideologies supporting this class distinction as good when we can see that those ideologies are corrupt.

In the case of esteem hierarchies, egalitarians argue that all human beings are entitled to a basic level of esteem and equal access to higher levels of esteem. As to hierarchies of standing, egalitarians argue that all humans should be treated equally before the law, and should have a basal level of standing in other settings.

With respect to command hierarchies, egalitarians argue that the primary justification is the idea that some humans are fit to rule and other are fit only to follow. Egalitarians say that all humans possess a basic level of self-government sufficient to enable them to participate in decisions about their lives and work, and “…entitle them to reject systems in which others wield unaccountable power over them.”

These ideas may not be comfortable. The arguments may seem unanchored, because there isn’t a Ten Commandments or any other seemingly objective standard. I’ll have other comments in the next post.

*Rorty, Achieving Our Country, p. 20. This is a great book, an antidote to the despair that alternates with cynicism that infects the American left. I may do a series on it, but it’s easy to read, barely theoretical and mostly an impassioned argument for hope for the future based on the best ideas of the American Project.

21 replies
  1. Mainmata says:

    I must read Anderson’s work if only for these interesting categorizations and how she reconciles social hierarchies over history. Even to an amateur historian, it is obvious that the three type of social hierarchies she has identified have dominated much of human history. Certainly, the colonial and post-Independence history of the US is a dreadful one of violent social hierarchies interspersed with short progressive revolutions that tried to introduce relational equalities (early Reconstruction, the Progressive period in the early 20th century, aspects of the New Deal and the early Johnson Administration) before revanchist social hierarchies shut it all down again.
    The US and much of the rest of the world face a dire future if these destructive social hierarchies define the future. The US can be a leader in choosing the path of relational equality but I’m not sure enough of the nation wants to go there.

  2. drouse says:

    Does this mean that we can spend some time trashing libertarianism? For a aggressive every man is an island egalitarian ideology it is full of false promises. For one example, in its pure form it requires a legal system where the least can challenge the powerful on an equal footing. Good luck with that.

  3. tjallen says:

    The discussion makes it sound as though humans voluntarily create or enter social hierarchies, rather than being born into them and/or having them imposed by force by those with the power to do so. From the latter view, moral rules seem like an attempt by those with lesser power to demand (or beg) consideration from those wielding power.

    Those born into the top of social hierarchies may not see any need to consider fellow humans when calculating their behavior. Those lower on the social hierarchy may receive no more consideration than a rock or other natural object. Those lower than the top are not even members of the moral community. From this perspective, those at the top may completely reject any moral considerations, there are no equals to take into account, and other humans are mere tools to manipulate to one’s own ends. Moral rules from this view seem like a kind of begging – oh please, dear superior, take the rest of us into account.

    In the past, as Hobbes pointed out, those on top who who seem superior in 1-on-1 considerations can always be toppled by several humans working in concert against the powerful. But as the social hierarchies become wider and wider, Hobbes’ mechanism for demanding access to the moral community or demanding moral consideration becomes less effective, or fails completely.

    In the discussion of command hierarchy above, a brief mention is made that the command hierarchy dissolves when the inferior class becomes capable of self-government. I don’t see how gaining this self-governing capability would obligate those in command to give way. I can see that ants are a self-governing form of life, yet as a superior, I step on them and spray them with poisons. Their self-governing capabilities have no effective stop on the superior’s behavior.

    If the claims of the inferior members of the hierarchy have no objective basis, or no basis for being imposed on others, and the Hobbes’ mechanism doesn’t work, I don’t see how any moral considerations get off the ground. Who is even a member of a moral community that the superior is obligated to consider? Do I consider the insects and bacteria as I stride around the back yard? Nothing obligates the superior to consider other humans as anything more than natural objects, to possess, manipulate, or ignore as needed.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I certainly did not intend to convey the idea that humans voluntarily enter into social hierarchies. That is not the case.

      We become free of command hierarchies when we achieve actual self-government. Almost all of us are all capable of participating in democratic government in all areas of our lives. Command hierarchies exist in government settings, but perhaps more importantly in non-government settings, like work and church. In the work setting, we have no democratic government, and workers have practically no rights beyond protection from abuse. It doesn’t have to be that way, as we could learn by looking at Germany, among other nations.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        You have pointed out before, especially in your critiques of Pierre Bourdieu, that the social systems which empower the elite and disempower those they would govern – and from whom they extract their wealth – go to great lengths to hide their purpose and effect.

        It takes considerable effort to work against those systems and to recognize the water in which we swim. Your work helps us do that. Many thanks.

  4. scoff says:

    I wrote this about 15 years ago. Maybe it’s more relevant today than when I wrote it.

    Freedom is about granting to others
    what we wish for ourselves.

    By withholding that freedom from others
    our own freedom is lost to us.
    By refusing to recognize the rights of others
    our own rights are diminished.

    I’ve heard it said that love is a gift
    which, when given freely to others,
    is increased for those who do the giving.

    Freedom is like that, too.

  5. AitchD says:

    In much of Christian orthodoxy, Jesus represents the greatest good and Judas the worst evil. Yet Jorge Luis Borges points out that of the two, Judas performed the greater sacrifice. He knew he had to help fulfill the prophecy, he freely (as it were) chose to betray Jesus, and he knew he would be hated and damned for eternity.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      However much either figure was aware of his future, Judas was torn between his belief in Jesus, his “blue pill,” the temptations of social and religious orthodoxy, his “red pill,” and the sword of a ruthless occupying Roman army. He has had much time to regret his decision.

  6. Areader2019 says:

    Hmmm. I remember Rawls from my philosophy under grad days. Many many nuances to parse.

    I like a simpler approach. What does my Dog think about this issue?

    You laugh, but seriously. Dogs are pack animals. They highly value the group. If the group works together, and they get a kill, everyone eats. Dogs have a very sophisticated view of fairness, and teamwork. It would be horrible if the lead dog took the kill, and others could not share. Literally smaller dogs would starve. If you share in the work, you should share in the rewards.

    We are all part of the richest society in world history. Everyone should share in the rewards. No one should be homeless and hungry. We should be at least as morally sophisticated as Dogs.

  7. Richard Turnock says:

    Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics is a book written by American urban activist Jane Jacobs in 1992.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Good reference. I would add to Ms. Jacobs’ resume that she was a writer and organizer, a keen student of social and urban life, an architectural critic – especially of the post-WWII suburbia and the sanitized life it espoused – a feminist, a unionist, a social organizer, and a staunch critic of the Vietnam war.

      Her critique of mid-20th century urban planning, Death and Life of Great American Cities, remains a classic. She was a fierce and ultimately successful critic of legendary NYC political and planning powerhouse, Robert Moses.

      Greenwich Village survives today – heavily gentrified after she left it for Toronto – thanks to her many years organizing against his attempts to “modernize” it and much of lower Manhattan.

  8. Mooser says:

    “Is it possible to have a discussion of values with such people? Is there an argument that the policy is good or right or virtuous? Am I prepared to admit such arguments might be worth considering?”

    Sure, and we’ll be right back to arguing about who is fully human and who is not. Not prepared to do that.

  9. Democritus says:

    What a nice treat to end the weekend on, I saw it earlier but wasn’t in the right place then.

    I could use some optimism p, Achieving Our Country, I’ll pick up a copy but I didn’t see an ebook, which would make it easier, though I do non fiction physical books since remembering the page layout is helpful.

    Ohhh, also Amy Siskand finally set up a unity march *on the weekend* on September 21! Check out her twitters for details, and it looks like they are trying to go without corporate donations.

    Someone should suggest they have ADL, ACLU, HRC, BLM sign up booths etc at their DC location. Have a way for people who come to sign up and get involved for the next step.

  10. jaango says:

    Perhaps, the “history” and as practices today, by European Americans is generically focused on what occurred and not what’s going to occur in the future.

    And from my standpoint, in 20 years, the United States will have changed considerably. Thus, 230 million Latino eligible voters changes the dynamics of what this nation’s history has been. To, wit, there are number of issues that contravene this history.

    First and foremost, the political viability will be found his how the National Debt Surtax is allocated. And of course, sold as the Challenge of Future Reparations for More White Power. And where Freedom or Equality, will not negate Decency Personified.

  11. jaango says:

    As a follow-up to my post above, I thought I would express a little ‘fun’ when it comes to Social Heir-archetypes. as in long lived mindsets of the Christian-oriented Democracies. And further, my current experience where the proposed legislation having to do with the National Debt Surtax. Today, a dozen of so Chicanos are currently drafting this legislation and one of the subsets and which has been somewhat fractious in conversation has to do with homeownership-current debt versus equity. As a homeowner, with a value of $300,000 that is currently assessed with a debt of $100,000 and $200,000 in equity, should this equity be addressed as $150,000 to be “repatriated” or “recaptured” and thusly, consolidated with other accrued monies that are to be utilized to “pay-off” our national debt?

    Thus, the pending or hence, the future, the political conflagration, will just be more than a hue and cry for ‘freedom and equality.” And a debt that has more to do, than with just slave dwellers versus slave owners.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Various reports have Kamala Harris differentiating herself from unnamed Democratic rivals by saying voters don’t want “ideology,” because it doesn’t fix things.

    Ideology may not “fix things,” but it sure breaks things. Neoliberalism, for example, has been one of the world’s great destructive forces. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no apparent ideology, but breaks even more things. He guts the Endangered Species Act, for example, because it imposes limits on wreaking havoc on the environment just to make money. For a lifelong developer like Trump, that’s heresy.

    Ideology can be a minefield of labels, most of them negative. But it is really shorthand for priorities. Elizabeth Warren’s are clear. So are Bernie Sanders’s. Harris’s? Not so much.

    Harris is a popular and viable candidate. But she has a troubled history as California Attorney General she has yet to deal with. Her wordplay over ideology distracts from that. It distracts from policies and priorities she doesn’t have or want to talk about. Her position boils down to, “Trust me.” After Donald Trump, why would anyone do that?

    • P J Evans says:

      For me, she doesn’t have the experience she really needs in federal government. FFS, she’s still in her first term in the Senate. (I’d prefer that she put in at least one full term before running for President.)

  13. P J Evans says:

    Reading about the fuss over “burger” in food names via Twitter: the idjits seem to have lost sight of the fact that “hamburger” is from Hamburg, the city, and the patty was originally a “hamburger steak”. “Burger” has been applied to turkey patties and veggie patties for more than 15 years, and much longer for meat patties with sliced cheese on top have been “cheeseburgers” for as long as I can remember (back to 1966, at the latest).

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