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The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)?

This young “prince“ never earned a dime, never ran a company,  never acquired military experience, never studied at a foreign university, never mastered a foreign language. He never spent significant time oversea… and he is running this Wahhabi Saudi Kingdom

And how Saudi Kingdom has gone bankrupt?

By March 9, 2020

A review of “The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman”. By Ben Hubbard

On the final page of his book “MBS,” the detailed and disturbing portrait of Saudi Kingdom crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ben Hubbard admits that, given what he learned in the course of his reporting on the kingdom’s de facto ruler and the ways his ruthless minions have pursued their boss’s perceived enemies, he “did wonder, while walking home late at night or drifting off to sleep, whether they might come after me as well.”

Anyone who reads Hubbard’s clear and convincing narrative will find the concern all too plausible.

And where could you turn if the prince did lash out?

Certainly not to an American administration that believed M.B.S. ordered the 2018 murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi but gave the prince a pass.

It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did, maybe he didn’t!” said President Trump, who always equivocates about inconvenient facts.

Trump went on “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country.” Not the least of those interests: more than a hundred billion dollars’ worth of arms deals.

Hubbard, The New York Times Beirut bureau chief, puts the story of Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent in a context that extends well beyond the region.

“MBS rise rode the waves of global trends. As more of the world’s wealth was concentrated in fewer hands, populist authoritarians used nationalist rhetoric to rally their people while shutting down outlets for opposition.” In such a world, the prince fit right in.

“M.B.S. saw no need for checks on his power and crushed all threats to it. … He would stop at nothing to make Saudi Arabia great again, on his terms.”

While there are no big news revelations in “MBS,” the book’s strength is the thoroughness of its reporting.

Hubbard interviewed contacts inside the kingdom until the Saudis stopped giving him visas in 2018.

Many of those he talked to chose to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation. Those he cites by name are very brave, or else as arrogant and unrepentant as M.B.S. himself.

Hubbard acknowledges that much of what M.B.S. has done for his country and its people, especially its young people, has been as admirable as it is overdue, but in this age of incipient tyrants he also understands that authoritarian rulers can be tremendously popular even when they are terribly feare

“Will M.B.S. mature into a wiser monarch, or will unpleasant surprises continue to punctuate his reign?” Hubbard asks.

The record to date is hardly auspicious. Khashoggi’s murder is only the most famous of those surprises. There is also the alleged hacking by M.B.S. of a cellphone belonging to Jeff Bezos, the C.E.O. of Amazon (and the owner of The Washington Post), who had shared his private number with the prince.

More recently, to consolidate his hold on power, M.B.S. arrested an uncle, two cousins and a former crown prince. There is every reason to believe that M.B.S., who is just 34, will be around for decades to come — a frightening prospect.

Reading Hubbard’s book, one is constantly reminded how young M.B.S. really is. He was born in 1985 and was not quite 5 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

He was barely 16 when his renegade compatriot Osama bin Laden attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

ImagePresident Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the 2019 G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

M.B.S. did not grow up nurturing expectations that he would one day rule.

He was the eldest son of the third wife of the 25th son of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founding king of the nation that bears the family name.

As such, M.B.S. was very low in a line of succession that had, since the death of Abdulaziz in 1953, passed the crown from one brother or half brother to another without any clear picture of when or how it would move to the next generation.

But by the second decade of this century, the gerontocracy was no longer sustainable.

The brothers in line for the throne were dying off before they could sit on it, finally opening the way for one of the last of them, Salman bin Abdulaziz, the father of M.B.S., to take power in January 2015.

Salman was 79 and, by many accounts, would soon show hints of dementia. (The Saudi royal court has denied that King Salman suffers from mental impairment.)

M.B.S. had several older half brothers, including one who had flown as an astronaut on the American space shuttle, but by the time his father ascended the throne, the brash 29-year-old M.B.S. was well established as the favorite.

While the others were educated abroad and lived much of their lives outside the kingdom, M.B.S. had stayed close to home and to Salman, the governor of Riyadh.

He “never ran a company that made a mark,” Hubbard writes. “He never acquired military experience. He never studied at a foreign university. He never mastered, or even became functional in, a foreign language. He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe or elsewhere in the West.”

Yet suddenly there he was, the rising star in the royal palace.

M.B.S. immediately acquired important portfolios as minister of defense and became the gatekeeper for the king as head of the royal court.

He would later brag that in the first 10 days of his father’s rule, “the entire government was restructured.”

The pace of disruption was extraordinary and very quickly became dangerous.

In March 2015, barely two months after he took over the Defense Ministry, M.B.S. ordered the until then mostly decorative Saudi Air Force to start bombing Yemen, which was in the midst of a civil war.

The operation was supposed to last weeks and intimidate Iran, which has supported one of the warring factions.

But the fighting continues to this day, accumulating a grim record of civilian casualties, many of them killed by bombs supplied by the United States to the Saudis. Disease has added to the misery of what has become, according to the United Nations, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Although an older, much more experienced cousin of M.B.S. had been made crown prince and heir apparent, palace insiders could see early on that the cousin would not be around for long.

The bond between M.B.S. and his father the king was too close. “Between the onion and the skin there is only the stink,” was an often repeated saying around Riyadh. And by the summer of 2017, M.B.S. had forced his rival out.

The prince’s reflexive resentment of anyone who questioned him soon became as obvious as his ambition. According to Hubbard, he even locked his mother and two of her sisters away in a palace, apparently to keep them quiet.

In a still more sinister vein, in January 2016, Saudi Arabia announced it had executed 47 men deemed enemies of the state. Many were affiliated with Al Qaeda, but others were activists from the country’s Shiite minority and suspected of having ties to Iran.

The human rights criticism that ensued from the Obama administration did not sit well with the Saudis, especially after Washington’s nuclear deal with Tehran left them feeling unsure about their longstanding American security guarantees.

At a tense meeting between the king and Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia in 2016, M.B.S. intervened to tell the president that he didn’t understand the Saudi justice system and offered to have it explained to him.

“The image that stuck with the Americans,” Hubbard writes, “was that of a 30-year-old prince rising to his feet to lecture the president of the United States. They had never seen anything like it.”

Two months later, M.B.S. went on an extended tour of the United States, meeting many of the richest, most powerful people in the country.

He was touting his grand economic plan, called Vision 2030, and was unapologetic about the virtues of authoritarianism. “There is an advantage to quickness of decision-making, the kind of fast change that an absolute monarch can do in one step that would take a traditional democracy 10 steps,” he said at a meeting in Silicon Valley.

Ominous as that sounded to some, he was also using his power to break through barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating. The religious police had long enforced strict rules on the general population, especially on women, who were required to keep their bodies nearly entirely covered in public.

There was no public mixing of the sexes. There were no movies. Life in a country where the government’s legitimacy rested largely on its custodianship of the holiest mosques in Islam was, when not brutal, brutally boring, and successive rulers had been unwilling or unable to challenge these enforcers of Wahhabi morality. Saudi kings could provide their people with bread, but no circuses.

Then, in April 2016, the religious police suddenly were stripped of their powers. “With a single royal decree,” Hubbard writes, “M.B.S. had defanged the clerics, clearing the way for vast changes they most certainly would have opposed.”

M.B.S. eventually allowed women in the kingdom to drive cars, ending a prohibition that activists had campaigned against since he was a preschooler. But he also threw in jail and tortured some of the women who had fought so long and hard for that right. The message was that good things came from the palace, and only from the palace.

Meanwhile, “circuses” for the masses have begun big time, from operas to professional wrestling, monster trucks and movie theaters, even the Cirque du Soleil.

When Donald Trump, another kind of showman, was elected president of the United States in 2016, M.B.S. was ready to forge a whole new relationship with the White House.

“Early on,” Hubbard writes, “the Saudis identified the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy as transactional, run by deal makers looking out for the bottom line, not by diplomats focused on long-term interests or even, at times, values. Trump’s game was one the Saudis knew how to play.”

Through intermediaries, M.B.S. courted Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, a contemporary of the young prince who had been given the difficult Middle East portfolio.

Kushner knew virtually nothing about the region apart from what he had learned over the years from the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close family friend.

M.B.S. offered to explain things. His money and connections and his vision could solve every problem, it seemed, and he was quick to say that Israel was not his enemy — Iran was. Plus, there was money, money, money on the table.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2018.
Credit…Amr Nabil/Associated Press

In the spring of 2017, when M.B.S. became the official heir apparent to the Saudi throne, his operations to consolidate personal power went into high gear.

He broke relations with the neighboring emirate of Qatar, claiming it supported terrorists and was too cozy with Iran, and demanded that it shut down the contentious Al Jazeera television network.

Trump initially backed the play until he was told more than 10,000 U.S. troops use Qatar as a vital regional base. Al Jazeera is still on the air.

Then, in another stunning operation, M.B.S. imprisoned hundreds of the kingdom’s richest and most influential men in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, forcing them to sign over to the government — his government — tens of billions of dollars’ worth of assets he claimed were ill-gotten gains.

Some people noted that M.B.S. had bought an enormous yacht for $456 million and what was called the “world’s most expensive home,” a French chateau (actually more of a modern mega-McMansion), for $300 million, but criticism was muted.

Real fear had begun to settle on Saudi society. Despite the opulent surroundings of their “prison,” many of those held at the Ritz-Carlton suffered real abuse, according to Hubbard.

At about the same time, the crown prince invited Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, to Riyadh, where he was put under arrest and forced to announce his resignation.

Under duress Hariri appeared on television denouncing the role Iran and its client militia Hezbollah played in his country, which was a good way to start a new civil war there. Hubbard writes that is exactly what M.B.S. wanted: “Gradually, the details of the Saudi plot came out. They were crazier than anyone expected.”

The Saudis apparently believed troops from Hezbollah were fighting against them and their clients in Yemen, and if there was civil war in Lebanon, they’d have to return home. In the end, virtually nobody accepted that Hariri had resigned in good faith, but it took an intervention by the French president Emmanuel Macron to extract him from Riyadh.

Woven through Hubbard’s recounting of these events is the story of Khashoggi, his exile from Saudi Arabia, and his gruesome murder. It’s a narrative whose tragic end many readers will know in advance. But Hubbard does a brilliant job helping us understand Khashoggi the man as well as the operation that killed him.

The death squad was allegedly organized by Saud al-Qahtani, a former hacker and a top aide to M.B.S. who had built much of his power by monitoring and manipulating social media.

According to a C.I.A. assessment quoted by Hubbard, early in M.B.S.’s reign he had ordered al-Qahtani and an organization that became known as the Rapid Intervention Group “to target his opponents domestically and abroad, sometimes violently.”

On Oct. 2, 2018, a 15-member team caught up with Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate when he went there to pick up a document necessary to register his marriage. He never came out.

Turkish intelligence eventually allowed the C.I.A. and investigators from the United Nations to listen to tapes of the murder and dismemberment. The movements of the Saudi hit team were caught on surveillance cameras as well. The group had included a forensic pathologist expert in dissection who had brought along a bone saw, and a portly body double who left the consulate wearing Khashoggi’s clothes to give the impression he’d made a safe exit. By then the corpse was in pieces.

Was there a smoking gun to implicate M.B.S.? After a detailed intelligence briefing, Senator Lindsey Graham said there was “a smoking saw.”

But as Trump announced, the United States would remain “a steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia, and there is every reason to believe the incarnation of that partnership for decades to come will be Mohammed bin Salman.

Christopher Dickey, a former Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post and Newsweek, is the world news editor of The Daily Beast.

The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman
By Ben Hubbard
Illustrated. 359 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $28.

How can hierarchical structures benefit equality among people?

Edited by Brigid Hains

Brought to you by, an Aeon partner

The modern West has placed a high premium on the value of equality. Equal rights are enshrined in law while old hierarchies of nobility and social class have been challenged, if not completely dismantled.

Few would doubt that global society is all the better for these changes. But hierarchies have not disappeared. Society is still stratified according to wealth and status in myriad ways. (Follow the set of privileges trail)

The idea of a purely egalitarian world in which there are no hierarchies at all would appear to be both unrealistic and unattractive. Still very few would want to eliminate all hierarchies, for we all benefit from the recognition that some people are more qualified than others to perform certain roles in society.

We prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns. Good and permissible hierarchies are everywhere around us.

Yet hierarchy is an unfashionable thing to defend or to praise.

British government ministers denounce experts as out of tune with popular feeling; both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders built platforms on attacking Washington elites; economists are blamed for not predicting the 2008 crash (they are no scientific professionals); and even the best established practice of medical experts, such as childhood vaccinations, are treated with resistance and disbelief (when vaccines are laced with viruses to decimate unwanted populations to grab their lands?).

We live in a time when no distinction is drawn between justified and useful hierarchies on the one hand, and self-interested, exploitative elites on the other.

As a group, we believe that clearer thinking about hierarchy and equality is important in business, politics and public life. We should lift the taboo on discussing what makes for a good hierarchy.

To 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.

When we talk about hierarchies here, we mean those distinctions and rankings that bring with them clear power differentials. (Especially public privileges in education, healthcare, bureaucratic facilitations…)

We are a diverse group of scholars and thinkers who take substantively different views on many political and ethical issues. Recently, we engaged in an intensive discussion of these issues under the aegis of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center in Los Angeles, and we found ourselves agreeing on this:

much can be said in defence of some kinds of hierarchy.

The ideas we present here are at the very least worthy of more widespread and serious attention. All of this takes on a new urgency given the turn in world politics towards a populism that often attacks establishment hierarchies while paradoxically giving authoritarian power to individuals claiming to speak for ‘the people’.

What then, should be said in praise of hierarchy?

First, bureaucratic hierarchies can serve democracy. Bureaucracy is even less popular these days than hierarchy. Yet bureaucratic hierarchies can instantiate crucial democratic values, such as the rule of law and equal treatment.

There are at least 3 ways in which usually hierarchical constitutional institutions can enhance democracy:

by protecting minority rights, and thereby ensuring that the basic interests of minorities are not lightly discounted by self-interested or prejudiced majorities;

by curbing the power of majority or minority factions to pass legislation favouring themselves at the expense of the public good; and

by increasing the epistemic resources (could this term be clarified?) that are brought to bear on decision-making, making law and policy more reflective of high-quality deliberation.

Hence democracies can embrace hierarchy because hierarchy can enhance democracy itself.

Yet in recent decades, these civic hierarchies have been dismantled and often replaced with decentralised, competitive markets, all in the name of efficiency.

This makes sense only if efficiency and effectiveness (usually assumed to be measured in economic terms) are considered the overriding priorities.

But if we make that assumption, we find ourselves giving less weight to values such as the rule of law, democratic legitimacy or social equality (health and safety of products and services?).

Hence, we might sometimes prefer the democratically accountable hierarchies that preserve those values even over optimal efficiency.

Hierarchical constitutional institutions are often criticised for not being directly accountable to the electorate but it is too crude to think of democratic accountability as requiring such an immediate link.

Ultimate accountability is consistent with a large degree of proximate insulation from direct electoral accountability. (Not clear. Good to be insulated or Not from public accountability?)

Apart from their civic importance, hierarchies can be surprisingly benign in life more broadly. Hierarchy is oppressive when it is reduced to a simple power over others. But there are also forms of hierarchy that involve power with, not over.

Daoism characterises this kind of power effectively in the image of riding a horse, when sometimes you have to pull, and sometimes let go. This is not domination but negotiation. In Daoism, power is a matter of energy and competence rather than domination and authority. In this sense, a hierarchy can be empowering, not disabling.

Take the examples of good relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, or employers and employees. These work best when the person higher in the hierarchy does not use that position to dominate those lower down but to enable them to grow in their own powers.

A common Confucian ideal is that a master ought to aim for the student to surpass him or her. Confucian hierarchies are marked by reciprocity and mutual concern. The correct response to the fact of differential ability is not to celebrate or condemn it, but to make good use of it for the common pursuit of the good life.

Inequalities of status and power can therefore be acceptable to the extent that these inequalities are embedded in relationships of reciprocity and mutual concern, and conducive to the advancement of those lower in the hierarchy. This would fit with the Daoist conception of a power that is not a form of domination but that aims at empowering those over whom it is exercised.

As well as being empowering, hierarchies should be dynamic over time. Hierarchies are often pernicious not because they distinguish between people, but because they perpetuate these distinctions even when they are no longer merited or serve a good purpose. In short, hierarchies become ossified.

There might be reasons, for example, to appoint people on merit to positions of power, such as to Britain’s House of Lords. Historically, however, this has often led to people not only retaining that power when they have ceased to deserve it personally, but also passing it on to their children.

All legitimate hierarchies must allow for changes over time in order for them not to lead to the unjust accumulation of power. This is built into the age-based hierarchies endorsed by Confucians, since the young will eventually rise to take on the elevated status and authority of the old.

To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too.

Most obviously, we see this when holders of political power wield disproportionate legal power, being if not completely above the law then at least subject to less legal accountability than ordinary citizens. Hence, we need to guard against what we might call hierarchical drift: the extension of power from a specific, legitimate domain to other, illegitimate ones.

This hierarchical drift occurs not only in politics, but in other complex human arenas. It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.

Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences.

These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.

But are hierarchies compatible with human dignity?

It’s important to recognise that there are different forms of hierarchy as there are different forms of equality. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in Article 1: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

It is entirely compatible with this equal dignity that some should be honoured more than others. In other words, we can acknowledge that individuals differ from one another in embodying excellence of various sorts, and these various forms of human excellence elicit from us a special kind of positive regard that philosophers call ‘appraisal respect’. Appraisal respect is a form of esteem that we have for those who display certain excellences: for example, for their high moral character, or their great skill in argument.

Since excellences are intrinsically comparative, people will inevitably be ranked through these appraisals, and so to honour someone is to regard them as (in some particular respects) better than people who embody or advance the value less. Equality here seems conceptually out of place.

One reason why hierarchy is offensive to the modern, egalitarian mind is that it implies deference to those higher up than them. But if the idea that deference can be a good thing seems shocking, then so be it. Philosophy should upset and surprise us.

Hierarchy can be understood as a signal as to when deference – deferring to others – is expected. Good hierarchies signal the right kinds of deference, oppressive hierarchies demand the wrong ones.

Of course, deference can go too far, with very bad consequences. The Confucian call for ‘distinction’ between husbands and wives, for example, has lent itself to the support of an oppressive, hierarchical social system of gender relations. But the fact that deference is bad in excess does not mean it is wrong in due measure.

There are various reasons to think that deference, when due, is good. Accepting that others know more or can do more than us communicates and enables an openness to learning and growth. It allows us to access what the philosopher Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee at the University of Hawai‘i calls ‘the complex web of human relations in which the knowledge of the past is passed on from the elderly to the young’.

Deference expresses a recognition of one’s finite and fallible nature, communicates both to oneself and to others the centrality of relationality to one’s identity and wellbeing, contributes to fluid – and even graceful or beautiful – social functioning.

Deference requires acknowledging that we are not all equal in our excellences. But even if we grant that some people embody human excellence more than others, or that there is some kind of ‘order of rank’ among human beings, we should be careful to notice how little follows from this, especially in the political sphere.

For a start, human excellence takes multiple forms, which means that there might be any number of ways that a person could exhibit excellence, even if they are in general ‘average’. We just don’t know what people might be able to contribute, so we ought to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they contain the potential for excellence in some sphere of life.

Second, despite our difference in abilities, humans are equal in all that fundamentally matters for ascribing value to life. We are all members of the human species, and our common humanity includes important features worthy of protection. That there are some legitimate rankings of human beings does not mean that those who are closest to the bottom of some of them are not also above a certain threshold that makes them worthy of full respect.

Politics ought to reflect this. A political system such as democracy, which embodies political equality, gives each person the benefit of the doubt that she is as likely as anybody else to embody some form of human excellence.

Hierarchies based on expertise are currently under criticism; hierarchies based on age are positively unfashionable. However, gerontocracy has underappreciated merits, and can provide a rather subtle mix of egalitarian and meritocratic benefits. Historical analysis of Qing China, for example, suggests that gerontocratic hierarchies resulted in a high representation of lower-income groups among political elites.

This was simply because life expectancy did not differ much by income, which meant that village elders comprised a representative cross-section of society. Of course, what has been true in the past might not be true in the future, and the structure of society around the world has changed so much that this correlation would not hold if we tried to replicate it today. For example, now that wealth significantly enhances life span in many countries, a true gerontocracy would under-represent lower-income groups.

Gerontocracy is often associated with paternalism, which has become another dirty word. Political paternalism can be defined as coercive interference with autonomy. This form of hierarchy is generally regarded with great suspicion for very good reason: many authoritarian governments have disregarded the interests of the people under the pretence of acting in them. But there might be a justification for at least some forms of this, as paternalism can, in fact, foster autonomy.

The reasoning here is that autonomy requires two things: first, to know what is best and, second, the ability to live according to this knowledge without being sidetracked or disabled by our own irrationality. Both conditions are hard to meet. Up to early modern times, many philosophers believed that humans were, for the most part, imperfectly rational and thus could not fully understand what was best, and all psychologists accept that we have very limited control over the irrational elements of our nature.

Good paternalistic interventions, on this view, take two forms. They disseminate knowledge of what is best in forms that are accessible to imperfectly rational agents. And they might habituate individuals’ irrational impulses from an early age such that they later collaborate in the implementation of reason’s prescriptions.

Such interventions are justified only to the extent that they ultimately enable us to act more autonomously. That they might is suggested by Aristotle’s theory of habituation, which says that to live well we need to cultivate the habits of living well. Hence, being required habitually to act in certain ways, especially while young, might, paradoxically, enable us to think more rationally for ourselves in the long run.

Modern psychology lends some support to this view, since it suggests a need to provide appropriate environments to foster good and just decision-making. Both Confucians and modern psychologists understand that human behaviour has two main roots: inner sources such as character traits, and external features of the particular situations in which we find ourselves.

Paternalistic hierarchy might then benefit individual autonomy. And hierarchy has one final benefit. Although it would seem to be divisive, hierarchy can promote social harmony. Many cultures justifiably place a high value on communal harmony. This involves a shared way of life, and also sympathetic care for the quality of life of others.

Excessive hierarchy works against this, creating divisions within societies. Indeed, in a sense, hierarchy always brings with it the threat of tension, since it is a condition in which one adult commands, threatens or forces another to do something, where the latter is innocent of any wrongdoing, competent to make decisions, and not impaired at the time by alcohol, temporary insanity, or the like. But the goal of preserving communal life means that hierarchy might be justifiable if – and only if – it is the least hierarchical amount required, and likely either to rebut serious discord or to foster a much greater communion. This is a minimalist justification that only ever sanctions the least amount of hierarchy necessary.

We can find echoes of such endorsements of harmony-enabling hierarchies in many traditional African societies, as well as in Confucian-influenced cultures in the East. If we look beyond theory and to practice, it also seems evident that some version of this principle justifies hierarchy in many Western cultures too. Think of how the police are given authority over others in the name of keeping the public peace.

Some of these ideas about hierarchy will no doubt be received more favourably than others. There will also be disagreement – as there is among ourselves – about whether we simply need to be clearer about the value of some hierarchies, or whether we need more of them in certain domains.

Hierarchy has been historically much-abused and it is the understandable fear of being too enthusiastic about hierarchy that makes some queasy about talking about its merits. Nonetheless, we think it important to put these ideas forward as an invitation to begin a much-needed conversation about the role of hierarchy in a world that is in many ways now fundamentally egalitarian, in that it gives equal rights and dignity to all.

However, it clearly does not and cannot give equal power and authority to all. If we are to square the necessary inequality that the unequal distribution of power entails with the equally necessary equality of value we place on human life, it’s time to take the merits of hierarchy seriously.

Stephen C Angle

is professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University. He has written and edited many books on Chinese philosophy, including Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Confucian Philosophy (2012). He lives in Middletown, CT.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

is professor of philosophy and law at New York University.

Julian Baggini

is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is The Virtues of the Table (2014).

Daniel Bell

is professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

Nicolas Berggruen

is chairman of The Berggruen Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank which develops ideas to shape political and social institutions. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Mark Bevir

is professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Joseph Chan

is professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.

Carlos Fraenkel

is professor of philosophy and jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Stephen Macedo

is professor of politics at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Michael Puett

is professor of Chinese history at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Jiang Qian

is an independent scholar living in Cleveland, Ohio.

Mathias Risse

is professor of philosophy and public policy at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Carlin Romano

is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

Justin Tiwald

is associate professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University in California.

Robin Wang

is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.




December 2022

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