Dave Kukfa Security engineer etc.

Freedom and Equality

Summary

Freedom and equality are typically presented as opposing values (in e.g. Sapiens, The Lessons of History). The different conceptions of each term, and how they’re interrelated, are explored in greater depth below. While various conceptions of equality do restrict individual liberties, the moral significance of these restrictions is subjective and depends on one’s values. Egalitarians view these restrictions as insignificant and worthwhile to enable others to enjoy a good life.

Freedom

“There is a whole range of possible interpretations or ‘conceptions’ of the single concept of liberty”, thus the overview below is incomplete; but it’s good enough for a model to add depth to the question (of whether freedom and equality are opposed).

  Negative freedom Positive freedom Republican freedom
Tag line “noninterference”; “freedom from …” “opportunities”; “capacity to …” “non-domination”
Description no one interferes with your actions has a rich set of opportunities available; possibility to take control of one’s life not subject to another’s arbitrary & unaccountable will; the absence of any structural dependence on arbitrary power or domination
Examples freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of speech hierarchies like classism, sexism, racism will inhibit positive freedom slaves would have negative freedom but not republican freedom if they are owned by a master who does not whip them, even though he is in a position to do so
  • these types of freedom are not mutually exclusive; can enjoy two of them at the expense of the third
    • for example, it’s possible to be institutionally oppressed without directly interfering with actions – i.e. it’s possible to lack republican freedom while maintaining negative freedom
  • the positive and negative conceptions of freedom are credited to Isaiah Berlin, and the republican conception to Philip Pettit
  • additional context and definitions are included from Elizabeth Anderson and other sources as linked above
  • to sustain a free society over time, Anderson claims we should accept priority of republican over negative liberty (which endorses equality of authority)
  • Anderson also claims “we should be skeptical of attempts to operationalize the conditions for nondomination in formal terms. Powerful agents are constantly devising ways to skirt around formal constraints to dominate others. Republican freedom is a sociologically complex condition not easily encapsulated in any simple set of necessary and sufficient conditions, nor easily realized through any particular set of laws.”

Why favor positive or republican over negative freedom?

Summary:

To block arguments that freedom requires substantial material equality, libertarians typically argue that rights to negative liberty override or constrain claims to positive liberty. This chapter will argue that, to the extent that libertarians want to support private property rights in terms of the importance of freedom to individuals, this strategy fails, because the freedom-based defense of private property rights depends on giving priority to positive or republican over negative freedom. Next, it is argued that the core rationale for inalienable rights depends on considerations of republican freedom. A regime of full contractual alienability of rights—on the priority of negative over republican freedom—is an unstable basis for a free society. It tends to shrink the domains in which individuals interact as free and independent persons, and expand the domains in which they interact on terms of domination and subordination. To sustain a free society over time, we should accept the priority of republican over negative liberty. This is to endorse a kind of authority egalitarianism. The chapter concludes with some reflections on how the values of freedom and equality bear on the definition of property rights. The result will be a qualified defense of some core features of social democratic orders.

Further detail:

Arguments for the priority of negative over positive freedom with respect to property rights run into more fundamental difficulties. A regime of perfect negative freedom with respect to property is one of Hohfeldian privileges only, not of rights. A negative liberty is a privilege to act in some way without state interference or liability for damages to another for the way one acts. The correlate to A’s privilege is that others lack any right to demand state assistance in constraining A’s liberty to act in that way. There is nothing conceptually incoherent in a situation where multiple persons have a privilege with respect to the same rival good: consider the rules of basketball, which permit members of either team to compete for possession of the ball, and even to “steal” the ball from opponents. If the other team exercises its liberty to steal the ball, the original possessor cannot appeal to the referee to get it back.

No sound argument for a regime of property rights can rely on considerations of negative liberty alone. Rights entail that others have correlative duties. To have a property right to something is to have a claim against others, enforceable by the state, that they not act in particular ways with respect to that thing. Property rights, by definition, are massive constraints on negative liberty: to secure the right of a single individual owner to some property, the negative liberty of everyone else—billions of people—must be constrained. Judged by a metric of negative liberty alone, recognition of property rights inherently amounts to a massive net loss of total negative freedom. The argument applies equally well to rights in one’s person, showing again the inability of considerations of negative liberty alone to ground rights. “It is impossible to create rights, to impose obligations, to protect the person, life, reputation, property, subsistence, or liberty itself, but at the expense of liberty” (Bentham, 1838–1843: I.1, 301).

(The above paragraph also makes the case for the conclusion at the end of this post.)

What could justify this gigantic net loss of negative liberty? If we want to defend this loss as a net gain in overall freedom, we must do so by appealing to one of the other conceptions of freedom—positive freedom, or republican freedom. Excellent arguments can be provided to defend private property rights in terms of positive freedom. Someone who has invested their labor in some external good with the aim of creating something worth more than the original raw materials has a vital interest in assurance that they will have effective access to this good in the future. Such assurance requires the state’s assistance in securing that good against others’ negative liberty interest in taking possession of it. To have a claim to the state’s assistance in securing effective access to a good, against others’ negative liberty interests in it, is to have a right to positive freedom.

Considerations of republican freedom also supply excellent arguments for private property. In a system of privileges alone, contests over possession of external objects would be settled in the interests of the stronger parties. Because individuals need access to external goods to survive, the stronger could then condition others’ access on their subjection to the possessors’ arbitrary will. Only a system of private property rights can protect the weaker from domination by the stronger. The republican argument for rights in one’s own body follows even more immediately from such considerations, since to be an object of others’ possession is per se to be dominated by them.

(All quotes are from Elizabeth Anderson.)

Equality

Similarly to freedom, (in)equality is not just a single principle, but rather a complex group of principles that form the basis of today’s egalitarianism. Different principles yield different answers, and no single notion of equality can sweep the field. The sections below provide an overview of some of its different conceptions; they are incomplete similar to freedom above, but are sufficient models to add depth to the question.

Relational Equality

Relational equality aims to reduce or eliminate certain status differences in social interactions. Some of its forms include (from Elizabeth Anderson):

  Equality of standing Equality of esteem Equality of authority
Hierarchy (i.e. the opposite of equality) of this type looks like interests of superiors > interests of inferiors esteem of few > esteem of rest arbitrary commands to subordinates who must comply
*In the lens of distributive inequality, proponents of this relational type are concerned with… distributive justice (rules that determine fair distribution of economic gains, to help those less well off) glorifying the rich due to wealth (and stigmatizing the poor) government by the wealthy
Example: members of society… are treated as equals by the state and in institutions of civil society are recognized as bearing equal dignity and respect have equal votes and access to political participation in democratic states
  • these three types of hierarchy (i.e. the opposite of equality) usually reinforce each other (i.e. all three types of hierarchy at once)
  • *these connections between relational equality and distributive equality are mainly causal

Distributive Equality

Theories of distributive equality offer accounts of what should be equalized in the economic sphere.

Notes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

  • most can be understood as applications of the presumption of equality, where everyone should get an equal share of the distribution unless certain types of differences are relevant, and justify (through universally acceptable reasons) unequal shares
  • the equality required in the economic sphere is complex, taking account of several positions that – each according to the presumption of equality – justify a turn away from equality
  • a salient problem here is what constitutes justified exceptions to equal distribution of goods, the main subfield in the debate over adequate conceptions of distributive equality and its currency
  • the following factors are usually considered eligible for justified unequal treatment:
    • need or differing natural disadvantages (e.g. disabilities)
    • existing rights or claims (e.g. private property)
    • differences in the performance of special services (e.g. desert, efforts, or sacrifices)
    • efficiency
    • compensation for direct and indirect or structural discrimination (e.g. affirmative action)
  • every effort to interpret the concept of equality and apply its principles (e.g. presumption of equality) demands a precise measure of the parameters of equality – we need to know the dimensions within which the striving for equality is morally relevant
  • here is an overview of the seven most prominent conceptions of distributive equality, with some discussion on their objections

Notes from Elizabeth Anderson:

  • any attempt to enforce strict material equality across large populations under modern economic conditions would require a totalitarian state; this is “true and of great historical importance” (e.g. communism), but virtually no one today advocates for this
  • concern for distributive justice—specifically, how the rules that determine the fair division of gains from social cooperation should be designed—can be cast in terms of the question: what rules would free people of equal standing choose, with an eye to also sustaining their equal social relations?

Absent from this list of conceptions of equality is any notion of equality considered as a bare pattern in the distribution of goods, independent of how those goods were brought about, the social relations through which they came to be possessed, or the social relations they tend to cause. Some people think that it is a bad thing if one person is worse off than another due to sheer luck (Arneson, 2000; Temkin, 2003). I do not share this intuition. Suppose a temperamentally happy baby is born, and then another is born that is even happier. The first is now worse off than the second, through sheer luck. This fact is no injustice and harms no one’s interests. Nor does it make the world a worse place. Even if it did, it would still be irrelevant in a liberal political order, as concern for the value of the world apart from any connection to human welfare, interests, or freedom fails even the most lax standard of liberal neutrality.

Relationships between these types

graph TB subgraph freedom[Freedom] negative_freedom["Negative
(#quot;noninterference#quot;)"] positive_freedom["Positive
(#quot;opportunities#quot;)"] republican_freedom["Republican
(#quot;non-domination#quot;)"] takes_priority_over(["takes priority over"]) end subgraph equality[Equality] esteem_equality[Esteem] standing_equality[Standing] authority_equality[Authority] end republican_freedom --> takes_priority_over --> negative_freedom takes_priority_over -->|"doing so endorses"| authority_equality authority_equality -->|"(lack of) causes
most important infringements of*"| republican_freedom republican_freedom -->|"requires"| authority_equality republican_freedom ---|"#quot;deep affinity#quot;,
but not conceptually identical*"| authority_equality

*There is a deep affinity between republican freedom as nondomination and authority egalitarianism. These are not conceptually identical. Domination can be realized in an isolated, transient interpersonal case (consider a kidnapper and his victim). Authoritarian hierarchy is institutionalized, enduring, and group-based. Yet authority hierarchies cause the most important infringements of republican freedom. Historically, the radical republican tradition, from the Levellers to the radical wing of the Republican party through Reconstruction, saw the two causes of freedom and equality as united: to be free was to not be subject to the arbitrary will of others. This required elimination of the authoritarian powers of dominant classes, whether of the king, feudal landlords, or slaveholders. Republican freedom for all is incompatible with authoritarian hierarchy and hence requires some form of authority egalitarianism.

General diagram of concepts

graph TB freedom["Freedom"] relational_equality["Relational
equality"] conventional_equality["Conventional ideas
of equality
(e.g. distributive)"] hierarchy["Hierarchy"] oppression["Oppression
(of all forms of freedom)"] freedom ---|"Harari claims are opposed;
Anderson claims not"| relational_equality freedom ---|"opposed
(Anderson)"| oppression relational_equality -->|"egalitarians oppose hierarchies
and aim to replace w/
institutions w/ greater equality"| hierarchy relational_equality -->|"causal"| conventional_equality hierarchy -->|"can lead to*"| oppression

*See this model for the connection between hierarchy and oppression

Are freedom and equality fundamentally opposed?

It depends on how you view freedom and how you view equality. Are personal liberties restricted to uphold the types of relational equality defined above? Yes - there is now a smaller spectrum of acceptable actions. The same goes for economic liberty (the freedom to make contracts, acquire property, and exchange goods) when upholding distributive (i.e. economic) equality.

But are those restrictions significant? That depends on your stance on egalitarianism. If you value equality as a fundamental goal of justice, you would be willing to make (relatively insignificant) sacrifices of these freedoms (i.e. would not want to take actions that oppress others) so others can enjoy a good life.

Quoting Anderson, “moderate egalitarianism of the social democratic type has proved compatible with democracy, extensive civil liberties, and substantial if constrained market freedoms. … the ideal of a free society of equals is not an oxymoron: not only is relational equality not fundamentally opposed to freedom, in certain senses equality is needed for freedom. Inequality upsets liberty.”

Additionally, Giebler and Merkel have empirically concluded both freedom and equality can be maximized at the same time.

Basic Psychological Needs

Summary

Many theories attempt to define the core psychological needs that underlie all human behavior. These theories risk oversimplifying a complex topic, and are often contested and debated, but are nevertheless interesting to use as a frame of reference for understanding human behavior. This is my attempt to survey some of the popular theories and draw parallels between them.

Common needs across leading theories include:

  • connecting with others and feeling accepted in a group
  • learning and growing from one’s experiences
  • having choice in one’s actions
  • seeking meaning through something larger than oneself

In Search of Human Nature

Mary E. Clark proposes there are three basic propensities that specifically constitute human nature, as distinct from the nature of animals in general. Most animals seek out food, water and mates, and so do humans, but for us these are subsumed by even more powerful needs that arise by virtue of our being wholly and imperatively social. The three propensities are for bonding, for autonomy, and for meaning.

Bonding: remaining attached to (and being accepted by) a group

  • One may shift from one group to another, but acceptance within some group is essential; evolutionarily, total exclusion is tantamount to a death sentence for human beings
  • Our utter dependence on others in infancy creates this lifelong need to belong, to be accepted and appreciated
  • Bonding by adults in stable communities is essential for the successful rearing of each new generation of helpless infants
  • Though it is common in many societies for males, in particular, to play down this need for attachment to others, such suppression leads to a whole host of potential pathologies
  • Rejection, or rupture of a bond, whether actual or threatened, is a profound cause of psychic distress
  • Cultural narratives differ greatly in how they meet this need for belonging; some provide for lifelong acceptance, others promote feelings of rejection or oppression, whose violent consequences within the society are suppressed by various forms of psychic and physical coercion

Autonomy: ability to behave independently and generate one’s own actions

  • The [evolutionary] increase in cognitive capacity of the primate brain that makes highly adaptive, intelligent group life possible also demands autonomy of individual behavior. Big, relatively unprogrammed, adaptive brains must learn through experience how to survive. And learning demands spontaneous engagement by the developing infant and juvenile with its world.
  • Every social relationship constrains individual action to some degree. One cannot be a member of a social community and not experience some restrictions on one’s behavior. The magic of “successful” cultural narratives is the balancing of social constraints with a sense of spontaneity of personal action. They possess two qualities: childrearing practices that generate secure self-identity and reciprocal trust in and respect for others; and a cultural meaning system that attracts spontaneous support from all its members.
  • Just as respect creates equality, so trust generates spontaneous prosocial activity, without need for threat or coercion. … the natural propensities to belong and to be independent, if carefully nurtured, create in the developing person a strong urge to help the whole group by whom one feels accepted; to contribute to the good of the whole.
  • How a culture perceives human nature determines the way its people behave! In general, the narratives of [egalitarian] societies promote equal respect for all contributions, and a balancing of the satisfaction of belonging with the needs for autonomy and independence. This seemingly paradoxical result occurs when a cultural story possesses those two qualities mentioned above: (1) an appreciation that the purpose of attentive nurturing is to develop not obedience, but self-reliance and autonomy (the “trust concept”); and (2) a sacred aspect to the shared social purpose that is embedded in the narrative and lends identity to each individual life and a desire to contribute to the success of the whole. These two together ensure that the uncoerced, autonomous behavior of the individual is naturally directed to the benefit of the whole society.

Meaning: internal perceptions of the significance of experience (which can be communicated with others and valued by a group); a set of beliefs about the purpose of existence; tells how bonding and autonomy (and hence, a secure sense of “self”) are to be met

  • Most important of the three, as cultural narratives have generated institutions for prescribing bonding patterns and for limiting autonomy
  • Bonding and autonomy are propensities humans share with other primates; it is our further propensity or need for meaning that makes us unique
  • [After developing the ability to communicate] It is but a short step to valuing choices about what to do, to providing reasons for those choices, and to justifying them with causal explanations. For the first time, internal perceptions of the significance of experience can be communicated with others and valued by a group. Conceptual meanings come into existence, are shared, and ultimately become the structural basis of culture. The resulting cultural meaning or cultural narrative becomes what connects the individual with the group she or he depends on for survival.
  • An “interpreter” region in the human brain’s left hemisphere automatically creates meaning out of experience. A satisfying meaning system both explains our function in the universe and tells us how to fulfill that function: what things an individual and a whole society ought to do. It justifies a society’s social institutions. Hence, an entire group shares the same (or very similar) beliefs. Shared meanings inspire loyalty; they coordinate social activity.
  • The evolutionarily adaptive function of such a shared meaning system is obvious. It ensures effective group behavior vis-à-vis the common environment. Not surprisingly, most cultural narratives incorporate an authoritative source for their explanations: an originating spirit, ancient ancestors, one or more powerful deities. They also include rituals of sacrifice to the unseen powers to make sure the sun comes up and the plants and animals flourish, and the universe continues as it should. (These, of course, have the important effect of synchronizing human activities with the local environment …).
  • All these critical functions are embedded somewhere within the shared cultural stories of every coherent society. And since time immemorial, because successful social life depended on loyalty to the group narrative, it has been defended vigorously. This extreme defense of belief systems … has often proved problematic throughout history. It may inhibit the changes needed to meet altered contexts, leading to “cultural traps”; and it has been the cause of enormously bloody conflicts between disparate systems. Both of these can be avoided by consciously incorporating into the narrative story processes for modifying the belief system over time, and for recognizing that different beliefs held by others are not necessarily threatening to one’s own.

General notes:

All three [propensities] persist throughout life and are defended by powerful emotions. We seek bonds and resist their rupture. Broken bonds may lead to anger or to grief. We strive for independence and resist constraint, especially physical coercion. And we seek meaning, not only as individuals within a group, but especially collectively, as whole groups. Threats either to our individual identity within the group or to the integrity and the identity of the entire group are powerfully resisted. And all of these emotional responses are the result of the importance, during our evolutionary history, of each of these propensities for our successful survival.

Societies promote prosocial and antisocial behaviors in very different ratios, often having to correct coercively the consequences of their own unsuspected misreadings of human nature. I dismiss the notion that violence and aggression are behaviors forced on us by “selfish genes.” Rather, they are the extreme forms of communication that humans use when social conditions necessary for their individual or collective survival are not being fulfilled. When violent and senseless behaviors happen it is because there are virtually always either personal or cultural causes in the life experiences of those who commit them. Not all cultures are equally adaptive; not all meaning systems accommodate equally well the needs human nature demands. None is “ideal,” but some really do succeed in satisfying all our human inner propensities better than others. It behooves all peoples to try to learn from each other what “works” and why.

Self-Determination Theory

The Basic Psychological Needs Theory (within the broader Self-Determination Theory) defines three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are similar but slightly different than Clark’s three propensities:

  • Autonomy: experience of volition and willingness; one’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are self-endorsed and authentic
  • Competence: the experience of effectiveness and mastery; becomes satisfied as one capably engages in activities and experiences opportunities for using and extending skills and expertise
  • Relatedness: experience of warmth, bonding, and care; satisfied by connecting to and feeling significant to others

The identification of these needs allows scholars to grapple with the fundamental question of what our human nature looks like. The introduction of these psychological needs is congruent with the meta-theoretical assumption of a growth-oriented nature, while also recognizing that we have a vulnerable nature. While need satisfaction energizes pro-active, prosocial and growth-oriented inclinations, need frustration awakens our vulnerabilities for passivity, self-centeredness, and defensiveness.

A review by Van den Broeck et al. notes how SDT differs from other theories of psychological needs:

SDT characterizes basic psychological needs in two ways that render it unique in comparison to other need theories: needs are viewed as innate, and needs must promote psychological growth, internalization, and well-being. … each need is thought to be present in everyone, and none of the needs are thought to be relatively more important than the others. SDT thus regards each of the three needs as essential, with thwarting of any one need causing disruptions to psychological growth, internalization, and well-being. This contrasts with other need theories that argue for a hierarchy of needs—the most famous being that of Maslow (1943), who argued that needs higher in his hierarchy become more activated when needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are satisfied.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s model differs in that needs are hierarchical, and individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they’re motivated to achieve needs at the next level (though research suggests that levels continuously overlap each other). It defines eight levels of needs (ordered below from bottom to top within the hierarchy):

  • Physiological: biological component for human survival
  • Safety: physical, economic, and emotional security, health
  • Belonging and love: being comfortable with and connection to others that results from receiving acceptance, respect, and love
    • This need for belonging may overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure
    • In contrast, for some individuals, the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for belonging; and for others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs
  • Esteem: the respect and admiration of a person, but also “… self-respect and respect from others”
  • Cognitive: creativity, foresight, curiosity, and meaning
  • Aesthetic: ability to appreciate the beauty within the world
  • Self-actualization: the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be
  • Transcendence: giving oneself to something beyond oneself

Criticisms of the theory include its lack of supporting evidence, diverse study participants, or differentiation between individualistic and collectivist societies.

Other theories

Cognitive Dissonance Is an Essential Cultural Feature

Summary

Cultures are full of contradictions in beliefs, norms, and values. Cognitive dissonance – here referring to our perception of contradictory information, and sometimes the conflict or discomfort that follows – is essential for cultures to function in light of these contradictions. Our ability to overlook these contradictions allows us to avoid analysis paralysis and get along with one another, and eventually trying to reconcile them drives change.

Context

From Sapiens:

During the first half of the twentieth century, scholars taught that every culture was complete and harmonious, possessing an unchanging essence that defined it for all time. Each human group had its own world view and system of social, legal and political arrangements that ran as smoothly as the planets going around the sun. In this view, cultures left to their own devices did not change. They just kept going at the same pace and in the same direction. Only a force applied from outside could change them. Anthropologists, historians and politicians thus referred to ‘Samoan Culture’ or ‘Tasmanian Culture’ as if the same beliefs, norms and values had characterised Samoans and Tasmanians from time immemorial.

Today, most scholars of culture have concluded that the opposite is true. Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux. The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics. Even a completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment cannot avoid change. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.

… medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity …. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Look at the Disagreements to Understand a Topic

From Sapiens:

If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best.

This is also a good way to understand the limits of (e.g. academic) understanding of a particular topic within its field: look how far the consensus goes, and at what points do debates take place.

There Is No Justice in History

Summary

Social hierarchies enable large-scale societies to efficiently cooperate and interact, but are also used to maintain oppressive power structures and create lasting socioeconomic injustices. No specific form of social hierarchy is natural, because each is rooted in imagined orders created by humans and is thus a cultural choice – but some form of oppressive social hierarchy has existed in every complex society. Though not all forms of hierarchy are necessarily oppressive, e.g. among family members, citizens, states, humans and animals, and humans and machines.

Context

From Sapiens:

Understanding human history in the millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts [writing]. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.

However, the appearance of these networks was, for many, a dubious blessing. The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression.

… [these] distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. [There are many theories behind the hierarchy of men and women – some biological but not very convincing.] Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.

Yet, to the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination. Brahmins and Shudras were not really created by the gods from different body parts of a primeval being. Instead, the distinction between the two castes was created by laws and norms invented by humans in northern India about 3,000 years ago. Contrary to Aristotle, there is no known biological difference between slaves and free people. Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others into masters. Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin colour and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality.

Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy. They are shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals. But the hierarchy of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.

On the origin of hierarchies

In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.

For instance, many scholars surmise that the Hindu caste system took shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3,000 years ago, subjugating the local population. The invaders established a stratified society, in which they – of course – occupied the leading positions (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and slaves. The invaders, who were few in number, feared losing their privileged status and unique identity. To forestall this danger, they divided the population into castes, each of which was required to pursue a specific occupation or perform a specific role in society. Each had different legal status, privileges and duties. Mixing of castes – social interaction, marriage, even the sharing of meals – was prohibited. And the distinctions were not just legal – they became an inherent part of religious mythology and practice.

The rulers argued that the caste system reflected an eternal cosmic reality rather than a chance historical development. Concepts of purity and impurity were essential elements in Hindu religion, and they were harnessed to buttress the social pyramid. Pious Hindus were taught that contact with members of a different caste could pollute not only them personally, but society as a whole, and should therefore be abhorred. Such ideas are hardly unique to Hindus. Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges. … If you want to keep any human group isolated … the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.

On their role

Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.

Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination. Of course not all hierarchies are morally identical, and some societies suffered from more extreme types of discrimination than others, yet scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether. Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.

On their implications

Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies. This happens in two important ways. First and foremost, most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy.

Second, even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules. If, in British-ruled India, an Untouchable, a Brahmin, a Catholic Irishman and a Protestant Englishman had somehow developed exactly the same business acumen, they still would not have had the same chance of becoming rich. The economic game was rigged by legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings.

[These biased imagined orders create a vicious cycle for the oppressed tiers of the hierarchy, where they continue to be oppressed through additional biases created in the wake of the initial imagined order, even long after the initial order is officially abolished.]

Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.

Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history. If the division into blacks and whites or Brahmins and Shudras was grounded in biological realities – that is, if Brahmins really had better brains than Shudras – biology would be sufficient for understanding human society. Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures.