The Hierarchical-Communitarian Worldview

Posted on Categories Speakers at Marquette

One thing that most fascinated me about Dan Kahan’s findings (as reported in his Boden Lecture here on Monday) was the lack of people appearing in the quadrant (on his “group-grid” framework) that would be characterized as hierarchical and communitarian (the flip of that, also apparently lacking, would be individualistic egalitarians–more on that later). The gap is striking since hierarchical communitarians are heavily represented in history among philosophers and theologians. Plato and Aristotle would both be hierarchical communitarians, as would Aquinas (pictured above) and other of the Church fathers. Further afield, in China we’d find Confucius and his dialectics and in India, Manu and the dharma shastra.

In many ways, hierarchical communitarianism would appear to be the most realistic of the four possible configurations of beliefs. On the one hand, it recognizes that natural talents are unevenly distributed. Some people are more creative than others, some more intelligent, some have higher emotional quotients and a greater capacity to work with others, etc. Some among us need more guidance from outside, some are wiser. It also, again more realistically, recognizes our interdependence. On the normative side, hierarchical communitarians would celebrate that diversity and appreciate how it contributes to a rich, well-functioning and interesting community and would therefore encourage an awareness among others of the virtues of community and diversity.

Indeed, it would seem that the lack of such a convergence of beliefs may be a significant contributing factor to our current problems–financial, environmental, social, etc. A little bit of the attitude is suggested in Barack Obama’s and Joseph Biden’s insistence that higher taxes for the wealthy is patriotic. This is just a modern version of noblesse oblige, the aristocratic notion probably never well implemented. Its reverse, and the trouble, is in the wealthy who control the economy aggrandizing more profits for themselves in absurdly higher wages while at the same time shipping decent unskilled jobs overseas.

As I mentioned above, it is equally surprising that there weren’t more people in the opposite quadrant, the individual/egalitarian convergence, since the two actually do come together more now, or at least so I’ve observed in some conferences. Indeed, conservative individualists (are there any other kinds?) routinely reject social welfare projects by appealing to the moral notion of equality, as in, “we’re all equal, have the same opportunities, and if someone doesn’t do as well, it represents a choice on their part to live in a way that doesn’t bring materials success.” The attitude is horribly unrealistic, of course, and is something of a perversion of the moral notion of equality, which requires that we treat everyone with equal dignity, into a false descriptive idea. Hence my own preference for a descriptive hierarchical communitarianism that recognizes natural differences and interdependence, but a prescriptive, moral egalitarian communitarianism that values equal dignity and the richness and fascination of communities composed of different talents and abilities.

The prevalence of the hierarchical/communitarian ideal in earlier times and other places and its relative absence now also suggest that these attitudes may well be learned, or truly cultural, and not necessarily residing in our DNA. That gives hope.

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