In Defense of Hierarchies among Humans

Want to know the reason why moral philosophy almost never makes a differ­ence, why most academic moral philosophers remain rather use­less? After all, we are obliged to ask: Why don’t they manage talking people into being vegans, selling their cars and giving away more of their money to charity, and being more selfless generally? Or even getting us to do what makes us happy either way, accord­ing to happiness research (give away your stuff, exercise, do mindfulness, eat healthy, walk in nature, don’t stress, have more sex and care about others)? A moral philosopher can still help us come to the right conclusions, given we agree on the pre­m­­ises, but they seldom seem to drive the ethical development of society. Why don’t moral philosophers make any noteworthy difference? It’s because they don’t have their behavioral science and psychology strai­ght. They don’t understand that humans are, in a manner of speak­ing, behav­ioral robots.


The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on stage theories; a chapter that presents the field of adult development and argues that it is the missing piece of the puzzle if we want to accomplish progressive change in society, and even less modestly, that we need to understand the various psychological stages if we are to save the world.

“A good behavioral and developmental psychology, one that recognizes the stages of human beings, is the missing piece of the puzzle for us to make society more rational and ethical.”

Of course, we’re not robots in the sense that we don’t have real feelings, thoughts and sensations. And the robot metaphor should not blind us to the depths and rich ecologies of our co-evolving minds and emo­tions. How­ever, it does underscore the very hard facts of behavioral science. We are not free and rational individuals who you can just talk into one ratio­nal conclus­ion or another, thereby dramatically altering our social values and behaviors. For any moral philosophy, you must consider who, when, what and where: are we talking about children, or cats, or mice, or edu­cated people, or rich people, or scared people, or mentally disabled peo­ple, in Denmark or Saudi Arabia? Such questions generally fall into the background of humanist, analytical phil­os­ophy – and, unfortunately, of continental philosophy as well. There is no “default human” from which moral philosophy can start.

One of the most important aspects of understanding behavior, human or animal, instrumental or moral, and what can reasonably be expected from an organism, is the overall developmental stage of that organism. That’s where develop­mental psychology comes in handy – and, in parti­cular, the stages of adult development. As I mentioned in the introduction to this book, before a person understands this part, they tend to have great trouble grasp­­ing what meta­­modern­ politics is.

A good behavioral and developmental psychology, one that recognizes the stages of human beings, is the missing piece of the puzzle for us to make society more rational and ethical.

Developmental stage, aye? But who is to say that someone or something is of a “higher” or “more advanced” stage of development? Maybe ants are more advanced than people, just in ways we wouldn’t think of? Children towering far above their parents in their intensively alive experience of the human condition? The Jarawa tribes folk of the Andaman Islands leading lives far beyond anything a modern professor in Mexico or China could ever imagine?

”Without the insight that humans can be described with subsequently unfolding developmental stages, you are driving in developmental blindness. It’s worse than drunk driving. And it kills or harms considerably more people, literally speaking.”

Don’t Fall Victim to Developmental Blindness

But development does matter, and it can be studied in coherent and reli­able ways. The terrible truth is this: Adult human beings are not equals. We are as differ­­ent from one another as adults from children, albeit in various ways and in different regards.

This is a trivial point when it comes to single skills: I have friends who lift more than four times what I can on the bench press, some who read at more than three times my speed, some that speak twice as many lang­uages, some that know more medicine than I could dream of, some that have much, much higher IQ, some that are much better at making money (and can easily make a dozen times or more than me in a given period), some who write books at five times my speed (I kid you not) and so on.

There is no reason to believe that we do not also vary greatly in terms of overall developmental stages (the four dimensions being cognitive develop­ment, cult­ural coding, state and depth, that I discuss in my book The Listening Society).

And this makes all the difference when it comes to under­standing pol­itics and society, even personal relationships. This scientifically uncontro­versial – but politically very sensitive – insight is central to under­standing behavior. Understanding the developmental stages of humans is manda­tory for all who seek to change and develop soc­iety. With­out the insight that humans can be described with subsequently unfolding devel­op­mental stages, you are driving in developmental blind­ness. It’s worse than drunk driving. And it kills or harms con­siderably more people, literally speaking.

So in the second part of my book we work through ten chapters disc­uss­­ing what personal, psychological development can mean. The bogey­­man here is of course the H-word. I’ve addressed it before, but now we must stop to face it full frontal.

Hierarchy. We are introducing hierarchy into the study of human beings; sci­entifically supported and enduring – but not immutable – hierarchy. Some people are just much more developed, more evolved, than others. Ouch.

“Introduce hierarchy! Who would do such a thing? And why? Is it not a pretext for claiming that some people should be put above and beyond others, some unfair privileges unduly legitimized? After all, we are still work­ing hard all over the world to get rid of the postcolonial heritage, of male privilege, white privi­lege, Eurocentrism, the exploit­ation of the global South, discrimination against animals, anthro­pocentrism in relation to the rest of the biosphere and the many hidden injuries of class! And you want to discuss hierarchy? What demonic purpose would possess you to invoke such forbidden phantoms? I forbid it! Do not venture into this research of adult development! Do not go there to see with your own eyes! In the name of equality, choose ignorance! Do not ask forbidden quest­ions!”

You are correct, dear reader. This can be bad news. And it’s even worse than that. Once we open the Pandora’s Box of hierarchy – who knows what might come out of it? New sources of neurotic self-blame? New ideologies of domi­nation? Exploitation under the auspices of scientific legitimacy? Eugen­ics? A new class society, like the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the popul­ation is divided into bio-engineered castes? Shiver me tim­bers.

Despite these risks, all of which I fully acknowledge, I am convinced that we are better off with a sound deve­lop­mental stage per­spective than without one. And to study development, we must admit that there are hier­archies – that some opinions, behaviors or psyches are, at least in some sense, more developed. It is possible to take this stance without being an asshole.

The risks associated with developmental blind­ness are simply so much greater, the consequences so much more harmful. I contend, without blink­ing, that an understanding of the stages of human develop­ment is key to eman­ci­pation, to freed­om and equality in the globalized internet age. In this strange new wonder­­­land, the developmentally blind become the oppressors, much like Christ­ianity went from being a liberating force to having its own landed elites and an inquisition. A progress­ive thinker and activist of today must know and accept hier­archy; a rebel heart must love hier­archical dev­elop­­ment – and use it, against all masters, against all unjust hier­archies, and against the chaos and entropy inherent to the cosmos.

Wait a minute; I don’t think you heard me. Didn’t I say it slowly, didn’t I make it clear? I am saying that if you fail to understand hierarchies and hum­an devel­opment, you end up being primitive, conserv­ative and oppress­­ive. You, not I, are the oppressor. You speak the language of opp­ression.

Let me explain some important principles to clarify this. Being pro hier­archy only makes progress­ive sense if you meticulously apply these eight principles. So here’s a user’s guide.

”The point is not to obsess about hierarchy. The point is that if you see hierarchies clearly and don’t imbue them with emotional value, you can relate to them in a more rational and detached manner.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hierarchy

    1. Non-judgment. The first principle is that stages of development in humans and other organ­­­isms must be studied in the light of a radical accept­ance, a pervasive non-judgment – much like Christianity (in its liberating for­ms) teaches, really. Every creature has an inalienable right to be who she is, even the least likable among us. So when­ever you see far­ther than some­one else, whenever you are more ethical or intelligent or sensitive, you are mani­festing a privilege over that creature. The reason that she is not like you is that you are more privil­eged, at least in that particular regard. Even things you learned through suffer­ing, and insights or capabilities that are painful to bear, in some sense put you at an advantage. When you acknowledge this hier­archy, you are no longer judg­ing. The pers­pective shifts from judging people for not being like us (damning all who are racist, not socialist, un­educated, not environ­mentally minded, not sensitive, not good listeners, etc.), to trying to give a universal account for why our own position is better than theirs (why it would trump their position on their own terms) and explaining why the same insight or capability is not available to them at this time. Such explana­tions can be: it’s just a kid, he didn’t have the chance to learn this, she wasn’t allowed the peace of mind to think this through, he’s in a too pre­carious position to allow himself to think along these lines – etc. In this way, the acceptance of hier­archy serves non-judgment and forgiveness.
    2. Not a moral order. The second principle is that the developmental sta­ges do not constitute a moral order, in which a higher or later stage would be morally “more worth” than a lower or earlier one. For instance, as we will see in the next chapter, kids generally are of lower cognitive stage than adults – but they of course have the same priceless value. And they can often be kinder and “better people” than adults, more honest, empathetic, etc. The jury is still out on who should count as morally valuable or not, but a good starting point might still be Jeremy Bentham’s old “…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”.
    3. Natural and dominator hierarchies. The third principle is that there is a difference between natural hierarchies and dominator hierar­chies. Domin­ator hierarchies are the ones that you cannot find any universal arguments for and that are used to legitimize expl­oit­ation: men over women, whites over non-whites, H&M (the clothing store) customers and stock owners over Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, hum­ans over non-human animals, nobility over commoners, masters over slaves. Natural hier­archies are different – no exploitation is inherent to the hierarchy; it builds on a universal argument that benefits all parties, and it is limited to the specific area in which that benefit can be argued for. Examples: student driver and driving instructor (probably the clearest and best example), child and parent, patient and doctor, pupil and teacher. Of course, each of these natural hierarchies can be misused, the power imbalance exploited for other purposes (if the doctor wants sex for medicine, etc.) – but that is not in itself inherent to the definition of the hier­archy. Developmental hierarchies can, if used corr­ectly, support such natural hierarchies. Remember, however: all dom­i­nator hier­­archies disguise them­­­selves as natural ones, to make them app­ear as “the triple-N” of all hidden oppression: Natural, Normal, Necessary.
    4. Does not transmit. The fourth principle is that the hierarchy does not transmit to other, irrele­vant areas or power relations. They should not give “halo effects”. For instance, that you are at a higher cognitive stage than me, doesn’t mean you should get lower taxes or sleep with my wife. Also, I can still be a much better figure skater, listener or math­ematician than you are, even if you are able to think more complex thoughts – in which case I still deserve recognition for my talents. Developmental stage is not the same as skill.
    5. Humility. The fifth principle is humility. Hierarchical models with sev­eral stages are more humble, not less, than non-hierarchical visions of reality. Let’s say for instance that you, giving yourself medals for being noble defen­der of plurality and equality, are “against” hierarchical stage models in science and human­ities. You are thereby in effect creating a hier­archy your­self: the people who have your opinion are placed “above” the people who don’t – it’s better to be against hierarchy than to be for it, right? The very preference creates a two-step hierarchy, in a sense. By doing that you just made several moves that are anything but humble. To start with, you are redu­cing the rich­ness of possible answers to just your own position “and all others”. This means that you are squeezing together many, perhaps very qual­itatively diff­er­ent, answers and labeling them under one category (the non-correct one). There is just your way or the highway, and no internal ranking is possible between all the other possible answers. You are also precluding all possib­ilities of there being stages above your own – because there only are two stages, and you’re already at the higher one. So you don’t need to learn from others, right? But hier­archical stage models that have more stages don’t allow for these mistakes: you are obliged to describe all the relevant stages, how they relate to one another, and you must always admit that there can be higher stages than your own, stages that you don’t yet under­stand. Rather counter-­intuitively, hier­archy, under­stood correctly, serves open­ness and hum­ility towards the pers­pectives of others.
    6. Different dimensions. The sixth principle is simply to know that hierar­ch­­ical stage theories of human devel­op­ment have different dimen­sions and that development in one dimension does not necessarily trans­late into devel­opment within another. The dimensions do interact, how­ever – as we shall see in the coming chapters. In fact, you will find, the development of one dimen­sion can possibly even hamper development in another dimension.
    7. Sensitivity. The seventh principle is sensitivity. One must recognize that all hierarchies can and do hurt people’s feelings. After all, nobody likes con­tinuously being picked last for the football team. And when you reveal endur­ing, deep-seated devel­op­mental structures that describe vast, qualitative diff­erences between real people, it tends to make some feel elated and others degraded – most of us are, after all, not at the highest stages of human devel­opment. That some­body is at a “higher stage” than me, somehow tends to hurt more than the fact that someone has higher grades, has higher IQ, or lifts heavier weights. Develop­mental hierarchies are just an extremely sensitive topic. What does it feel like to recognize that someone I know genuinely understands deeper aspects of reality than I do? Or that I am less morally developed than another person, a person who adheres to values and ideals that are lost on me? That my mind is more or less permanently incapable of doing what you do routinely? It hurts, quite simply. Maybe not if I think of Einstein at great dist­ance, but if I realize that this younger, junior colleague is hier­archically above me, and that the distance is qualitative and permanent, it tends to really hurt in soft places deep within. So – to deal with these issues, we have to be very emotionally sensitive to everyone involved. The sensi­tivity of this topic is probably, by the way, the main reason that this field of research hasn’t gone farther: nobody wants to be an insensitive prick.
    8. Not all there is. The eighth and last principle is that stages of develop­ment are important, but they are obviously not all there is to life, knowledge, talent and meaning, and so they should only be treated as useful psycholo­gical tools, never be rever­ed as anything more than that. Just as you can be blind by not under­standing the stages of human development, so you can be blinded by staring too much at them. Like the sun, really: without it, you walk in darkness – but if you keep staring at it all day, you also go blind. It’s when the sun shines on other things that you see them more clearly.

So you need to remember these eight principles for hierarchy to make sen­se in a progressive, egalitarian manner. But all in all – not understand­ing the hier­archical stages of human develop­ment leaves you more judg­mental, more pre­judiced, more arrogantly narrow-minded, less com­pet­ent to under­stand and empathize with others, and less likely to success­fully interpret and predict behaviors (and the events in society). And in order to understand the stages of human development you must admit that they are, at least in some ways, hier­archically ordered. Thus, deal­ing with hierarchy is not a “necessary evil”; no, it is simply an evil to refuse. Hier­archy, correctly understood, serves the grea­ter good. Again, this only holds true, of course, if we follow the eight princip­les outlined above. Other­wise we can end up legiti­mizing dominator hierarch­ies, contrib­uting to opp­ression of all sorts.

The point is not to obsess about hierarchy. The point is that if you see hierarchies clearly and don’t imbue them with emotional value, you can relate to them in a more rational and detached manner. There is no need to pretend that we are the driving instructor when we are the student driver – and both parties benefit. The aim here is of course to create a more equal and egalitarian soc­iety, where hierarchy matters less, and only in ways that make sense.

If you still don’t like where this is going, I think your heart will soften once you – by reading my book The Listening Society – see the direction in which the hier­archical development goes: towards greater inclus­ivity, understanding and accep­tance of others and towards challenging one’s own certainty.


Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

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