Letter: Daniel A Bell replies


 Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, Daniel A Bell, Wang Pei (Princeton University Press, March 2020)
Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, Daniel A Bell, Wang Pei (Princeton University Press, March 2020)

The review of Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World regrettably doesn’t engage with the substance of the argumentation. Our main argument, unmentioned in the review, is that different hierarchical principles ought to govern different kinds of social relations. We show that morally justified hierarchies can and should govern different spheres of our social lives, though these will be very different from the unjust hierarchies that have mainly governed us in the past.

But let me respond to a couple of methodological points. The reviewer writes: “In Just Hierarchies, Bell and Wang obviously wish to take the discussion beyond the realms of academe to the general reader.” But it’s not either/or. The book is published by a leading academic press, it was submitted to a blind referee process, and it has lots of endnotes. So I hope it will be of interest to academics. But I write in an accessible way that may also appeal to general readers. It’s just the way I write, and I’d find it more challenging to write convoluted prose. For physicists, perhaps, there is necessary tradeoff between academic rigor and accessibility. But not for political theorists.

The reviewer wonders what standards we use to justify our claims and he writes that “the net result—after citations from Confucius, Chinese history and the like—is that Chinese structures and practices should be evaluated in reference to Chinese conditions, situations and points of reference.” The review might have left the impression that we use the status quo in China as our moral and political standard. That’s not our view. In the introduction, we explicitly argue that what underpins our argument are the considered political intuitions of people who share our progressive conservative perspective: progressive in the sense that we endorse traditional egalitarian causes of the political left and conservative in the sense that we share an attachment to tradition and recognize that some traditional hierarchies are morally defensible. We refer to history, philosophy, and social science to argue that the progressive conservative perspective is widely endorsed in China and to a lesser extent outside of China.

The reviewer makes our argument sound like an apology for the CCP by quoting a few lines from the last paragraph of the book. It does indeed sound absurd if the previous argumentation is not discussed. In chapter 5, we argue that it’s important to establish political control over AI research to make sure it is channeled in morally desirable ways. We argue that an ideal solution is to establish a cross-cultural consensus about the goals and limits of research and to enforce it globally. But we worry that such a solution may not be realistic. So we suggest that the Chinese Communist Party—if and only if it is seriously committed to Marxist and Communist values—may be a viable candidate as a second best alternative to lead the struggle against malevolent AI that potentially threatens all of humanity. But we argue that the CCP has moral legitimacy to lead this struggle if and only if it is committed to the Marxist ideal of a communist society where machines do most of the socially necessary work and humans are free to realize their creative essences. We also argue that the CCP should be committed to Confucian values that prioritize harmonious social relations.

The reviewer twice mentions COVID-19. Our book was written before the virus pandemic, but we updated our argument about the importance of hierarchy for dealing with the pandemic in an SCMP comment. Terrible mistakes were made at the start of the crisis, but the ability of the CCP to contain the epidemic (so far) lends some support to our argument in chapter 5 that a strong CCP-like government may be necessary to contain malevolent forms of science and technology in the interests of preserving human life.


Daniel A Bell (Shandong University)




Peter Gordon replies:

As I hoped to make clear in my review, Just Hierarchies has an interesting and worthwhile objective—to inject non-Western approaches and ideas into socio-political models and theories. The book itself covers lots of ground, and includes a great number of points that readers may find individually interesting or thought-provoking. That, plus the authors’ accessible prose, is enough to merit a reading.

Reviewers need to decide what are the salient points of any given book. I did not find the argumentation one of them here. Daniel Bell’s letter illuminates why: the book’s main argument is, he says, that “different hierarchical principles ought to govern different kinds of social relations”. But since this is obvious, the book’s 200 pages must serve a purpose other than demonstrating it.

In this letter, Bell suggests what this might be by projecting a framing on the review—that it implies “we use the status quo in China as our moral and political standard” or that it “makes our argument sound like an apology for the CCP”—that is not actually in the review itself. Either the book is meant to read in the context of Western criticisms of China or the authors expect that it will be.

Once again, fair enough, and, indeed, dealing with the question via an inclusive overarching paradigm is an approach worth pursuing. But I felt that the authors risked alienating their potential target audience with such phrases as “for the sake of humanity we need to pray for the victory of the CCP”, with which they conclude the book.