Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


Moral Hierarchy

The key to evolving consciousness
by Jason D. Hill

I believe that it is time to revisit the notion of hierarchy. The time has come for us not only to call for its return, but to reconstruct and articulate a new understanding of it—one that is indispensable for the evolution of consciousness.

Hierarchy has several definitions, among which is: a classification of a group of people according to ability or economic, social, or professional standing. Hierarchical relationships have through millennia fostered asymmetrical relationships—between men and women, whites and people of color, and those from different socioeconomic classes—that compromised human dignity. In our contemporary society there are functional vestiges of premodern modes of existence that undermine basic freedoms and rights. Gender apartheid is practiced in many nation-states, as are ethnocentrism, racism, nationalism, and religious prejudice. They are crucial reminders that the consequences of applied hierarchy continue to thrive in spite of the moral progress we have achieved as a species.

For these reasons, hierarchy as a governing principle of human relations is, today, regarded by some moral progressives as antiquated, regressive, and outright pernicious. Moral progressives are concerned primarily about basic rights and liberties that are the linchpin of contemporary life, and are rightfully wary of any defense of an unqualified notion of hierarchy. These rights emerge out of the tradition of political liberalism and representative democracy. We may refer to these rights and freedoms as the “dignities of modernity.”

These dignities guarantee that all persons have intrinsic equal moral value as human beings regardless of their standing in life. They secure the sanctity of human existence. These dignities include freedom—the right to create a conception of the good and of the good life for oneself apart from the conceptions held by those in one's immediate culture. This freedom is safeguarded by a set of inviolable liberties of which the state may not arbitrarily deprive one.

This freedom, in turn, secures a moral principle on which modern selfhood rests: autonomy. Autonomy can only be assured if a key feature of modernity is recognized: equality. Equality here means equality before the law. The law ought not to discriminate against anyone for aspects of their identity that are morally neutral: class, gender, race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. Even those who transgress moral boundaries and break laws are regarded as having the right to equal treatment before the law. This right is shored up by another moral edict bequeathed to us by the ancient stoics and all great religious systems: the inviolable intrinsic moral value of human life and dignity that resides in all persons.

Ultimately, the dignities that gloriously culminated in the period of the Enlightenment coalesced into a single concept, which, when achieved by individuals, can be the basis of much that is adjudged laudatory and beautiful in the human: the concept of personal identity. The possession of personal identity is an unprecedented achievement of the modern world. It emancipated one from what was historically known as role identity, which was tied to a specific and largely unalterable social role.

As a result, those who oppose a return to hierarchy as we have known and witnessed it have legitimate cause for concern. They fear being ensnared by the restrictive protocols of hierarchy and the containment of our subjectivity and growth that come when our humanity is tied to inflexible protocols. And yet, the indiscriminate abandonment of hierarchy has given rise to hubris, narcissism, and a pervasive view that all truth claims, all modes of existence, and all engagements with the world, are equal. And it has prevented us from looking at what a principled form of hierarchy achieves.

I believe we must revisit the notion of hierarchy, and redefine it so that it has at its core a moral principle. I will refer to this as moral hierarchy.

I would define moral hierarchy as a reciprocal relationship between two or more persons in which the moral axioms of dignity, sovereignty, and personal autonomy are held by all parties involved. Further, relationships governed by moral hierarchy are entered into voluntarily. One therefore accepts the hierarchical terms of moral engagement as binding, because one has accepted that the relationship is a precondition for one's continued advanced socialization in the world and the evolution of consciousness.

I want to use the notion of the spiritual teacher as a working example to expand on the virtues of hierarchy. In contemporary parlance, we may call this the guru–spiritual seeker alignment.

We may divide the persons who embody the moral hierarchy principle into two camps. The submissive, or the student, we may refer to as the hierarchee and the teacher, or the qualified superior, as the hierarcher.

The Hierarchee

One who recognizes a superior is engaged in an act of faith and trust. He or she functions from judgments that are both cognitive and visceral—cognitive because one sees in reason the necessity for moral and spiritual emulation. One knows that one cannot be the source of all of the knowledge that one needs to matriculate successfully in life. One carefully evaluates the hierarcher before whom one surrenders.

Judgments proceed viscerally also. One senses the spirit within; the spirit that harbors the lessons, the insight, the wisdom, or perhaps nothing other than another's sacred and evolved consciousness. No words are spoken. No thoughts revealed. One knows through the deepest part of one's intuitive, nonreflexive being the presence of the authentic and the genuine. The need to hand oneself over to a superior is deep and stems from the moral epicenter of one's soul.

This act is greater than passive submission, however. It is a form of radical intersubjectivity. It is freedom granted to oneself to be deeply touched by another, and to allow the spontaneous gestures and responses that blossom from the encounter to shape a new identity. Such an act might resist the terminologies and labels of the social world. Still, it corresponds to the psychological and moral terrain of one's inner life.

This is the gift-giving feature of our humanity that we own. It is not dependent on the kind of political society in which we live. This gift-giving feature is the humble capacity to genuflect before the other in a spirit of reciprocity, in respectful brotherhood and sisterhood, and say: I am not so complete that I can resist handing over to you some part of my continued socialization and identity formation as a human being. With you, my friend, my humanity, regardless of its origins, continues to expand and will take me to places I could never have imagined.

This gift-giving impulse is part of how we organically make values as human beings. It is what I would call creative social intercourse. And that gives birth to applied creative moral agency.

When in the presence of a moral hierarcher I feel the presence of godhead. A clear spirit of discernment allows me to properly perceive a genuine hierarcher from a charlatan and, perhaps more importantly, my own yearning for evolving consciousness from the infantile need for a person to simply fill a void inside of me.

The willingness to submit one's humanity to another is possible only in a morally ordered and principled hierarchical system of relations in which each recognizes the indispensable offerings and value of the other. One says in the genuflection: We share a humanity, and in the spaces of that sacred humanity something of the divine is achieved. I open myself as a canvas on which you may inscribe your wisdom, teachings, and generosity and share your enlightenment—or whatever seeds of it you may have discovered in your own soul.

The openness of the submissive is an act of enlightened humility. Enlightened because one knows that one is unable to acquire even an infinitesimal amount of evolutionary consciousness entirely on one's own. Cognitive narcissism is replaced by respectful symbiosis. The great moral philosopher Immanuel Kant recognized the interdependence among human beings and saw that moral enculturation helped to cultivate the faculty of reason in persons. Kant thought that keeping alive the possibility of the perfectibility of human nature was an important moral catalyst that aided moral evolution. He writes:

Those natural capacities which are directed towards the use of his reason are such that they could be fully developed in the species, but not in the individual . . . reason in a creature is a faculty which enables that creature to extend far beyond the limits of natural instinct the rules and intentions it follows in using its various powers, and the range of its projects is unbounded. But reason does not itself work instinctively, for it requires trial, practice and instruction to enable it to progress gradually from one stage of insight to the next.*

Kant goes on to say that each individual would have to live for a very long time if he were to make use of all his natural capacities. Because of the short, finite nature of human life, it will require a long period of time and several generations of human beings passing on their enlightenment to successors “before the germs implanted by nature in our species can be developed to that degree which corresponds to nature's original intention.” According to Kant, this intention is to turn human beings from natural creatures—creatures (literally) without a moral personality—into moral individuals.

Nature does not allocate the means for evolutionary consciousness arbitrarily. The mechanisms are acquired by several means. One thing that is clear, though, is that careful attention to the hierarchical steps involved in achieving this divine birthright of ours is a prerequisite for attaining even a speck of it. The paradox is a tricky one: Acknowledging the equal moral and intrinsic value of each person while eschewing the radical, indiscriminate language of egalitarianism. Failure to do the latter results in cognitive hubris or inactive spectatorship, where we simply witness the spiritual and evolutionary work of those laboring on behalf of humanity while failing to be a submissive participant in its organic process.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “God is the Great Beyond in the midst of us.”

I have pondered this statement often, marveling at the hopefulness and the feeling of incredible excitement it engenders as I wake each morning wondering how much closer I am in this journey to nearing the God inside myself. How is it that some people are closer to this Great Beyond than others? Do they live a life of piety? Are they the beneficiaries of awesome and phenomenal experiences that forever changed their lives in ways not susceptible to linear conceptual explications? Were they jolted by an act of grace and catapulted into a realm that made them instantly aware of being in closer proximity to the divine? If so, how can I get there?

The capacity to sustain deep yearning in the absence of answers occurs while remaining a supplicant. One surrenders to the call of a force, part of whose response lies in the humanity of another. This is not veiled masochism (although it can be that). Rather, it is a moral obligation to awaken the godhead that one senses but perhaps lacks the excavational tools to unearth.

[ continue ]


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew