05/08/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Rankism vs. the Golden Rule

This is the 17th in the series 'Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.'

The Many Faces of Rankism

Rankism is a collective name for the various ways power can be abused in the context of a rank difference. It's a name broad enough to cover a wide range of rank-based indignities and abuses. Whereas rank is meant to serve, rankism is self-serving, a perversion of service.

Examples of rankism (some may overlap):
  • Illegitimate uses of legitimate rank (e.g., a boss extorting money or sex from an employee)
  • The creation or use of social hierarchies that condone degradation and exploitation (e.g., the social construct of white superiority and supremacy, the caste system)
  • Damaging or degrading assertions of rank (e.g., hate crimes, sexual harassment, child abuse)
  • Actions or social arrangements that violate the principle of equal dignity (e.g., racial segregation, lack of the franchise)
  • Putting others down; disempowering them (name-calling or obfuscation by elites)
  • Using the power inherent in rank to strengthen the hold on a senior position or otherwise advantage incumbents (e.g., office-holders exploiting the advantages of incumbency to insure retention of rank; life-time appointments that leave tenured teachers, professors, judges, and clerics virtually unaccountable.
  • Self-service as contrasted with serving the avowed purpose of the organization (e.g., executives awarding themselves bonuses not on the basis of performance, but simply by virtue of their power to get away with doing so)
  • Using the power of rank not to empower others, but to promote, enrich, or empower oneself (e.g., predatory lending)
I hope you'll add to this list.

In many cases, ranking serves no purpose other than to create and maintain the privileges of the high-ranking. Although ranking is not inherently rankist, it's often used as a cover for institutionalizing discrimination, for example, in aristocracies, caste systems and schools. Hierarchies are famously prone to ensuring the privileges of rank-holders, to the detriment of those served.

Varieties of Rankism: The Mother of Many Isms














Elder abuse

Prisoner Abuse



Corruption (all kinds)

Influence Peddling





Sexual Abuse

Sexual Harassment





The Golden Rule in the Model of Morality

2012-07-18-AndromedaGalaxy.jpgAs mentioned in post No. 15 in this series of blogs, the simple rule at the core of this model of morality is "Dignity for All, Always." Look around and you'll see that the world is manifestly in violation of this precept: predation and the consequence thereof -- indignity -- is everywhere.

But the fact that we have successfully disallowed subspecies of predatory practice suggests that we might be able to give up predation itself. Though they've not been eliminated, many of the most egregious forms of predation have been made illegal. Delegitimizing residual predation, by disallowing rankism, would usher in a dignitarian era in human history, an era in which we're obliged to respect and protect the dignity of others as we would have them respect and protect ours. Dignitarian politics gives the Golden Rule teeth -- by naming indignities and so making them targetable. Together, science, religion and politics could, plausibly, retire the predatory survival strategy, which has been characteristic of Homo sapiens until now, in favor of a dignitarian strategy that will describe our species going forward.

The manifest righteousness of the Golden Rule has long posed a psychological barrier to inflicting indignity on our fellow humans. The lengths to which we've gone to justify predatory behaviors belies our unease with contravening it. The excuses we invent to create loopholes to the Golden Rule are graduated in proportion to the degree of the indignity we inflict. For example, we demonize our enemies to justify killing them; we dehumanize captives to justify enslaving them; we disparage victims of discrimination to rationalize exploiting them; we dismiss people as nobodies to justify discounting their views.

So long as our individual survival depended on out-competing rivals for scarce necessities, we availed ourselves of excuses like these to suspend our intuition of the brotherhood of man and free ourselves to prey on our human kin. But, the fact that we don't flout the Golden Rule without feeling the need to justify ourselves suggests that if these excuses were disallowed, the rule might become largely self-enforcing. That's exactly what having a collective name -- rankism -- for the various causes of indignity can help us do. As mentioned, just having the word sexism in the lexicon helped to disallow excuses for discrimination against women. In a similar way, might not the word rankism enable us to spotlight residual rank-based abuses of power and put perpetrators on the defensive?

The self-evident nature of the Golden Rule and the success of Einstein's relativity theory both have their origins in underlying symmetries. As the poet says, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Mathematicians have discovered that the connection between truth and beauty lies in symmetry.

The symmetry undergirding the Golden Rule is the assumption of equal dignity for all. The symmetry underlying the theory of relativity is the assumption of equal validity of reference frames (of other observers). A deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos will likely shed further light on the role of symmetry in shaping both physical and moral law.

When, in 1915, Einstein succeeded in generalizing his theory of special relativity to general relativity, he was rewarded by a theory of gravitation that improved upon Newton's classical laws of motion. So, too, when identity politics is generalized to apply to all victims of degradation (not just those distinguished by a trait like color, gender, age, etc.) then we're rewarded with a universal theory of morality. The analogue of Einstein's assumptions -- that one reference frame is as good as another and the speed of light is the same in all of them -- is the assumption of equal dignity for all people regardless of role or rank. Since indignity is caused by rankism, it follows from the assumption of equal dignity that the model of morality delegitimizes rankism.

So long as we see our "self" as a target that must defend itself against indignities, we're likely to respond in kind. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is, among other things, the fundamental law of reciprocal indignity. But if we see our "self" as nimble and porous, we can sidestep arrows with our name on them and respond to indignities in a way that does not attack the dignity of those who trespass against us. Breaking the cycle of indignity and violence is a dignitarian application of "turn the other cheek." As reciprocal dignity becomes the norm, the roles we play in co-creating and maintaining each others' identities become clear, and "love thy neighbor as thyself" begins to look like an obtainable ideal.

While the 20th century saw progress in overcoming certain sub-species of rankism, many varieties of it persist unchecked. Reasons for pessimism and despair are not hard to come by. Since World War II there have been scores of wars, millions of casualties, tens of millions of refugees; fighting continues today in many parts of the world. Since the Holocaust, and despite the world's determination that it not happen again, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and elsewhere. Poverty enshrouds one-third of the world's seven billion people and experts warn that population pressure and/or climate change will pit us against each other in a struggle for scarce resources.

Many insist that man's predatory practices are undiminished and ineradicable. But an opposing trend is becoming visible. While admitting that "the arc of the moral universe is long," Martin Luther King Jr. believed that "it bends toward justice." Did Dr. King, do we, have reason to hope for "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men," or, is the brotherhood of man a pipe dream? The remaining posts address this question.