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Study notes

Hierarchy (Conservatism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Hierarchy can be defined as the means by which members of society are stratified or layered relative to others.

This may be based upon social class and occupation. According to conservatives, we must recognise the obligations of our status in order for society to function effectively. Without a sense of hierarchy, society itself could collapse. People from all walks of life have a part to play in the maintenance of society and – in the words of the seminal conservative philosopher Edmund Burke – we should “love the little platoon in society to which we belong.”

Conservatives believe that hierarchy represents a functional prerequisite within society. Moreover, all conservatives would agree that we can be divided on the basis of a natural hierarchy. We are born unequal with different attributes and characteristics. Inevitably, this also relates to our ability to govern. 

On this important issue, the father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke offered a persuasive defence of the authority held by the ruling classes. For instance, Burke claimed that they could govern the country in a disinterested manner. In contrast, both the middle-class and working-class would serve their own group’s interest. Secondly, the ruling class possessed the accumulated wisdom of previous generations. The lessons of governance had been passed down from one generation to the next, and in his own words “no generation should ever be so rash as to consider itself superior to its predecessors.” Finally, the ruling class were socially superior in the skills of governing than any other. This reflects the traditional Tory emphasis upon divine providence and the natural order of things.

All societies are based upon a hierarchy of some description and its members gain their sense of identity from their place within their level or ‘social strata’. Whilst individuals can move up or down the social strata, the existence of a hierarchy remains. Based on their mindset, conservatives believe that any attempt to reorder society on the basis of abstract concepts is doomed to fail. Revealingly, the most famous illustration of conservative principles springs from Edmund Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France.’ Burke warned against the consequences of seeking to impose abstract ideals and ignoring the importance of tradition within French society. His argument was vindicated by the Reign of Terror imposed by the French revolutionaries. Conservatives are also opposed to the anarchist belief that there is no need for hierarchy within society.

Throughout the ages, conservatives have believed that the existence of a hierarchy facilitates an organic society[1] which evolves naturally according to the needs of society. Only a natural evolving process can ever secure our fundamental need for stability. Whilst conservatives at least recognise that the basis of hierarchy is subject to change, there is an in-built tendency for society to reach a state of equilibrium. Historically, the source of hierarchy within British society gradually shifted from feudalism to capitalism. Crucially, the concept of hierarchy remained whilst the defining element changed from the circumstances of our birth towards how successful we are at acquiring wealth and property.

As one would expect, all conservatives are opposed to revolution. Throughout history, conservatives have argued that revolution will never achieve the objectives of its wide-eyed and hot-headed followers. Indeed, revolutions have repeatedly led to a new form of hierarchy. It is for these reasons that the watchword of the conservative mindset is ‘evolution … not revolution.’

[1] A view largely associated with the conservative perspective in which society evolves via a contract between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. We are all connected via common humanity within an organic whole, and we all have a part to play from those at the bottom to those at the top of the hierarchy.

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