Are Informal and Semi-formal Hierarchical Lists Justified?

Avner de Shalit*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In their important book, Bell and Wang argue that hierarchies are here to stay, and the question moral philosophy should face is which hierarchies are morally condemnable and which are morally justifiable. They convincingly explain that hierarchies that contribute to social functioning and increase human well-being (often even benefitting those on the lower ranking of hierarchies) or hierarchies with a kind of fluid character and consist of mechanisms or rules that enable switching roles can be justified. In my paper, I wish to examine whether, according to their principles, informal and semi-formal hierarchies which are created by the market or by a firm, using an algorithm, can be justified. These hierarchies differ from the ones discussed by Bell and Wang in that they are not part of traditional or legal institutions or relationships. They are actually informal or semi-formal and are often created spontaneously by, or as a result of an aggregation of many individuals' economic exchanges. Sometimes they are publicized formally (e.g., a list of best sellers' authors, or when prizes are awarded) and sometimes they are simply a matter of the wisdom of the crowd. On the one hand hierarchies in markets are meant to (a) inform consumers and producers and (b) create a healthy competition, so, prima facie they help us and increase our well-being. In addition, they are meant to shift over time, as they depend on the quality of the producer and the product and their ability to compete with other, new, e.g., more technologically advanced, products. Therefore, on the face of it, these hierarchies could be justified according to Bell and Wang's theory. Nevertheless, I argue that there are other characteristics of these hierarchies which make them condemnable according to the theory and that the cons outweigh the pros. These are: (1) Market hierarchies are based on category mistakes; (2) Market hierarchies are likely to be deceptive—they might inform consumers but with deceptive and often irrelevant information; (3) Market hierarchies are not genuinely flexible and therefore work against the principle of shifting roles which Bell and Wang put forward.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, Fudan University.


  • Daniel Bell
  • Hierarchies
  • Information
  • Market
  • Wang Pei


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