In Defense of Hierarchy and Inequality

Republican liberty requires a judicious mix of equality and inequality

Equality is a defining feature of liberal political philosophy, as I have stated elsewhere. It’s also a cherished ideal in America, at least if defined properly. Equality before the law protects people from violence and oppression. Equality of opportunity gives people the chance to succeed. Certain types of equality respect the dignity arising from the common nature that all humans share.

Yet equality necessarily fails if it becomes the central guiding principle of a regime. The French Revolution was founded on “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” They had too much equality and too little fraternity, and as a consequence oscillated between unbridled license and horrifying repression. Communist revolutions inevitably end with elite “party leaders” ruling over a mass of impoverished “comrades” tasked with burying the corpses of their unlucky brethren.

Republican liberty requires a judicious mix of equality and inequality. The difficulty is to craft a defense of inequality and hierarchy without discarding the idea that humans have equal value. This essay explores the Puritan leader John Winthrop’s attempt to articulate a defense of inequality within a polity devoted to helping all people flourish. His views can speak to similar debates today.

John Winthrop on Inequality

Winthrop’s defense of inequality derives from a sermon, called “A Model of Christian Charity”, written and presented to his fellow settlers either just before or during their journey to New England in 1630. Winthrop sought to knit the new colony together by providing guidance about social relations and mutual duties.

The sermon begins with a memorable claim that inequality stems from providential design:

GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean [i.e. lowly] and in submission.1

As Winthrop argues, “no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy … out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.”

Winthrop then proceeds to explicate three advantages of inequality.

First, inequality glorifies God. Just like “the rest of his works,” the “variety and difference” found in a human society display “the glory of his wisdom.” God is inventive and delights in manifesting his creativity. Life would be monotonous if everyone looked the same, sounded the same, had the same interests, and so forth. Perfect equality, if nothing else, would be boring. Moreover, Winthrop adds, “the glory of [God’s] power” is shown “in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole.” Good things come from God, but they generally come through the agency of other humans. Winthrop argues that, just like a king who has many “stewards,” God glorifies himself more by dispensing good things through the agency of other humans rather than giving his gifts to humans immediately. In short, the sheer complexity and diversity within God’s kingdom magnifies his wisdom, power, and authority. Only a truly great being could rule such as a kingdom.

Winthrop’s argumentation here is theological and God-focused. God is glorified by the outward display of his attributes—such as wisdom, power, grace, and mercy—in ruling the world and sending his Spirit to work in it. Men tend to have a man-centered view of God as a divine vending machine whose primary purpose is to dispense favors to people. Winthrop reminds us that the universe is not ultimately about us, and that we fulfill our highest purpose when we glorify God.

Winthrop’s second argument states that inequality gives people greater opportunity to develop a variety of virtues. The “rich and mighty” learn to moderate and restrain their appetites so that they do not “eat up the poor,” while the poor learn not to be resentful or jealous. The “great ones,” through God’s grace, learn “love, mercy, gentleness, temperance, etc.,” while the “poor and inferior” learn “faith, patience, obedience, etc.” If everyone were equal and identical, these virtues could not be displayed. And all of them require the help of the Holy Spirit, Winthrop explains, further glorifying God. 

Third, inequality causes mutual need, which knits all the citizens “together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” If everyone was self-sufficient, then no one would need anyone else—you might as well not live in a community at all. But when the rich need the services of the poor and the poor need the money of the rich, then people understand their own limitations, learn humility, and learn to live as a good neighbor to others. It is possible to imagine humans being solitary, like many species, but we aren’t. We are social creatures. No individual possesses all of the strengths and abilities necessary for societal flourishing; each needs the gifts of all other members of the body politic.

The sermon’s second and third arguments emphasize the need for moral formation in the service of community. Humans need each other. We are not self-sufficient, although the spectacular productivity and wealth produced by industrial capitalism sometimes blinds us to this fact, to the impoverishment of our moral discourse. We talk more about what we are entitled to than what kind of person we need to be to make the world a better place. Winthrop reminds us that inequality can teach people virtues like mercy or gratitude that make community possible in a wicked world of scarce resources. Inequality and diversity produce mutual need, thereby strengthening community. No amount of impersonal government welfare can impart the same lessons.

Winthrop proceeds to describe the behaviors necessary to make an unequal society thrive. While this discussion is beyond my purpose, Winthrop emphasizes the need for mutual love, sacrifice, and commitment to the public good, concluding that

we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. . . . We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. . . . We must delight in each other . . . always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

In Defense of Inequality

I will highlight one of the ways in which Winthrop’s thoughts on inequality can inform contemporary politics. The theistic worldview in the sermon challenges a contemporary moral philosophy known as “luck egalitarianism” (LE). As Eric Nelson describes LE:

Some people live longer than others; some are smarter, healthier, more easily pleased; others more beautiful and talented. For these reasons and many besides, some people are also richer than others. Over the last thirty years, a substantial number of political philosophers have defended the view that this set of facts about the world amounts to injustice.2

The realm of “luck” is said to encompass natural abilities, home environment, and random occurrences. Because such things are beyond one’s control through freely willed actions, adherents of LE argue that people do not deserve to be harmed by them. Ronald Dworkin, for instance, insists that inequality deriving from “brute luck” (i.e. negative outcomes to which we are exposed unwittingly or against our will) is unacceptable.3

LE urges that the state must compensate citizens for “unfair” disadvantages deriving from unchosen occurrences or natural differences between people. Its adherents demand extensive and counterintuitive interventions in all areas of life. A person of low intelligence, for instance, deserves “compensation”—money or other advantages—simply because he is unintelligent. The goal of state intervention is to equalize “privilege” or “access to opportunities” so that everyone has equal “advantages” such as money, pleasure, status, and power.

Many people who criticize LE embrace the even more radical perspective that no choices are truly free. The entire pattern of society is seen as arbitrary and unjustified on this view, since all or almost all human choices are predetermined by one’s upbringing, one’s cultural context, or the structure of society. And if “all aspects of human life (effort as well as native endowment)” are “outside our control,” permissible inequality “becomes a null set.”4 We ought to reshape society in pursuit of some external pattern of the distribution of goods (such as absolute equality), critics conclude.

Winthrop’s God-centered worldview, in which inequality derives directly from God’s will, undermines the foundations of luck egalitarianism and its radical cousins. The belief that God is responsible for the distribution of natural talents and circumstances puts inequality in a new light. It is not a misfortune to be avoided but an opportunity to be grasped. While we have duties to help others in their misfortune, we should not idealistically pursue a state of perfect equality, attempt to eliminate all human differences, or valorize self-sufficiency. Mutual need is a positive good, although suffering ought to be remedied.

LE even begins to appear blasphemous, a denial of either God’s goodness or sovereignty. As Eric Nelson points out, “luck egalitarianism turns out to incorporate a silent and controversial theological premise: namely, that no theodicy [i.e. defense of God’s justice] is possible,” presuming that “no cosmic Distributor exists.”5 An obsessive concern with making up for the “failures” of the natural order exhibits a lack of concern for God’s providence. Is any answer to radical egalitarianism possible that does not begin with a firm belief in divine providence?

Winthrop framework rescues us from a related quandary. Those who assume that “brute luck” must be remedied, but are unwilling to endorse absolute equality, are tempted to conclude that the “personal choices” of the poor justify their poverty. We vindicate God by blaming men. The poor, on this view, deserve their misfortune and have forfeited any claim for help. If they want to escape their situation, they must adopt “personal responsibility.” Adopting the rhetoric of personal responsibility seems to be a useful way to rebut charges that society is systemically oppressive. To attribute poverty to impersonal social forces would seem to expose the prevailing social structure as unjust and thus in need of radical change.

Winthrop’s theory reduces pressure on conservatives to blame the poor. If we view inequality as a necessary and divinely ordained condition of life in this world, we are absolved of the need to ward off the specter of radical redistribution. We are freed to appreciate that, sometimes, people are just born with fewer abilities or don’t get as many opportunities. For Winthrop, remember, “no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy … out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.” If the poor are poor for no fault of their own, we can work to meet their true needs without moving heaven and earth to produce equal outcomes. The poor need not feel either shame or envy.6 Sometimes poverty stems from poor choices and wealth from good choices, and law should encourage good choices and discourage bad choices. The Puritans did not tolerate laziness and were famously hostile to vices. But sometimes poverty is just random (i.e. providential)—and that’s okay.

Third, for exactly the same reason, Winthrop’s sermon undermines aristocratic justifications of inequality. Inequality may be unavoidable, but it is not a license for the elite to view themselves as a different sort of person than the poor. This is arguably how America’s elites today view themselves, especially in relation to the “deplorables” or the “science deniers.”7 And some neo-Nietzscheans on the Dissident Right see the world as divided into worthless “bugmen” and natural aristocrats.8 Winthrop’s view better appreciates human dignity. The “high and eminent” do not owe their social position to innate virtue any more than the “poor” owe their “mean” condition to a lack thereof.


John Winthrop’s theory of inequality in A Model of Christian Charity provides an attractive framework for viewing inequality today. Specifically, it forges a middle path between egalitarianism and libertarianism by advocating a generosity aimed at producing sufficiency. We are not burdened with the gargantuan task of ensuring perfect “equity” (i.e. equal outcomes) or eliminating every disadvantage, but neither should we blame the poor or expect people to pursue wealth as atomistic individuals. A Christian society should be neither uncaring nor obsessed with eliminating the human diversity of talents, interests, and functions. Different people may have different callings, and thus different lifestyles and incomes. Everyone has a duty to attend to the necessities of other people, but not to provide for superfluities. The goal is to enable as many people as possible to live well, all the while recognizing that (in Jesus’ words) “the poor you will always have with you.” This perspective rejects radicalism and idealism without divorcing morality from politics.

Moreover, this essay highlights that one’s standpoint on “political” topics like justice cannot be separated from one’s theological commitments, even though most people today pretend they have none. Political positions on equality and fairness have implications for how one views God and His goodness. Christians, then, ought to reject calls to compartmentalize their faith or to limit themselves to secular arguments in a “neutral” public square. People with a providential worldview will approach these issues differently than people with a functionally atheistic worldview, and Christians should not apologize for advancing their vision of the common good.

*Image Credit: Wikipedia

Show 8 footnotes
  1. The edition from which I quote uses modernized spelling and punctuation. It can be found here:
  2. Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 73.
  3. Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  4. Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism, 74.
  5. Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism, 75.
  6. See John Marsh, “Continental Divide,” The Hedgehog Review, Volume 16, Issue 3 (2014): 62-74.
  7. For a trenchant criticism of one manifestation of the new oligarchy see Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (London: Penguin Books, 2019).
  8. Michael Anton, “Are the Kids Al(t)right?” The Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2019,
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Douglas Walker

Douglas Walker is a Research Associate at the Center for the American Way of Life in Washington, DC. He formerly taught political science at Samford University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Eastern Michigan University, and has published on religious liberty, liberalism, and the U.S. Constitution. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, son, and daughter.