Humans imagine that people have rights and obligations or are part of social classes. There has been a wide variety of social orders throughout history.1 A social order describes the rules of a society. The ruling class usually invents the social order and benefits the most from it. A social order needs a justification to convince everyone to accept the rules. You can compare the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law from 1750 BC, with the United States Declaration of Independence from 1776 AD.
The Code of Hammurabi declares that the Babylonian social order is based on universal and eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. It divides people into three classes, nobility, ordinary people and slaves. The code then sets out all kinds of laws and punishments for transgressions. The United States Declaration of Independence begins with the following sentence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
On closer inspection 3,500 years didn’t make a lot of difference. The eternal principles are replaced by self-evident truths but the order still needed divine support. There is no mentioning of classes. All men are created equal. But the devil is in the detail. Women and slaves did not have these unalienable rights when the constitution was written. Only nobility was done away with as businesspeople had become the ruling class. In the 200 years that followed slavery was abolished and women received equal rights before the law.
Saying that people are equal and have equal rights is problematic. People are not equal in their abilities as well as their opportunities. For example, we can imagine the right to live but we all die. Some people die young and some live very long. Many people are poor and have no access to good education. Some people are rich and can go to the best universities. Still, we imagine that people have equal rights, just like the Babylonians imagined that people are divided into classes.
Social orders are the result of historical and political processes. Ideas are at the basis of them. Equality is a revolutionary and modern idea that has gained ground during the last centuries. It has affected political orders on every corner of the globe. Even the worst dictators now say in public that all people are equal.
A social order is a collective imagination. It doesn’t exist in reality as such, but only in the minds of groups of people. If people agree on a social order, whether it is a division into classes or the notion that everyone is created equal, it can be a stable order. Social orders bring peace and stability. If people agree on a social order they can cooperate more easily as the order settles many matters that would have to be negotiated otherwise. Therefore social orders do not only benefit the ruling class.
Featured image: United States Declaration of Indepence
1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.