“Individualism” is not the problem

Critique of Western culture

Unlike most cultures, the West has long permitted internal critique.  Lately, it is being criticised for its “individualism”. 

This kind of criticism used to be focused on capitalist or neoliberal excess, but the new critique is more fundamental.

In a 2010 journal article, Robin Di Angelo, who later wrote the now [in]famous White Fragility, described individualism as “the concept that each of us are unique individuals and that our group memberships, such as our race, class, or gender, are not important or relevant to our opportunities”, and said it results in “relations of unequal power” (https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm).

In a recent newspaper article, Andrew Shepherd (a lecturer in Theology & Public Issues at the University of Otago) goes further.  Commenting on claims about individual freedom in recent protests against mandatory vaccination, he says not only that individualism results in injustice, but that it isn’t even realistic!  To quote:

Within modern Western liberal thought, the “freedom of the individual” is accorded the highest moral priorityBut is understanding ourselves as individuals an honest description of reality?  …  We are social beings.  … [We are] constituted in and through our relationality with others. (https://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/manawatu-standard/20211110/281784222329554)

The writer of a recent letter to the Editor of the Dominion Post (12 November 2021) makes the point even more plainly: “We are not individuals in any way”.   (I apologise for my inability to link to this.)

And journalist Donna Miles shows us where this thinking leads.  She wants “a departure from the selfish approach, which prioritises the individual, to an approach that considers the collective interest as paramount” (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/127111345/time-for-the-national-party-to-embrace-kindness).

Individual responsibility

It is plainly observable that we are, in fact, individuals – each a unique mixed bag of countless inherited and acquired characteristics (some admirable and likeable, some not) topped up with unique experience.

It is equally observable that selfishness, and the harm it does, has nothing to do with ideology but is a basic human phenomenon.  The drive to “look after number 1” has always been with us and isn’t going anywhere.

Selfishness is not something optional or supplementary that we can avoid, but something intrinsic that we have to manage.  Our solution in the West has long been the pervasive and non-negotiable moral imperative, “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

The flipside of the value we attach to the individual has long been the individual’s responsibility for themselves and for the equally valuable individuals surrounding them.

Groups

We unique individuals are also members of groups – not just 2 or 3, though, as each of our countless characteristics can be seen and treated as a grouping.

Western “individualist” thought does not ignore groups.  It can’t do this because every group is a group of highly valued individuals.  In fact, this is why groups are important.  The same is true of the large group we call “the community”.

When groups are ignored, as when any other injustice occurs, it is not due to the value we attach to individual human beings, but to a moral failure by individuals – a failure to “love their neighbour” – especially those whose decisions have great impact.

Groups benefit from morally-guided individual responsibility; however, the converse is not true. Members of groups benefit, and are safe, only when the group values each member.  Collectivism and group-think, on the other hand, routinely operate at the expense of the individual.  In fact, this effect is inevitable because individuals are accorded no intrinsic value: only the group/collective has value and there is no reason to avoid sacrificing the individual to the collective interest.

“Individualism” causes harm when individuals fail morally, but Collectivism causes harm even when it succeeds!

Separation of morality and State

An individual failure is a moral failure for which the individual is morally accountable.  If tangible harm is caused, the law steps in – for example, when a lie amounts to fraud.

This demarcation between morality (traditionally, “Church”) and law (the State) is an essential feature of the West.  Blurring this line means morality is enforced the way the law is – as in theocracies and collectivist republics with their emphasis on total control.  (Indeed, the same blurring of the morality/law line occurs when any non-theistic morality is enforced, regardless of Collectivism – ie in a society that becomes an “ideocracy”.)

The West’s few but extremely boisterous and influential inhouse critics don’t seem to have noticed the global phenomenon of migrants and asylum seekers streaming to the West, not away. 

The West isn’t perfect but, to improve it, we don’t need to pull it inside out or re-imagine it.  Rather, we need to be better behaved individuals – all of us in everything we do, including our public work in corporations and institutions – by taking “Love your neighbour” more seriously.

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