Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Individual and the General in Our Lives

Tibor R. Machan

Often people who speak out on various issues will do so as if they knew what is true about all of us. This is the source of all the “we” talk in public discourse. “We have such and such rights,” “We need this or that vitamin or exercise or educational program.” Medical science certainly weighs in with such pronouncements all the time, claiming that coffee is or is not healthful, that cholesterol must be lowered or a certain ratio of age to height to weight is right for everyone.

At the same time there is much criticism about a one-size-fits-all approach to, say, education, exercise, weight loss, nutrition, or style of clothing. It is clear enough that in these and numerous other matters one person’s truth is not that of another, certainly not that of many, many others. It's a bit like shoes—we have our own size that fits while the rest don't. So the career path of one’s brother, father, mother, or friend may well not be the right one for oneself. This is important to realize, otherwise many people will pursue personal policies that do not fit them at all. A singing career may be right for some folks but not at all for others—as, for example, the show American Idol teaches viewers.

This lesson about individualism is perhaps most important to learn in relation to romance. Some of us appeal to some others, but not to all those who appeal to us. There is nothing amiss here at all, only the lack of a good match. Not understanding this can often lead people to get very angry at each other, thinking that they are owed being liked, even loved, when the mutual attraction is plainly missing. But instead of accepting this fact, many take it as a put down or criticism from those they would like to appeal to. It isn’t. It’s merely the announcement or declaration of lack of interest or appeal. And while those who wish to be appealing to someone will find it disappointing that they are not, they need to learn that such this is nothing against them. Again, one could think of it on analogy with liking a piece of clothing which simply doesn’t fit.

In human affairs, like in most matters, some things are true about us all, some about quite a few but not all, some about a few but not most, and sometimes a truth is only about one individual. We, human beings, are, yes, human, and that means some things will be true of all of us—as the Declaration of Independence states, we all are created with certain unalienable rights, for instance. But we are not all equally talented to sing, dance, or run a major corporation. Some of us are suited for parenthood, others may not be, given our other valid purposes and commitments, or our economic preparedness.

This matter is quite important because when folks fail to heed it, there is a strong tendency to promote public policies that will fit some but not others. Some people can live with trans-fatty foods, peanut butter, mountain climbing, and so forth, while others will be hurt by them. Some people can even safely smoke a few cigarettes a day or week without hurting themselves in the slightest, while others will be hurt due to their physiology and biology.

One size really does not fit all but the temptation to think so has spawned public policies that amount to nothing less than tyranny. Never mind for now that imposing even the right way to live is morally and politically wrong, intolerable. But when the wrong ways are being forced on people, that's even more vicious.

Throughout the globe there are many regimes that live by the one-size-fits-all approach and the worst dictatorships in history, ancient and modern, have be guided by such a fallacious political ideal. The regime of Sparta, no less than those of Nazi and Communist countries more recently were, was motivated in large part by this misguided outlook on how human beings should live in their communities.

Of course, thinking that there is nothing that humans have in common is also misguided. Yes, all people have basic rights and when regimes fail to acknowledge this, they can go very wrong along this opposite line of thinking. Some people, for example, think that the mere diversity of cultures around the globe and throughout human history means that everything is relative, there are no universal principles such as human rights or ethics. And there are common goals and purposes suited to some of us but not others—such as joining a bridge club or playing golf or watching football or tennis or, more seriously, becoming experts in disciplines such as physics, biology or economics. More or less large groups of people can share what is right for them to do, what is good for them in their lives, without everyone doing so.

Indeed, both the individualism that rejects one-size-fits-all policies and the communitarianism that tends to promote it need to be rethought. Both have a place in human affairs and it is best to get it right how they make themselves evident in our own lives.

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