Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Importance of Individualism

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several weeks I have run across numerous efforts by different political thinkers and activists to discredit individualism. Some have argued that the idea of the individual is a myth created for us by our society. Others have pressed the idea that the individual is a solitary being whose life is awful, lonely and dangerous, so no one ought to champion individualism, the social philosophy which assigns prime importance of human individuals. Others have argued that we are all but cells in the larger body of society or some community, with no independence or will of our own.

At a conference I attended a while back participants were asked to read a book in which the reality of the individual was flatly denied by a scholar who argued for a new version of Karl Marx's socialism. The individual, the book’s author maintained, is a mere social construct with no ultimate reality. (Marx, you might recall, maintained that individualism was an ideology invented to serve the ruling class!) And at an opening frosh seminar at my university one professor read a paper in which he defended the idea that the individual is a figment of our imagination put into our minds by various social forces that benefit from believing in such a thing despite its unreality.

Why, you may wonder, is there so much trepidation about individualism, about the notion that individual human beings do in fact exist and are, indeed, the most important aspect of human communities? This is, in fact, the message of America’s most important philosophical document, the Declaration of Independence. Individual rights which, if they exist, identify one’s realm of personal authority which may not be undermined, are the center piece of the American political tradition. So if one wishes to undermine American ideas and ideals—admittedly not fully realized in American history—it makes sense to target individualism first and foremost. Those who reject American exceptionalism, the view that there is something novel and uniquely valuable about the ideas underpinning American society, also zero in on individualism. They draw on all kinds of disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, and even neurobiology, in their efforts to demean the American individualist outlook. Often they resort to distorting individualism, caricaturing it, in order to besmirch it and thereby undermine any admiration people might have for American institutions and traditions.

One very crucial problem with all this individualism bashing is that it is all done by, you guessed it, individuals. The scholars, political theorists, psychologists and sociologists who weigh in against individualism are, of course, individuals. So what is it they are after with their relentless criticism?

My hypothesis is that the critics want to rob individuals—you, me and all the rest—of the authority over their lives and property. By abolishing the individual person, they are then able to dismiss the wants, desires, purposes, goals, and values of other individuals. In other words, individualism-bashing amounts to a quest for power by some individuals over other individuals. For those who say that it is the community that matters most—or, as a recent piece of writing put it, who elevate society over the individual—really have nothing with which to replace the central role of individuals since communities, societies, countries, and even families are all composed of individuals.

So the most reasonable interpretation of the anti-individualist position, in my view, is that some individuals, by pretending to speak for the group, society, community, or humanity aim to rule the rest of us. No doubt sometimes this is motivated by a belief that if these individuals had the power over us, many problems would be solved, much good would be achieved. No doubt, too, some of the problems of people in various societies do stem from the misconduct of some individuals that others could at times remedy.

Yet, this is not going to be achieved by placing certain other individuals in positions of power. Only when individuals act to invade the lives of their fellows may power be exercised in order to defend against the invaders. As to complaints about how various people think or behave apart from such invasive conduct, they must be dealt with through persuasion and not the wielding of power.

It is always wise to be on guard when people demean individuals and individualism. They are most likely up to no good when they do so. Their claim that we should not take ourselves, individuals all, so seriously but instead serve the group amounts to a plea for the power of some individuals over others, nothing more.

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