Friday, November 28, 2008

Individualism Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

When one regards people as mere parts of some group, like a tribe or race, individual guilt versus innocence does not matter. Nor does due process for establishing guilt. What matters is to strengthen one’s own and weaken the opposite group. Individuals as individuals have no significance for people who think only the group is of significance.

Such people think of individuals the way one might think of some small segment of one’s body. Whether to damage this small segment is to be decided based on whether such damage would hurt one’s body as a whole. Sometimes removing such a small part can help, sometimes hurt. What matters to such collectivist type thinking is whether the group gains or loses.

Ironically quite a few thinkers in the West encourage such tribal ways of looking at people. When someone like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor asserts that individuals literally belong to their group--rather than to themselves--they pretty much lend credence to the thinking that discounts individuals as such. The implication is that individuals count only because they make some group viable or powerful. We think a little like this when we consider sports teams or a nation’s military. What seems to matter is the group.

Individualism, American style, is the antidote to this kind of thinking about human beings. If one comes to realize that individuals are ends in themselves, not mere tools for the group, the kind of confrontations that take place these days--often involving terrorists who think of people in such communal fashion--are less likely to occur. It takes a total discounting of, for example, a young child as an individual of independent value or significance in order to be able to treat it as disposable, a mere tool in a power game. Never mind that the individual who is being disposed of deserved nothing of the sort of treatment to which he or she is being subjected. That the individual didn’t act aggressively toward anyone doesn’t matter in terms of such group think since no individual is credited with a will of his or her own.

Sadly the individualism that pretty much disarms the group hostilities among us--that discourages thinking of people as but elements of a fortress and sees them independently, to be dealt with on the basis of their individual choices and conduct--is not in vogue among those who address issues of politics and human nature. The way someone like Karl Marx and his followers and admirers--and yes, there are many such people left--view us, namely specie beings, ones whose identity depends totally on their membership in the group (in Marx’s case humanity), any respect for individuals can easily vanish. What counts is how someone bolsters the standing of his or her group.

Of course there is ample opportunity under individualism for people to immerse themselves in groups--corporations, orchestras, football teams, sororities--and appear not to count for much as individuals. But that is only appearance. In free societies one joins such groups for one’s own purposes. The individual’s goals matter first, at least in most cases, while the group comes together so as to serve such interests. The organization of the groups will reflect this and there is always in most free countries the exit option.

But when the group comes first--as in a fighting military unit (although only when made up conscripts)--the individual isn’t free to leave it. This exerts great pressure on individuals to conform, not remain “loyal,” whatever their own convictions about the group’s purposes may be. (In fact, of course, such group think merely anoints some members of the group as superior to the rest.)

Ironically, individualism would seem to encourage just the kind of conditions among human beings that are often used to urge conformity to the group and communal attitudes, namely, peace and harmony. Herding people into groups to which they didn’t chose to belong does not encourage genuine solidarity and loyalty. So it seems that effective group projects actually presuppose that individuals matter most, including their decisions to be members of the group.

Tribal thinking was a mistake, albeit one that could be appreciated since often the survival and flourishing of individuals depends very much on being united with others, forming a solid group. But realizing this should not obscure the fact that the only valid point of the tribe is to provide safety and opportunity for growth to the individuals in it. In the case of human beings the significance of the individual is primary since everything worthwhile comes from individual initiative--science, philosophy, art, entertainment--even while that initiative is enriched when combined with that of others.

Some promote rugged individualism, a perverse idealization of the hermit. Sure, at times total independence can have it uses, fraternity is more natural to human beings. This should not, however, obscure the centrality of the individual in human life.

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