Individualism Isn’t Ridiculous
Tibor R. Machan*
Some critics of individualism propose an alternative social philosophy and defend it so it is then possible to compare their case to the individualist position. But more often than not what critics do is caricature individualism, suggesting that individualist believe that people are autonomous, meaning, exist all on their own with no need for anyone else. Or they claim individualism means that no one has any moral responsibilities toward anyone else. Or that everyone is basically self-sufficient or should be.
Now clearly very young people have to have the support of their parents, at least, and their intimates so as to get on in life. As they grow up the support they enjoy can gradually be made optional--some support will be rejected by them, as when they refuse to follow their parents’ religious or political guidance. Yet, how would one acquire something as important as one’s language and other skills if there were no teachers about to lend a hand?
Our obvious connections to many, many other people certainly cannot reasonably be denied; so by alleging that individualism requires one to believe in people’s radical independence the critics have their victory via distortion, without actually having to make out a better case. Moreover they leave the impression that their preferred alternative, whereby we all belong to society and owe everything to it, is the only one and is trouble free.
But the kind of individualism that sensible individualists champion isn’t some ridiculous notion that people can grow up and live as hermits. Even if in some very rare cases this were possible, it is surely not the sort of individualism that is promoted in social political philosophy (e.g., by the likes of John Locke, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand). Such individualism focuses on the moral and intellectual sovereignty of people; they need to make choices, and be free to do so, about how to act in much of their lives which they are normally equipped to do. And they need to be able to assess ideas propounded to them by others, make sure these are sound ones and not have them shoved down their throats as is done in more or less Draconian tyrannies.
This is the kind of individualism that’s advanced by reasonable individualists and if it is a good idea, it implies that a decent human community, a just one, needs to be so conceived that people can indeed enjoy sovereignty, that when they join others in various endeavors they do this of their own free will, voluntarily and not be treated like military conscripts (or termites or ants whose identity consists entirely of being tied to others of their species).
A very important point to keep in mind is that individualism isn’t at all the same as forswearing the company of others. What individualism implies is that everyone needs to be free to select those with whom one will associate, be this in adult family life, in friendship, in professional life, in sports and in recreation. Unlike the associations typical of a place like North Korea--and the military of many Western countries--as the individualist sees it adult human beings ought to exercise discretion when they join up with others. Some of this, of course, can misfire--e.g., when one let’s oneself be guided by irrational prejudices such as race or national background (although at times these are mere easy options for some folks, with no malice involved). Or when one chooses to join criminal gangs.
The central point is that individualism prizes more than other social philosophies the personal, private input of all those who take part in adult human associations. These must all be voluntary, in large part because they amount to vital moral decisions on everyone’s part which one would be deprived of making if one were herded into groups one hasn’t chosen to join. True, there will always be some gray areas, as when one is “pressured” by one’s peers or family to be part of some assembly of people one would ideally wish to be free of. There must be an exit option for free men and women but it may take some doing to make use of it.
As with most matters in human life, we aren’t dealing here with geometrical exactitude, just as Aristotle observed over 2500 years ago. But all in all the individualist alternative is far more accommodating of human nature and social life than are the collectivist alternatives that get a lot of support from social philosophers--communitarians, socialists, or social democrats--these days.
*Machan is the author of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). He teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He blogs at http://szatyor2693.wordpress.com/