Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 4: Objections

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” – Oscar Wilde

Let us examine some remaining objections to individualism.

“Not everyone wants to be an individual.”

It is likely that people feel that they are purely a member of their group and not an individual in our sense of the word because the person’s culture considers such sentiments virtuous.

But it sounds as though this objection is meant to give the individual a choice as to how to live. This is precisely why individualism is the answer: people’s prerogatives on their lives should be respected. What individualists object to is being forced from birth to belong and conform, taught that this is the only option and the right way for everyone to live; the inability to break one’s bonds to the collective, either in one’s own mind, the eyes of the community or the eyes of others; and to the supremacy of the group at the cost of treating the individual as a mere tool.

“Individualism weakens social ties and discourages contact among groups.”

Individualism does not weaken social links. In my experience, individualists are far more empathic than collectivists. If you do anything that harms the group, including acting differently, thinking for yourself or leaving it, you will be in trouble. Individualists, on the other hand, understand that you could be different and they accept it.

Card carrying members of groups, however, are selfish. Of course, they display selfless behaviour to other members of their group; but this apparent altruism is really a mask for selfishness. The only difference between individualist selfishness and selfishness on behalf of your group is that the concept of the self extends beyond the first person to the whole group. You are still selfish because you want more for your group to the detriment, if need be, of outsiders. This is true of politicians, who want more for their constituencies, parents and their families, trade unionists, community leaders, soldiers, and so on. Collectivists are selfish. We are all selfish.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that collectivists are more selfish. Imagine (as if it never happened) that somewhere Muslims were torturing and killing Christians and Jews (and Hindus and atheists and homosexuals and correligionists of different sects), just for being what they have always been. Collectivist Christians and Jews would speak out against the injustice in defence of their groups. (You probably know that al Qaeda in Iraq lost popularity when it targeted other Muslims for killing. Presumably, killing non Muslims would have been fine.) An individualist would speak out against the injustice of persecuting anyone for their beliefs or ways of life. For an individualist, the feeling of being human overrides our shallow tribalism.

Moreover, individualism is the best way to create links among groups. If you consider yourself a member of your ethnic group (ie. you are an ethnic collectivist), then you will only reach out to another self identified group if you think you have the permission of your group to do so. You have to wait until your leaders have contacted and made peace with outsiders before you are allowed to do the same. But if you see yourself as an individual and everyone else likewise, it doesn’t matter what your group thinks, and it doesn’t matter what group anyone else belongs to because you will evaluate those people as individuals, not as members of groups.

Both selfishness and altruism are wired into our brains from a long time ago. Evolutionary psychology has shown that, long before formal religion and nation states, humans were selfish and selfless when each made sense. As a result, people in collectivist leaning societies will do selfish things and ideology is unlikely to eliminate that.

“Individualism leads to moral breakdown and more crime.”

Now we are criminal psychologists. Places such as Britain and the United States are said to be falling apart (a dog whistle word for rising crime rates) because of individualism. But a look at statistics shows that crime and violence rates have risen in tandem with multiculturalism and ethnic grouping (and peaked more than a decade ago). When England was more individualistic, it was more peaceful. Now it is riddled with ethnic and religious groups fighting each other for a piece of the pie.

We should look harder for the roots of delinquent behaviour. Researchers suggest it has little or no relation to the society’s place on the individual-collective continuum. Instead, anti social behaviour seems to be more closely related to education and income levels. A lower class parent is more likely to rely on physical punishment to discipline aggression and defiance, which models the very behaviour it attempts to suppress. They also live stressful lives that leave them little time to spend monitoring their children’s activities and choice of friends. So, while the individual should always take responsibility for him or herself, children from poor families are far more likely to run to crime than their more wealthy contemporaries. But this has nothing to do with individualism.

“Responsibility to the community is what holds back our worst behaviour.”

This is the argument that, without loyalty to a community or nation or religion, our morals would fly out the window. We would wind up robbing stores, raping women and killing each other just for fun because we do not care what others think. Or at the very least, it would be like in the Simpsons when everyone embraced their individuality and spit off the overpass on cars passing below.

There is something of a “blank slate” argument at work here. The idea is that the community or other entity is the only shaper of our behaviour and human nature could not restrain our actions. The truth is, it can. We have a selfish side AND a selfless side; we have a side that is concerned with fun AND a side concerned with reputation; we have a side that wants to escape from the community AND a side that wants to be a part of it. Our brain is nothing if not complex. We do not simply lose all allegiance to other people when we decide that we do not owe them anything unconditionally. We do not attack people because we think of ourselves as an end and not a means. But communitarian ideas like duty and honour could lead us to attack other groups.

Our worst behaviour comes not when we act alone but when we have the backing of the community. It is only the legitimacy we get from our group’s agreement and cooperation that can make us think we are right to go to war. Individualist violence kills a few; collectivist violence can destroy everything.

“It is not collectivism that is bad: certain groups are bad.”

This is the Balkan argument. Our group is virtuous, brave, just, and whatever other compliment one can use to stroke oneself; their group is foul and irrational and fanatical and lying and cheating and… well, I’m sure I can think of more. This thinking lays the foundation for racism. I hate to inform you, people who believe in bad groups, but YOUR group is bad too. No group is above reproach, not for its history, its present state or its potential for evil. And no group has got it all right, whatever its leaders have told you.

As the people most likely to think this way are the ones least likely to know the people they are talking about, the cure for this thinking is living among other groups of people. You will see that groups are not evil but misguided, and their members do not conform to all your stereotypes and might be very well intentioned.

Are some groups worse than others? What would a typical nationalist consider their group better than others for? I am proud that we have such a glorious history. Shouldn’t we be questioning all our history books? It is better because it is so beautiful. I have never been to a country that was not beautiful. Our culture is more virtuous than others’. Nonsense. All cultures naturally justify themselves. If you spend long enough anywhere you will know how to see things from the points of view of members of the group, and you realise how everything makes sense.

“Collectivism is human nature.”

The idea that, just because something is natural, it is necessarily better is wrong. Likewise, we seem to have the idea that what is right is what is natural. Some psychologists have suggested that rape is human nature as well. Should we take it up as a sport?

Besides, I am not convinced that collectivism in its modern form is natural. As I said earlier, it is quite possible that at a level of a hundred and fifty or fewer people, collectivism is the norm. Altruism toward others in our ethnic group probably evolved to help replicate shared genes. There is much evidence for this claim: to look at history, we see endless examples on all levels of dividing ourselves into in groups and out groups, with sympathy towards one’s own side and ruthlessness towards the enemy. But what is natural about affiliation with correligionists, fellow nationals and so on, whom we will never meet? If we are not genetically related, or so distantly so as to be effectively unrelated, what demands our loyalty?

Humans brains afford countless possibilities. We have instincts of tribalism and violence and evil, and we have instincts of giving, caring, sharing, reason and sympathy. Saying that collectivism is human nature means relinquishing our other, equally real, equally natural capabilities to counteract that side of our nature. If you are doing everything you think your nature tells you, you are giving up part of your brain. To evaluate the sides of your nature and choose wisely is freedom.

“What if there is a war?”

War is collective fighting collective. If both societies are individualist, they will not indiscriminately kill people just because they wear the blue hats instead of the red ones, like collectivists do. If one is individualist and the other is collectivist, it will clearly be the latter attacking the former, and it will be an interesting war. If the society is anarchist, as an individualist society could be, there would be no point in attacking it. You may consider Practical Anarchy by Stefan Molyneux for a better argument than I can make myself as to why this is the case.

But if the individualist society somehow conceded to a war, I do not see how it would be difficult to get people together to fight. Conscription would still be wrong, because conscription is forcing people into slavery in favour of the collective. But you would still have people who see it in their self interest to band together to fight. The most ideologically individualist countries beat the ideological collectivists in the Second World War and the Cold War. When bombs started falling, or were simply seen to be ready to fall, people did not need to think of their country and their society: they thought of their selves, their families, their friends and their freedoms. That was enough.

Though war would not happen if societies were individualist, it would not be too difficult to organise individualists to defend what they believe in.

“What about other collective problems?”

Individualism does not mean that everyone has to do different things. Individuals are better positioned to see the effects of their actions on others, because being treated as an individual leads you to treat others the same. There is nothing stopping people from grouping under a banner of common interest to stop collective problems, such as climate change. In fact, the individualist cultures are where this happens the most. Count the number of non governmental organisations in North America and Europe and contrast them with the numbers in the Middle East, East Asia, Russia, and so on. Of course, some people will not care about such problems and will not work to solve them. My argument is, if working through their consciences to educate and coax them does not work, we should not force them to do anything.

“We need something to believe in that is greater than us.”

I agree, and that is why so many people have dedicated themselves to improving humanity. Unfortunately, many people do not think as far as humanity and only want to further the narrow interests of their tribe and its gods. Doing whatever your government expects of you most likely does not help humankind. Doing things you decide on your own to help your community and your world help you. But we should not feel pressured into service just because we belong. When we are looking for something bigger than ourselves, think much bigger.

I do not know whether to reproach or pity those who consider themselves too weak to make the leap to individualism. Being part of an apparently monolithic group, the feeling of belonging, is sometimes like a warm fire in a big house when it is snowing outside. But the snow is invigorating. It helps you see the world outside your comfortable home clearly. The final post in this series is about how to become an individual.

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