There are at least four senses I can see in which a position, person, or society might be ‘individualist’:

1) It might mention individuals – when the theory is asked ‘what is just?’ it responds by talking about benefits to individuals or the rights of individuals. That is, individuals are the primary term in its theoretical vocabulary.

2) It might support private property rights and defend the interests of those with property;

3) It might endorse selfishness and concern with one’s ‘individual interest’;

4) It might endorse the idea of individual choice – that for some range of topics (belief, sex, clothing, etc.) all decisions should be individual in scope and made by the individual who they apply to, rather than made by a group for all its members, or made by some people for others.

We might call these 1. formal individualism, 2. economic individualism, 3. cultural individualism, 4. not sure – liberalism, libertarianism, pluralism, all might have some claim to association with this principle.

Do these things have to go together? Largely, I suspect no. I think there might be to some extent a correlation between 2 and 3, or between 4 and 3: no real connection is obvious between 2 and 4: and I would suggest that 1 implies nothing substantive.

That is, it seems to me that you could use pretty much whatever theoretical language you want to express a given political content – the same practical demands could be produced by a utilitarian, a virtue-ethicist, a natural-law theorist, etc. given the right background assumptions.

In particular, that means that ‘human rights’ in the abstract is empty: to get a meaningful idea requires you to specify what those human rights are. This means that to my mind a language like ‘human rights’ isn’t so much wrong or right as convenient or not for expressing what needs to be said.

What about the other three meanings? Are they good or bad? I think 2. is bad, as the ‘communism’ tab at the top of the screen might suggest. Conversely, I think that 4. is good – for an individual to make those choices which primarily affect only them is just democratic and sensible.

What about 3.? That’s the trickiest. I think here moderation is wise. Excessively narrow concerns – being just out for ‘self interest’ in some selfish sense – seems to be very much a sub-optimal sort of culture, not what we would like to see. But I’m also suspicious of an excessive concern with ‘society as a whole’ or with some vast national or other group – I worry that such an abstracted ideal can be satisfied by the dominance and triumph of that group, but not by anything like its passive, relaxing, or even submissive pleasures, because the group only defines itself as a group when it’s active, not when it’s passive. This might mean that an excess of ‘collectivism’ in this sense has an innate bellicosity and aggression, which would be undesirable.

Perhaps this is just me but it seems ‘healthy’ that people should have individual and independent lives to be interested in – and also healthy to have deep connections to particular other individuals and to immediately-encountered groups, and to a lesser extent larger groups. So on that score (though I’m open to being persuaded) it seems like neither support for ‘individual-ism’ nor opposition to it is best, but some sort of middle-ground.

So the question ‘is individualism good?’ gets the answers ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘somewhat’, and ‘neither’.

2 Responses to “Individualism”

  1. clay barham Says:

    Law, in America, has always been based on several critical concepts, one of which is that people of like situation are treated like others of like situation. If you plunder one person for the benefit of another person, neither of which differ, laws are are violated. If you take from one bank, a punitive tax, and give it to another bank, the law is violated. The Federal Government today, under the direction of organized criminals who break the law and plunder Americans without remorse, is becoming, itself, a center of criminal activity. However, just as with Robin Hood, the few who benefit from theft of their fellows wealth will justify criminal politicians, as did many in Louisiana under Huey Long.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “people of like situation are treated like others of like situation”
    But this is trivial and meaningless. You can always find some way in which two situations are not ‘like’ – unless that’s defined more precisely, no constraint is implied by this tautology.

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