Every now and then, I read something that really scares the hell out of me. Part of the alarm I feel comes not just from the bone-chilling consequences of what was said, but also from the feel-good, “this is the kind of thing that really nice people can believe in” way in which the blatantly evil concept was worded.
In order to enable the creation of regenerative cultures everywhere “there is a need for a jurisprudence that recognizes that the well-being of the integral world community is primary and that human well-being is derivative” (Berry, 2001).
“How is that scary?” one might well ask. What’s wrong with thinking that the well-being of the community takes precedence over the well-being of the individual? Aren’t the needs of the many more important than the needs of the few?
There are answers both tangible (historical accounts) and philosophical.
Starting philosophically, “community” and such synonyms as “society” or “the people” are abstract concepts. We may easily define the word, but, unlike “rock” or “tree” or “chair,” we can’t point and say, “Look, there’s one.”
Try it. The statement in question places community in opposition to human, at least in regards to well-being. But just try to find and touch a community. We can point out a member of a community, but we would be pointing to a human. There lies the rub. Any community is just a gathering of humans. We cannot speak meaningfully of “community” without considering the underlying humans. Neither can we speak meaningfully of the well-being of any community without including the well-being of its component humans. In others words, not only are they not opposed to each other, they cannot be considered separately from each other.
The real-world consequences the primacy of the community are, tragically, entirely too numerous. The idea that the needs of the “people” trumped the needs of any particular person was the driving force behind the murder of more than 100 million individuals by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and any number of other Socialist regimes during the 20th century.
Being an abstract concept, a community cannot speak for itself. It cannot write a blog or letter to an editor, it cannot speak at a conference or make a guest appearance on a radio show — there is no way for a community to communicate what contributes to its well-being or what erodes its well-being or even specify the current state of its well-being.
There are any number of people who have claimed to be a representative of their particular community with the power to speak for it: Stalin, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Jung All3, Pol Pot and many others. And since a “community” cannot directly communicate its concerns and needs, no one can contradict anything these people say about the well-being of their community. Any who might try are deemed to be an enemy of said community and the punishment is rather harsh.
However, the members of a community — the humans — can tell us all about their individual well-being. If you say the well-being of a community is the aggregate of the well-being of its members, you would then be recognizing that the well-being of the human is primary and the well-being of the community is derivative.
You would, of course, be right. But that would also be in direct contradiction to the statement I quoted. So now you have a choice. You can accept the conclusion and embrace “the primacy of the individual” or you can reject that idea and stick with the original because the thought of “the primacy of the community” makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.