“But shouldn’t we care about others? Doesn’t it take a village? Why should we encourage selfishness?”
Possibly because of the prevalence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and its often-misunderstood references to selfishness, the first reaction to the uttering of the word “individualism” is often something akin to the questions above. This comes from a misunderstanding of what individualism is and the idea that it negates, ignores, or cannot exist alongside or to the benefit of society at large.
“…there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior.” — Friedrich Hayek, Individualism: True and False
It is a way of analyzing society and not a directive in which to focus a person’s efforts. If you want to understand social phenomena, it is best understood by understanding the everyday interactions of individual people with other individuals as those interactions propagate throughout society. Essentially, our society is an amalgamation of those individual social interactions.
Selfishness was probably a bad choice of words for Ayn Rand to describe her philosophy towards individualism. To expect the world to understand it as being true to yourself wasn’t too reasonable, and can be incredibly distracting. More time is spent explaining its meaning in the context of individualism than understanding the utility and meaning of individualism itself. Selfishness in this context is better described as this common phrase: “Be true to yourself.” Don’t let the pressures of social conformity change who you are or what you do. It is a testament to the beauty and abilities of the human mind when not constrained by conformity. This is why in her novels, the heroes tend to be individuals who reject the pressures of society to conform and express their art regardless of what pressures are placed upon them, or on the dystopian state of humanity when the pressures of society collectively crush the spirit of man. And we see this as a common characteristic of incredibly successful people today. Those who have changed the world could not have done so if they did not think beyond the societal framework of what already existed.
Individualism is part of an axiomatic belief that plays a large part in how many view the world, even if they cannot articulate specifically why they do so. It permeates our culture in our laws, and in our founding. It has been shaped by our religions and our mythology. It is the idea that shaped this historically unlikely nation we call America. Here I would like to look at and continue to evolve how individualism is expressed throughout several aspects of ideas.
The Opposite of Individualism: Collectivism
In order to understand something, it can be helpful to describe its opposite. Curiously enough, the term individualism was coined as a means to describe the opposite of socialism by one of the earliest socialist, Saint Simon. He used it as a way to describe the antitheses of his vision of a socialist utopia. Collectivism is the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it. But why is that a bad thing? Should not we think of the big picture even if individual people disagree? That may sometimes be the best route to go. But what individualism does is put forth the proposition that even if the majority rules when making decisions, there are certain rights each individual has that cannot be violated when making those decisions for the group. The most extreme example would be that we couldn’t kill a person if it is thought to be good for the group because that violates an individual’s right to life.
We see collectivism most often in terms of political movements via socialism, fascism, and communism. These movements have taken hold in several countries, especially in the 20th Century, with mixed but often devastating results. The largest genocides in history were caused by regimes created using these political ideas. But why?
Collectivism, when enacted economically, is central planning. It is condescending of individuals by assuming that there is a good greater than what they could direct for themselves. Sometimes an individual does not know what is best but they must be allowed to find out for themselves, as nobody else necessarily knows either. Allowing for, and expecting that people will fail, may be part of what is so distasteful for those who detest the idea of individualism. An overwhelming sense of compassion could get in the way of allowing for individual development if part of that process includes allowing for failure.
Individualism in The Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” — The Declaration of Independence
In order for all to be equal, they must be considered individually. For its time, this was an incredibly unique idea, which is worth revisiting as it is often taken for granted as common sense. It was not always this way.
During his nine-month tour of the United States, Alexis De Tocqueville writes much of social equality among Anglo-Americans in his 1835 publication, Democracy in America, because, at the time, it was an incredibly rare and curious thing. The original settlers of the American colonies were neither nobility, nor impoverished. They were a people who left what we would today call a middle class life, because of a principled idea. They left, and were often encouraged by the British crown to leave, in part due to a persecution of their religious practices. In the new land, there was no aristocracy. There were no noble landowners who passed on property to their first-born child, maintaining social stratification for millennia. Along with the Protestant idea that all men are “equally capable of finding the way to heaven,” Tocqueville was consistently impressed by the lack of class differences as compared to European nations. These social situations and religious ideas are what in part shaped our ideas put forth as the basis for our independence.
As it was believed to be the responsibility of each person to secure their own relationship with their God and their was no ruling class to provide for the structure and defense of citizens, the need for self reliance and independence became a part of the psyche of the American people, and it was codified in the Declaration of Independence, then further in our laws.
Individualism in Christianity
Genesis 1:27 — So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
It is often argued that much of American culture and our system of laws has come from axioms derived from religious ideas, and this is one of those ideas.
The creation story of Genesis is not necessarily a description of the materialistic creation of things, but a description of the human experience of creation. And not simply the creation of the world we live in, but the manner in which we also create the world we continue to live in. God, which would be the thing that encompasses the structure of the world, brings order out of chaos through truthful speech. Men and women are made in his image, which makes every individual human sovereign, or divine. If you believe this, then you believe that individual humans are themselves worthy of being treated and regarded as a sovereign individuals whose actions and truthful speech can bring order from the chaos of being. Every individual man and woman is capable of also creating good through their individual reason and speech. Therefore, each individual has their own rights and their own responsibilities which are to be considered sovereign within their own lives.
Individualism and Free Speech
“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” — Benjamin Franklin
In order to support the idea of free speech, one must support the rights of individuals. A major difference between animals and humans is our ability for abstract thinking. It allows us to imagine the consequences of our choices without actually making those choices, and then deciding on the best course forward through utilizing our consciousness of the world and its rules. To believe that each individual is sovereign is to believe that each individual has the right to their own thoughts, expressed through speech. And since every individual knows very little about the world in which they live, it is necessary for progress to have dialogue with other individuals. Groups do not speak. Individuals do. To deny or suppress speech is to deny and suppress thought and progress.
Intersectionality and Individualism
Intersectionalism is an idea that first appeared in the University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989 through an entry written by Kimberle Crenshaw. The concept started by describing the manner in which a person’s gender and ethnicity can intersect as opposed to being “mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.” This idea runs parallel with the idea of individualism, but individualism does not stop with only gender and ethnicity, and does not take into account only societal oppression. It takes into account, or would attempt to if that were even possible, every aspect of a person’s identity when formulating categories of experience and analysis. Individualism essentially takes intersectionality to its logical conclusion, which is a division of a person into everything that makes them unique down to the level of a unique individual. We already figured that out and it is laid out in the spirit of individualism.
Individualism and Identity Politics
While it can be true at a population level that people on average have similar experiences based on their gender and/or ethnicity, any social scientist will tell you the dangers of applying what is true of a population to individual persons, often referred to as an ecological fallacy. So while we can say that white Americans as a population suffer less from abject poverty, applying that idea to an individual person is a form of prejudice. People generally do not like to be treated as anything other than an individual and have their distinct character and situations taken into account.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
The fatal flaw of identity politics is that it takes characteristics of each individual human and distributes them out to groups. However, each individual is just as capable of oppression and malevolence as each other individual. Anyone can be an oppressor and a victim and switch roles throughout life and situations. Taking these characteristics and projecting them onto a group of people reduces the tendency to acknowledge those characteristics in yourself. When you are aiming your aggression towards a group of people who you believe to possess the worst traits of humanity, why would you bother considering their humanity? And if it is indicative of their ethnicity, an ethnicity that you do not share, then you must not share those qualities. This is why those who have historically claimed to fight the oppressors on behalf of the oppressed have committed some of, if not the worst atrocities humanity has seen, and on the largest scale. Individualism holds each human as whole, with the rights, responsibilities, and myriad of strengths and imperfections that accompany all persons. It applies the nature of humanity to all individual people, regardless of their identity traits.
This is in part why individual minded persons might be put off by the idea of white privilege. It is most likely true, that as a population, white Americans deal with less racism directed towards them, and may have a higher net worth. But to assume that and/or use it as a tool to judge or dismiss an individual person is a form of prejudice. It would be no different than assuming a state of fatherlessness and poor education when interacting with an ethnic minority. What may be true of a population is not necessarily true of an individual.
Don’t listen to what people say; watch what they do. — Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, Freakanomics
During the course of daily interactions, the manner in which we treat people that shows respect is to treat them as unique individuals. I don’t know of any person that would prefer to be treated as a member of a group and have their unique characteristics regarded as inconsequential. If you treat each person as a unique individual, you may be an individualist.
Individualism and Free Markets
Socialism being the opposite of individualism is largely expressed as an economic system that plans centrally. Decisions for groups of people and what or how they should consume products are made by a centrally located group of appointed individuals. It takes the choices of individual people and makes those choices for them, or at least creates barriers to making those choices. Individualism posits that the best way to know what people want and need is to allow them to individually choose what they want and need. This is why free markets have historically been able to adjust and evolve so quickly. There is no process in place for a bureaucracy to debate and argue over what to produce or how much of it to produce. Individual people vote every day with their dollars what they want the producers of those products to make more of. The opposite of free markets is also why so many socialist regimes have forced labor camps. They end up needing people to make items that nobody wants simply because they have planned to make them. Conversely, the items people need are not profitable enough to make, often because of price controls, which is why you have forced labor on farms and other forms of food production.
Individualism and Responsibility
Individualism can be scary. If a person truly believes that they have individual rights, and are capable of utilizing them, that means that they also have individual responsibilities. Having responsibilities is in part a burden. It is the burden of humanity to know the future exists, and knowing what it holds, and knowing that we have agency in the manner in which it unfolds can be anxiety provoking. In fact it should be anxiety provoking. Every minute of every day, we all know that it will come to an abrupt and everlasting end.
So why are we not not dying of strokes and heart attacks driven by a constant buildup of cortisol? How is it that we are ever able to relax and enjoy our time on Earth? Why is it that we are so surprised by over-anxiety that it is a medical diagnosis with several pharmaceutical treatments available to help us control it? It’s because we as individuals can take that responsibility and plan, abstractly, against the catastrophes. We can assess the risk of our choices, however muddy they may be, and plan for a variety of outcomes. Individualism puts that responsibility in the hands of each individual person, as opposed to its opposite, collectivism, which farms out those choices to the group, or a central power that makes those decisions for the group. It is the difference between freedom to succeed and the security of slavery. Individualism can be scary because it puts those choices in each of our own hands, which means it puts the fault of our choices in our hands as well. But human beings are beasts of burden. We ache to carry a load.
Our personal fulfillment does not consist of the goals we attain but the journeys we take towards those goals. That is true colloquially and neurologically. And without the allowance to bear that individual burden, we have no purpose. Moving away from individualism moves us away from humanity and towards nihilism.