my philosophy, part 2

In my post of 17 August I explained how one pillar of my personal philosophy is pragmatism, or the difference each belief makes in the world of experience.

In my long journey to discover what my own beliefs are I eventually arrived at another pillar: individualism.

This “ism” applies more to thinking about ethics and politics. What is it exactly? We could do worse than starting with my trusty Webster’s:

1 a (1): a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount; also: conduct guided by such a doctrine (2): the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals b: a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests; also: conduct or practice guided by such a theory

Yes, I subscribe to all of the above. But why does it matter?

The key points are the related ideas of ethics and justice. Aristotle holds that justice is experienced in only one place: the individual human soul, and nowhere else. This means that justice cannot be experienced by any group, except insofar as the group’s individual members are experiencing it. It follows that if you want to promote justice for any group, such as a particular minority, the way to do so is to see that each individual within it is treated justly. Look after the individuals, and the groups look after themselves. We regard collective punishment as unjust, but collective rewards are equally unjust, and for the same reason: the preciousness of the individual is being disregarded.

I have a book called Individualism & Collectivism by the sociologist Harry C. Triandis. An American raised in Greece, he has spent his career studying individualism and collectivism, which he feels are complementary tendencies that exist within every society. Each society, however, has a dominant tendency toward one or the other, with most of the world—I think he reckons about three-quarters—living as mainly collectivist societies, the individualistic ones being those of Western Europe and its offshoots in North America, Australia, and other places. If I recall correctly, Triandis takes the view that individualism and collectivism are both necessary to human society, and one is not inherently preferable to the other.

But to the extent that that is what Professor Triandis thinks, I believe that I disagree. I believe that individualism is better than collectivism, that it represents a more evolved and a superior form of human society, one that is more free, more just, and more prosperous than any society organized around collectivism. I believe that the explosion of science, technology, wealth, and the concern for human rights that has occurred in the past three centuries or so has been because of the ideology of individualism, which came to birth in Europe. Other societies are coming to partake of these benefits to he extent that they embrace an individualistic worldview.

The heart of the difference between individualism and collectivism is the question of rights: whose rights matter more, those of the individual, or those of the group? When these come into conflict, which one should prevail? Triandis illustrates the difference between individualist thinking and collectivist thinking with the example of choosing one’s marriage partner. In China, he says, it might be regarded as appropriate and even necessary for someone to consult with his boss at work about whether to marry and to whom, while that level of employer involvement in this question would be unthinkable in, say, Britain. Involving your boss in your decision to get married means that you are deferring to his judgment and authority about how your choice will affect the team—the group, the collective. And this is because the good of the group, at least as your boss sees it, comes before your personal good as you see it.

Even if it’s not the boss getting involved, in collectivist societies the family certainly gets involved in the choice of marriage partners, usually choosing these for you to ensure that the interests of the family as a whole are looked after first. And your personal happiness? Why, that comes from doing your duty for the family!

One of the main features of collectivism is revealed by the example of the boss: it is authoritarian. The good of the group comes first, and who decides what that good is? The group’s leaders, usually the head male. Is he always right? Well, it’s his call to make, so yes, by definition, he’s always right. Suck it up and move on. (Incidentally, this is why political forms of collectivism, such as communism, always require a dictator—one who is assumed to be benevolent.)

This aspect of collectivism was summed up by the science writer Loren Eiseley in words that struck me so much that I have memorized them:

The group ethic is whatever its leaders choose it to mean; it destroys the innocent and justifies the act in terms of the future.

There it is: collectivism is a doctrine of human sacrifice.

Of course, the issue is not so cut and dried as I’m making it sound here. Here’s an example of my own: the overcrowded lifeboat. Too many people have piled into a lifeboat far out at sea. There are not enough provisions, and the boat will sunk by the first good-sized wave. If most of the people are to have a chance of surviving, some need to be cut loose and thrown overboard. Should they do this? If so, which ones, and chosen how?

Collectivism makes such questions relatively easy. The group will have a clear leader, and he will know clearly that his primary responsibility is to the group as a whole. He may not enjoy it, but he’ll understand that his duty is to chuck some people overboard, and he’ll choose which ones. Over they go, and the rest will, hopefully, have a better chance of survival. Disagree with his choices? Tough—you’re not the leader; he is.

This is why I think individualism is a more evolved form of social organization. Collectivism is the natural condition of a society in “survival” mode. When dangers to the group are real and many, then you need to be tough and realistic about how to survive, which is, after all, job 1. Individualism is, in a way, a luxury of the society that has already survived. We don’t need to be throwing people overboard, and we don’t need the social institutions designed to enable us to do that—namely, authoritarian decision-making. We can afford democracy.

So there you have it: the personal philosophy of Paul Vitols comes slowly into view. I am a pragmatist and an individualist. I can think of one more pillar of my philosophy, but I’ll save that for another time.

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