The Myth of the Divide Between Individualism and Collectivism

Mirrored from

What!?‘ you may well ask.

These are diametrically opposed, are they not? Those in favor of one of these views of personal identity, the economy, and public life generally despise the other. Proponents on one side of the ideological divide often shudder at the very thought of being identified with the other. So what could I mean by this?

I’ll start, then, by defining my terms.

Individualism, I think, is easier to define in a way that’s generally acceptable. In this view, protecting the rights and liberties of the individual is the ultimate aim of morality and politics. It holds that each human person has their own integrity of mind and body (and by extension, property) and should not be subject to coercion, harm, or theft. Individualism is preeminent in American culture, and the values associated with this worldview are emphasized by most modern democratic, capitalistic societies. It’s also, at first glance, most consistent with the ideals of the Age of Rights, which places the highest value on the rights of individuals, which should not be infringed on by the state nor by others.

Collectivism is harder to define. The 20th century saw the rise of collectivist, or socialist, states, the largest and most influential of which (ostensibly) valued the society more than individuals. When many think of collectivist societies, they think of Chairman Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. To my mind, however, these societies were collectivist in name only: since it was the will and interests of one individual or few individuals that were imposed on those societies, usually to the detriment of everyone else. There was little or no willing collective effort for the collective’s sake, little to no public input regarding the collective’s rights and interests, and little to no collective benefit.

For the purposes of this piece, I define collectivism more broadly as the idea that a good society, in which people flourish and live as freely as possible, can only be achieved by some significant level of collective action. In this view, there is such a thing as the public good, and morality demands that everyone should do their part to sustain it. The full details of what the public good consists of and how it can be achieved should be debated by the public, but its characteristics include the idea that all human persons have as much moral worth as much as any other, that all have rights regardless of ‘merit’ (real or perceived) and wealth (or the lack thereof), that all are morally accountable when they fail in their responsibility to protect and nurture those rights, and that the fates of all are intertwined.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that these conceptions of individualism and collectivism each have their attractions, and each contain some level of truth. Both are ultimately concerned with the well-being of all people, even if they might seem to start from a different end of the spectrum in deciding where the foundation of values should be (with the individual, or with the group). Both focus on human rights. So why are people so divided in their views on this matter, at least as presented in the mainstream media and by political parties?

Perhaps it’s because the arguments that we hear so often present a distorted view. Not only do public figures, pundits, commentators, and even educators offer caricatures of others’ views, they often present a misleading, even simplistic view of their own. Here are some ways I see the how we make [non]sense of the tension between individualism and collectivism, between the one and the many, as manifested in public discourse:

From libertarians and the far right:

– A tendency to systematically overemphasize the individualness of individuals. In other words, they represent individual achievement as attributable entirely, or almost entirely, to the innovation, creativity, and hard work of the individual. But in almost every case, each great ‘individual’ achievement is possible because they had the infrastructure of ideas, innovations, inventions, technologies, and discoveries of those who came before available to build on. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example, were able to accomplish what they did because their admirable hard work and creativity enabled them to take the discoveries of mathematicians, physicists, metallurgists, etc, to the next level of technological advancement. The widely-mocked (and admittedly clumsily worded) ‘you didn’t build that’ quote from a 2012 Barack Obama speech was a cynical reaction of the radicalized right against any sort of public recognition that while individual talent and effort are crucial, we also rely heavily on each other in achieving what we do.

– A tendency to underestimate the degree to which a robust morality of social responsibility makes individual freedom not only more expansive, but possible in the first place. Without morality, without a social framework of cooperation, self-restraint from plunder and violence, and the generosity that’s more the rule than the exception in any human group, individual human beings would be left in the narrowly circumscribed situation of the forager and lonely hunter. We would have little time and leisure left to such luxurious pursuits as the acquisition of knowledge, the sharing of ideas, artistic creation, and technological innovation that human beings are so uniquely good at, if we are constantly busy simply feeding ourselves, warming ourselves, and fighting each other off of what little stash of goods we’ve managed to obtain. It may be objected that since human beings naturally desire to better their situation, self-interest would lead to cooperation through the desire to trade. But that only begs the question of why we would engage in fair trade, and not simply plunder if we are the strongest. Why has this instinct for reciprocity has become part of the fabric of the human personality?

From 20th century-style communists and socialists

– A tendency to devalue the importance of the individual out of proportion, and even divorced from, the importance of society. The major autocratic socialist regimes ruthlessly quashed opposition, disposed of enemies, and systematically repressed all but the most insipid, and most propagandist, forms of the arts (and still do! Though not so many). Societies ended up in the odd state of being glorified by their leaders as the greatest in the world, while simultaneously made up of citizens that were each so worthless that any one of them could be legitimately disposed of like so much garbage, if it seemed in the best interests of the state.

From liberals:

– A tendency to declare that government should not be in the business of ‘legislating morality’, while at the same time demanding that government demand accountability for some forms of wrong-doing. Government is a moral enterprise by definition. For example, when a law is made that one person may not kill or injure another, it’s made because of a society’s moral position that life is better than death, and that it’s wrong to infringe on another person’s right to live and thrive. Morality, and law, have everything to do with a society’s deciding what people should or should not do; in other words, it’s normative. There are many who try to downplay the relationship between law and morality, including this blogger who described the law as simply a set of rules to ensure that society is ‘harmonious and safe’, while morality has to do with your ‘personal sense of right and wrong’. But this is not at all how law works now, and not at all how law emerged as a product of human psychology as a social. From the beginning, the law has always had to do with retributive, distributive, and restorative justice, though the balance of these three differ from society to society. Laws that attempt to harmonize society, for example, are based on the notion that harmony is better than discord, that people ‘ought’ to maintain harmony by refraining from violence and disturbing the peace. Laws that govern parking originate with the idea that public spaces ought to be used and maintained for the benefit of everyone. Laws that protect people from assault originate from the idea that people have a right to life and health.

– Closely related to the above, a tendency to incoherence as to whether they themselves view government as moral, or morally neutral. Many liberal people decry any governmental attempts to interfere with some behaviors, such as those pertaining to sexuality and drug use, on the basis that these are moral, and therefore strictly personal, issues. But at the same time, they will demand that government regulate or prohibit other behaviors, such as fraud committed by financial institutions, or in the use of torture and the targeting of minorities in stop-and-frisk policies, on the basis that the latter practices are wrong or unfair. Yet all of these issues have everything to do with morality: what we ought and ought not to do, and why. For example, a democratic government is based on the moral norms that every individual has rights and that every individual’s well-being matters. Therefore, a good government is based on the moral norm that every individual should have a say in what their government does. A society with such a government also, by the very fact they have a government at all, think that all members of society have responsibilities to one another. After all, if there is no moral accountability, there are no norms, no law, no society. We end back up where the radical individualists left us: lonely scavengers or predators, without the vast resources social cooperation offers.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly disparate views?

I think we need to realize that the very idea that there is a sharp dividing line between individualism and collectivism is an illusion. In fact, individualism is not only reliant on collectivism, but is a product of it. We get to pursue such energy-expensive, extravagant projects as music, literature, art, government, architecture, and the rest because at some point we started banding together in a network of support rarely seen in other creatures. We rallied to protect our big-brained, long-vulnerable young, share the fruits of the hunt and of foraging, and invented such social-cohesion-strengthening practices as making music, telling stories, taking part in rituals of marriage and burial, and creating art.

And how do we craft societal practices that promote the rights and interests of the free individual, without undermining the collectivism that makes individual freedom possible?

As we have seen, 20th-century-style ‘socialist’ governments revealed how a society is undermined when it 
under-emphasizes the individual and overemphasizes the collective. But given the utter disregard for individual human life, and individual human rights, it’s not so hard to recognize how badly they got it all wrong. When your ideology holds that a great society is made up of individuals that are so worthless that they can be eliminated at the whim of the government, or have no personal rights or value outside of their value as laborers or fulfillers of some pre-determined role, or have no say in what their government or their autocratic ruler does, than the whole society is undermined by being made up of powerless, dehumanized, devalued, uninspired, unmotivated people.

It’s also the case that those social instincts that make us such successful cooperators combine with other instincts sometimes in a way that leads to atrocious behavior. Anti-Jewish pogroms, racially motivated massacres such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and rampages following sports games are such example of violent mass-hysteria. The tendency of people to ‘follow the leader’ in heartless behavior is as thoroughly documented in laboratory studies as it is in the history books. Democracy and reason are the two best tools human beings have come up with to correct the excesses of our strong social instincts. The secret ballot box allows us to participate in governance without coercion or in-the-moment peer pressure, and reason allows us to step back and reflect on whether or not we we’re doing, or what we’re about to do, is really in our own, and everyone else’s, interests. 

Independent-minded individuals, less prone to coercion, herd instinct, and social pressure, are also absolutely essential corrective not only to mass cruelty, but to to entrenched laws and norms that have outlived their usefulness, and whose immorality have been overlooked, explained away, or overridden due to other social interests. Slavery is a classic example of this: a popular desire for attaining personal wealth combined with entrenched racism (the ugly side of tribalism), led a majority in many societies to ignore their own moral sense of sympathy, justice, and beneficence in favor of policies that catered to their baser instincts. It was a few dissenters that reminded society of what morality is for, and how institutionalizing cruelty and indifference to the interests of other human beings harms everyone, that led societies to reform themselves and change their policies to better serve both individual and collective interests.

On the other hand, oligarchic, fascist, and other ultra-capitalist societies, which hold that government’s only job is to enforce contracts, prevent invasion, and prevent people from assaulting one another, also undermine themselves, because they have only a negative conception of freedom as their moral foundation. When a government is structured according to the idea that human beings have few responsibilities to each other than fulfilling contracts and respecting property rights, they become a society where fewer and fewer people are enjoying the fruits of everyone’s labor. For example, monopolies develop (as Adam Smith pointed out), which set prices and wield most of the power over legislators. You have fewer and fewer wealthy individuals and organizations that pay to influence the halls of power, that 
monopolize the dissemination of information trough mass media, while the voices of those that have little or no money to do so are drowned out. You get societies made up that look like the early industrial towns when capitalism first flourished without regulation, where many got rich, while a great bulk of others ended up doing crippling labor in squalid conditions, withe the empty ‘choice’ of accepting such work, or facing privation or starvation. You end up a society that drives down wages for most people while fewer and fewer funnel all or most of the gains made by an economic system to a few, more ruthless individuals that are left at ‘the top’

Because I see individualism and collectivism as intertwined, I’m in favor of a strong democracy and a mixed economy. In a healthy, democratic society, it’s the innovators, the creative geniuses, the ‘weirdos’, that ensure that a society is adaptable, rich in ideas, technologies, and creativity, and does not stagnate and wither away. Human beings succeed not only because we are social, we succeed because we are adaptive and innovative, and it’s the freedom of the individual to come up with new art forms, technologies, ideas, etc, that make a society dynamic. The incentive of improving one’s lot in life through one’s own hard work also fuels the drive to better ones’ self.

A ready analogy for this is the necessity of genetic mutations in evolving a successful, adaptive species. While not all mutations (innovations, new ideas) are beneficial, there are some that are, and without those pioneering one-offs, a population cannot adapt to meet new and challenging circumstances, and does not possess that wonderful variety of traits that make it both capable of much, and fascinating to behold. A society of individuals free to pursue their own goals and protect their own interests, so long as they contribute to the public good and don’t harm others, is that which is likely not only to survive, but thrive. For example, free trade, sometimes derided by modern liberals, is an excellent tool that is both highly individualistic and highly socialistic. It incentivizes and rewards individual innovation and hard work, though an elaborate framework of cooperativeness that includes, but is not limited to, a strong commitment to fairness and reciprocity, a conception of justice that demands recompense for hard work, and a distaste for theft and exploitation. But like all tools, it must be used wisely and well, and within certain parameters.

And this this is why I also believe in such collective projects and institutions as publicly-funded roads, public education, and health care. I believe in regulations such as gun control and strict regulations for drivers, since these don’t prioritize the rights of some individuals to put others in danger for insufficient cause. I don’t believe in society-aggrandizing, anti-individualist enterprises such as war (in most circumstances). After all, you have few rights when you are incapacitated by injury and disease, and none at all when you’re dead. A society that places few restrictions and responsibilities on gun owners and operators of motor vehicles make it all to easy for one individual, in a moment of temper, carelessness, or mental instability to permanently remove all or most rights from fellow human beings. As we can see from (most) heavily-armed, hyper-individualistic societies such as the United States, we kill and injure one another at enormous rates with our guns and our cars. A more morally robust concept of civic duty would lead to the creation of laws based on the premise that a right which bears greater risks engenders a greater burden of responsibility. And since government is a moral enterprise, its laws should not only hold people accountable for doing wrong to one another, but demand some responsibility to do right by each other. 

Why morality requires both accountability and responsibility is another Big Question. Sounds to me like a great topic for another essay…


Some sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy’, 2012 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy
Darwall, Stephen. ‘Moral Accountability’, 2014, Philosophy Bites podcast

Ellis, Joseph. Revolutionary Summer, 2013

Heath, Joseph. Economics Without Illusions, 2010

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011

Sandel, Michael. ‘A New Citizenship’, 2009 Reith Lectures

To Edinburgh I Go, In Search of David Hume

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy! I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my first philosophical-historical themed adventure, and my first trip to Edinburgh, Scotland!

Here’s my plan:

I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’ve decided to start with the philosopher I most admire as a person as well as a thinker, the great David Hume. He was not only revered for the brilliance of his ideas and his honesty in presenting them, but also as a premier example of a genial, generous, great-hearted person; so much so, in fact, that one of his closest friends nicknamed him ‘Saint David’.

Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher to write in English and among the greatest philosophers of all time, period. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a profoundly influential empiricist and moral philosopher

So off to beautiful Edinburgh I go! There, I’ll visit the places where he worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested. I’ll be traveling there in the first two weeks of May, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing in this blog not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life, and whatever feeling of his time and place I manage to uncover in my time there.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!


Here are my essays on Hume as I discover him in my travels, in (roughly) chronological order:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
and a memory quilt I created after my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!