As a citizen of the United States, I’ve spent more than a little time wondering if it’s entirely a good thing that our culture is so very individualistic.
American individualism does originate from some excellent roots. The colonies that became the United States were largely founded by farmers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, the dispossessed, and others with a bold, adventurous spirit that animated them to cross the seas and start a new life from scratch in an unknown country.
These migrants included religious dissenters who struck out on their own and founded new faiths, devising theological arguments to demonstrate the righteousness of their doing so. Their arguments would later be adopted for secular purposes as they were used, barely altered, to support the right to freedom of thought and speech, and were embraced widely by many independent-minded communities. They were also open to new ideas, and were often more ready to accept innovative moral and political theories of the Enlightenment which emphasized individual rights and self-sovereignty over traditional authoritarian and elitist social systems than were their European counterparts, and more ready and able to implement them. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are all essentially Enlightenment documents, embodying that intellectual movement’s conception of human nature and of the just society founded upon individual human rights.
The American project has always depended on free, forward-thinking individuals, and our national creed is founded on these three core beliefs: that individual human lives are valuable for their own sake, and that human rights not only exist, their defense should be our highest priority, and that all legitimate governmental authority originates with the people as a whole. Political systems founded on these beliefs, conceived in Britain and established first in America, reveal the strength of this view, and over time proved that individuals and society alike benefit enormously when the rights and interests of individuals take highest priority.
For one thing, they claim, the more individual rights are emphasized, the better off everyone is. Compare constitutional democracies, republics, and free-market societies which emphasize individual rights with societies that emphasize the interests of the group, and we can see that the former do a much better job overall of enhancing people’s lives. There’s more wealth, less poverty, more opportunity, and greater autonomy in the former. The reason it works out that way, they argue, is because human nature is naturally individualistic first, and social second. For example, Michael Shermer, a well-known science writer who leans libertarian, argues that just as the individual is the object or target of evolutionary selection (or in other words, what selection acts upon), so it is the individual who should be the object or target of ethical concern and legal protection. (See my response to Shermer’s article here.)
But there are some problems with these arguments. For one thing, it’s not historically true that societies that have done the most to improve lives focus almost exclusively on individual rights without regard to the interests of society. The laws of the United States, for example, are very concerned with the interests of the society as a whole as well, and are structured so as to find the correct balance between the rights of individuals and the interests and responsibilities of the people. ‘We the people’, a collective term, was chosen to as the introduction to the United States Constitution, not ‘we the individual persons’! In fact, the Bill of Rights, enumerating the rights of individuals, was only added after the Constitution, balancing the rights and interests of the people as a whole, was adopted, though its eventual inclusion was a condition for many states to agree to ratify it. The weakness of the United States government under its original Articles of Confederation, a document paying lip service to the political unity of the states without giving the federal government much real authority, was quickly recognized by leaders of the new nation struggling to maintain its newfound autonomy as it struggled to fund the American Revolution and to pay its debts, defend itself, and establish viable systems of trade. The original problem facing the infant United States, in other words, was too much concern for individual liberty and not enough for the welfare of all. The Constitution was adopted to correct this imbalance.
For another, we find that most societies generally considered anti-individualist and generally referred to as socialist, communist, or authoritarian, have not actually promoted the interests of society over individuals, for all their proclamations that that’s what they’re doing. Historically, they have exclusively promoted the ideology of one individual leader or a small group of elites, and imposed a political structure derived from it on the rest of society by crushing political dissent and severely restricting both individual and collective rights. If their policies ended up harming society as a whole, as they generally did, it didn’t matter much, so long as they carried out the will of the leader or the ruling elites. In fact, these sorts of governments could be better described as hyper-individualistic, promoting the interests of one or a few individuals regardless of the cost to society.
So how do we make sense of it all? How can we live together in societies, as we invariably do, and organize ourselves so that we can be as free as possible from the oppression of government and of other individuals? How do we achieve both negative freedom, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, freedom achieved through purposeful action? For human beings, we find that the ability to live a full and free life is tied up with our interconnectedness with our fellow humans as well as with respect for everyone else as individual persons whose worth is equal to our own. Any definition of human freedom or conception of human rights that doesn’t take sufficient account of both of these is incoherent, and not useful for understanding or for devising a better way of living, for individuals or societies.
To see this, let’s imagine what life might be life if the radical individualist view of human nature we just described won out and society operated on the principle that it (society) didn’t really exist. Imagine if the tax-equals-slavery argument was turned around so it was applied consistently: if those who built our tax-funded cities and infrastructure didn’t expressly consent to our personally using them, we shouldn’t be allowed to use them, since we would be benefiting from the fruits of their labor without their consent. This goes for anything paid for by public debt as well: since consent is central to the argument, it’s the consent itself that matters, not the money per se. In fact,So this would apply to anything achieved by collective action if people were compelled by law to contribute.
Now imagine the ‘free’ life of the individual living in such a society. We go around constantly on the alert, knowing everyone else is armed, and while there might be laws against harming one another, the only ones who can enforce the law is ourselves. We must remain vigilant at all times, knowing that while most people, due to our evolved human nature as social creatures, don’t wish to kill or hurt one another most of the time, there are always a certain number who are able and willing to hurt others to further their own short-term interests. We may be crippled or die early from polio, or tuberculosis, or a virulent flu, or some other microbe-caused illness unless it just so happens that an enormously wealthy, long-lived philanthropist comes along willing to bankroll the decades-long, probably never-profitable project of discovering the microbe that causes it and developing vaccines which must constantly be updated due to evolution. We would probably never have the opportunity to see a buffalo, almost certainly extinct along with many other species killed in droves in the interests of short-term personal gain.
We can only travel roads, such as they are, by permission of the owner, and will likely have to stop often along the way and pay the tolls necessary to fund their building and upkeep. Because of this, most small businesses would have a terribly difficult time getting their supplies in shipped in or their products shipped out and probably never get off the ground, if runaway monopolies, never limited or broken up by government, didn’t eliminate their competition in the first place. Unless enough people happened to band together voluntarily or one extremely wealthy philanthropic person came along to make such a gigantic land purchase at the right time, we could not choose to rest our bodies and feast our eyes at great, rare natural landscapes such as Yosemite and Yellowstone; such places would be closed off at the whim of the owners; only the wealthy could afford the exorbitant entry fees the owner decided to charge; or they might have been destroyed if, say, an owner at some point decided they could make more money with Half Dome by dynamiting it for its rock or carving it into an image of his own face. The internet may have come into being at some point, but was was the case with the polio and other vaccines, the vast expenditures of time, money, and cooperation of effort required to develop it may have prevented it from ever existing except as funded by a superbusiness, and therefore, entirely controlled by it.
None of this goes to show that only a significant level of taxation and a strong government of laws could ever achieve all of the great advances of civilization and promote the use and preservation of natural resources to their fullest advantage. History shows us that while many liberties and freedoms were only ever obtained when governments intervened, it also tells us that many were brought about through other means: revolution and public unrest, markets, social institutions such as religions and universities, and so on. What this thought experiment does reveal is the intimate ways in which our lives are tied up together with those of others: what others chose or don’t choose to do provides opportunities and places limits on our freedom to choose, and vice versa.
This thought experiment also helps us see how easy it is to think that freedom and liberty are the same. I make this disclaimer from here on out: the two are often used interchangeably, in everyday as well as academic use. But I think that’s a mistake: to help explore the importance issues related to them, we need two words that are related to one another but which contain different shades of meaning, and freedom and liberty are ready and widely understood candidates. So, I’ll use them here more or less as I’ve often otherwise encountered them. Freedom, which enables one to actually chose and act upon as many alternatives that will enhance one’s ability to live a good and happy life as possible, can often come into direct conflict with liberty, which allows one to chose from the widest range of options regardless of consequences. Sometimes, when one is granted the liberty to do as they choose, they restrict the freedom of others. Consider the history of states’ rights’ activism in the United States, ostensibly all about promoting the rights of states to make most of their own laws (do states really have rights?), we find it was actually about giving states free rein to effectively strip away the Constitutional rights of certain of its citizens, and granting individuals license to do the same to one another.
Let’s consider libertarianism, a political philosophy which appears to promote personal liberty as the primary object of a society, sometimes to the extent that freedom seems relegated to a side effect or by-product. Why do I say this? Libertarianism calls for far less restriction of individual liberties than any other political philosophy except anarchism, often regardless of consequences except how it effects the liberty of others. A famous example is the issue of gun rights: libertarians generally regard the right to own guns a fundamental individual right, regardless of the evidence that more gun ownership in a population almost always correlates with far higher rates of gun-related death and injury. So while the liberty of people to own guns is protected, the total amount of freedom enjoyed by people is reduced because, of course, no one gets to enjoy freedom while they’re dead (Those who believe in life after death may disagree, but here I’m speaking in matters of law and society, which belongs entirely to the realm of the living.) There are also less demands placed on individual persons to pitch in and create public goods which enhance people’s lives, give people more choices, relieve people of the burdens of merely maintaining one’s survival, and otherwise promote the freedom to do more things even while specific liberties, such as how to allocate all of one’s own earnings, are curtailed. Whether or not more freedom is achieved, then, appears to be almost beside the point, since individual liberties are sacrosanct, not to be limited or regulated regardless of how this affects the total freedom of the individual or of society as a whole.
My intention is not to pick on libertarianism, since it’s not the only political philosophy whose adherents often fail to recognize the degree to which freedom and liberty can often diverge and to emphasize how much human individuality depends on interpersonal cooperation. While this movement is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of how freedom is best attained, it’s often modified to such as extent that many of its adherents hold very reasonable and enlightened views, and they do right to protest against governmental and corporate abuses of power. We all make such mistakes, on the left as well as on the right of the political spectrum. Many liberals demand more social responsibility in terms of tax-and-spend welfare and government investment in green technology while refusing to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of easily preventable disease, and insist on muzzling people who voice unpopular or uncomfortable opinions by demanding they be fired for what they say in private and disinvited from speaking at universities, and so on. Many conservatives demand that markets remain free from government intervention while voting for legislation that gives corporations free rein to form monopolies and stifle competition, and champion religious freedom while demanding that the religious views of some people take precedence over others in matters of public policy, and enshrined to the exclusion of others in publicly funded spaces, and so on.
I, for one, value actual freedom over actual liberty, since the first is a good which directly affects my ability to live a full and happy life, and liberty is instrumental, valuable only insofar as it promotes actual freedom. And that’s why I, for one, prefer a political system that values freedom over liberty as it simultaneously values liberty as among the most freedom-promoting social good we can bestow on ourselves and one another.
Liberty is not the only way to freedom, far from it. That’s why, politically, I think I could best be described as a progressive, or a democratic republican socialist, since I believe political systems such as these do the best job of balancing individual rights with social well-being, which I think means making the increase of freedom, not just liberty, the primary goal. The reason progressive governments are on balance so successful, I believe, is that they best reflect the reality of the human condition as I’ve just described it: the desire of each individual for complete personal liberty is often in conflict with the ability of each individual to enjoy actual freedom. They protect the individual from unjustified governmental encroachment on their rights; they prevent individuals from encroaching on the rights of one another; they coordinate human efforts in great projects which reap huge benefits for huge numbers of people which smaller-scale efforts are unlikely to achieve; they have a built-in system of public input and of checks and balances through voting, taxation, appointment and hiring of experts in relevant fields of expertise, recall or impeachment of government officials, and so on.
And as we look around the world, where we find societies in which the largest number of individuals and groups enjoy the most freedom and liberty, we also find a constitution with a built-in system for amendment, robust enforcement of the rule of law, equal rights protections which neither the government or citizens are allowed to infringe on, a mixed economy, and a welfare system. And looking throughout history, we fail to find either an autocratic or a libertarian nation that achieved this balance of liberty and freedom through an infrastructure which facilitates both. Either the rights and interests of individuals are routinely ignored and trampled upon by governments in the interests of a few elites (monarchist, communist, and fascist governments fit into this category, even if they present themselves as acting in the name of the people), or individuals routinely ignore and trample upon the rights and interests of other individuals because the government is too weak and ineffectual to defend the people from each other, let alone from other nations (the United States in its first decades of existence, and countless other infant democracies and developing nations). While I find it difficult to imagine how a libertarian or autocratic society could achieve all of these things, I would be interested to see if it could be done. After all, the United States was an experiment in governance, and it did much better than many other nations at protecting individual freedom for many, if not for all; that’s why Abraham Lincoln was so anxious to keep the country together. But frankly, given human psychology and the lessons of history, I’m not holding my breath.
To many, the trick of attaining maximum freedom while simultaneously engendering maximum liberty for all seems like a tall order, if not impossible. That’s why, I suspect, so many of us so readily lean so far to one side or another, since the two seem disparate. But since the two are intertwined and inseparable due to the deep interconnectedness of humanity, for better or for worse, we need to think of the two as just different aspects of the same thing.
There are simple, practical ways of carrying this out, in legislation and in the ways we interact with others in day to day life. When it comes to policy, a good classic example of effectively balancing personal liberty with overall freedom was the old practice of restrictions on carrying guns in American towns. In the country and in their homes, people depended on their guns for food and protection and could have them handy to fight in militias if they choose to join up. However, law enforcement well knew, the close quarters people found themselves in in town could lead to a person with a gun to, in a fit of anger, drunkenness, accident, or poor judgement, permanently remove every freedom another could ever enjoy with the simple squeeze of a trigger. Therefore, when people chose to enter within town limits, they were required to give up their guns so that all could enjoy the freedom of going about their business unhampered by fear, knowing that while in town, no-one’s packing. The liberty of the gun owner was temporarily suspended in favor of the freedom of the many without placing too much of a hindrance on the gun owner’s ability to sustain their daily life. While the distribution of American society has changed, with most Americans now living in urban and suburban communities, a balance different in kind but similar in purpose might be struck. Perhaps all Americans could be allowed to own a gun if and only if they joined a state militia or local reserve branch of the military (as the actual wording of the Second Amendment provides for) so that all gun owners would be registered, trained, recognizable, and publicly accountable.
Thus far, we’ve discussed freedom and liberty extensively without once talking about rights. What are rights, and how are they related to freedom and liberty? A right is a much more nebulous concept, much harder to define or identify, and much more difficult to trace to its origin. For example, is it just something we’re born with? If so, why have human societies differed so much on what they are and whether we even have them, and why must we fight to get them? Are they, then, something we create? If so, why create some and not others? The topic of rights really needs to be the subject of another piece, one which I plan on writing about and about which countless others have written far more ably than I feel sure I ever could. But when we start discussing much more difficult cases in which freedom and liberty conflict, the subject of rights inevitably, and must, come up, if for no other reason that the concept of rights is a cornerstone of American law as it it for all nations who value and promote freedom and liberty. In the meantime, let’s talk about rights as some sort of thing tied up with personhood, we won’t say exactly what, without which persons enjoy neither freedom nor liberty. I think that’s a pretty good starting place, more or less reconcilable with every conception of right I’ve ever explored.
So sometimes, we find that in nature as well as politics, individual human freedom is intimately bound up with the rights and liberty of others, and it sometimes seems nearly impossible to tease out where individual interests, freedom, liberty, and rights begin and end. To explore this, let’s consider an ultimate doozy of a political and moral issues, one that perennially absorbs and divides the public like no other issue: abortion. Particularly, we’ll consider probably the most common argument commonly used in its favor, and perhaps, the most difficult to challenge.
This argument is the bodily rights argument, which holds that an individual’s right to their own body is inviolate. That being the case, a pregnant women has the right to expel or separate anything from her body that she doesn’t want there, just as anyone else would. This must, if that right really is inviolate, includes a fetus. In other words, no-one can ‘force’ a women to remain pregnant if she doesn’t want to be, since that would be a violation of her right to do with her own body as she sees fit.
But do we really believe that our rights to use our own bodies can and should be be unlimited? That’s not the case either. The law, just like other human beings and in fact, nature itself, ‘forces’ us to do things with our own bodies all the time. In fact, there is no such thing as moral or social obligations at all without some sort of demand on our bodies, since, of course, everything we think and do involves its use. For human beings, our freedom, our rights, and our very lives depend on whether or not others support our existence, at least some of the time, with their own bodies. There is no other law that I can think of where the bodily rights argument is the be-all-end-all.
For example, in addition to parental instinct, society uses enforcement of the law to compel parents to care for their children if social expectations haven’t done the trick, and rightly so. A parent must feed, clothe, house, and protect their children, and every single one of these obligations is dischargeable only by the use of the parent’s body, requiring labor, proximity of the parent to the child, and so on. The reason why we demand this is that we believe the child has the right to live, to enjoy the freedom and liberty that only life can bring, but no child can live without the help of their parents or other adults responsible for their care. We would not allow a mother to withhold breastfeeding, for example, if it was the only way a child could survive, or withhold cuddling, embraces, and all other physical manifestations of affection which we know children can’t be deprived of and still grow up healthy. In response to all of this, a bodily rights proponent could object that the fact that the fetus is inside the body, using the resources of the body itself, makes the case of a pregnant woman different and the demands of the fetus more egregious than we can force the mother to accept. However, I don’t see why these objections are particularly compelling, as this is a mere matter of location, not of demands on the body. All parental obligations place significant demands on the parents’ bodies whether or not the fetus’ physical location is within or without; in the case of very young children especially, these obligations hold round-the-clock. In fact, caring for a newborn or offspring of any age is often far more exhausting, far more expensive, demanding, and stressful to the mind and body that rearing a fetus inside the body.
I have yet, in fact, to encounter a defense of the bodily rights argument that’s convincing when it comes to abortion and not convincing in other matters. (‘Officer, I refuse to let you arrest me, since placing me in handcuffs and imprisoning me violates my bodily rights.’ ‘No, judge, I didn’t take my mother to the hospital or call 911 when I observed she was having a heart attack since that’s not what I decided to do with my own body.’ ‘May it please the court to note that when my client purposefully slammed their body into that other person, knocking them off the bridge, they were merely exercising the right to do with their body as they saw fit.’ Etcetera, etcetera.)
The inevitable interconnectedness of human life and its intimate relation to human freedom and liberty is what makes all societies function and upon which all law is built. It’s why, when it comes to arguments for unfettered personal liberty, including abortion rights, I don’t accept arguments such as the bodily rights argument as sufficient justification, since such arguments are derived from artificially atomistic, hyperindividualistic views of human nature,. In the case of abortion, it takes further arguments, such as whether a fetus is a person or whether the mother has the right of self-defense against the fetus that’s putting her life in jeopardy, to decide whether or not a mother has the moral obligation to provide for the development of another human life within her body. (I think that there are arguments that justify abortion in some circumstances; I explore this issue more fully in another piece.)
In all matters of law and order, of personal liberty and freedom for all, of the individual and society, the question of what we want to do, what we should do, and what we allow ourselves and others to do can only be satisfactorily and successfully addressed if our answers are informed by the basic assumption that, for each and every one of us, for there to be any I, we depend on them, and vice versa.
*Listen to the podcast reading of this essay here or on iTunes
Sources and Inspiration:
Nussbaum, Martha. “Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition”
Shermer, Michael. ‘How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings’, Scientific American, Jan 20, 2015 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-science-can-inform-ethics…
Thatcher, Margaret. ‘Interview for Woman’s Own (“no such thing as society”)’, Sep 23 1987, archived at MargaretThatcher.org http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
Wenar, Leif, “Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Ed.), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/rights/
There's a degree of faith in your argument that society is more important than the individual. You gloss a little too easily over the fact that the failure to protect the rights of the individual over the group in the last century alone has resulted in unprecedented human suffering, while downplaying the fact that free markets and liberty are inherently more successful than any other economic/political system to raise individuals AND society from poverty to prosperity.
I agree that abortion creates a problem for those claiming individual liberty as sacrosanct since you are now talking about an individual entirely dependent on another individual for life (and also when does that clump of cells now have a SS# etc.) but this problem is vastly more complicated for those who argue the rights of society are more important because what's a few abortions when the group is at stake? And as always the biggest problem, who gets to decide who makes these choices?
Do you have an empirical argument as to why Individual Liberty and free markets aren't better for the group than socialism/marxism?
Thank you for taking the time to comment, though I'm not sure from your response that you read the piece, at least not in its entirety.
I do not argue anywhere in this piece that the society 'is more important than the individual' or that Marxism or socialism (as it's most often represented: a mostly or entirely top-down system) is 'better for the group' than a free market system.
Rather, I argue throughout that the characterization of the individual and of society that inform hyper-individualistic political theories are deeply flawed, just as hyper-socialistic theories are. For human beings, it's a false dichotomy. The individual has few life opportunities, virtually no ability to preserve their own life and property, and does not enjoy what are generally called rights, in any meaningful way, without the existence and widespread cooperativeness of society. Society (or 'the group') is very poorly served as well, if the rights and liberties of its individual constituents are not preserved and given as much free rein as possible, since there would be no scope for innovation, no opportunity to pursue interests, etc. My suggestion is that a political theory that promises the most success would be based on a balanced view of human nature, informed by evidence: of human psychology, lessons from history, etc.
You may want to read an article more carefully next time before you offer commentary. Were you led by the title of my article to assume what my argument would be, or to make your very skewed interpretation of it?
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