Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

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.

Over time, as free-market economics and other liberalizing social forces have expanded the rights and opportunities of the individual, some have come to believe that society, as a concept and as an institution, should play a secondary role in matters of public policy and morality. Margaret Thatcher, for one, famously claimed there’s no such thing. ‘Society’, to Thatcher and others whose views of human social arrangements might best be called atomist, is more or less a shorthand term for a population of individuals in a certain place and time. In this view, it’s the individual, not the group, that matters. Focus on protecting the the rights and interests of individuals, they say, and everything else will fall into place.

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.)

Some such individualists, which often identify as libertarians and some as classical liberals, object to all or most taxation, saying it amounts to a sort of slavery because it forces individuals to pay for, and hence to work for, things they didn’t personally choose to contribute to. Others also object to public debt; Thomas Jefferson famously did so (though as President, the realities of governing the infant nation caused him to mitigate his views) saying it also amounts to further enslavement of future generations by forcing them, through their labor, to pay a debt they played no part in incurring. Still others object to laws limiting the ownership of guns, to the military draft, to eminent domain, to all manner of laws that subordinate the liberties of individuals to the interests of the group.

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.


So in this scenario, we’d need to remove everything that collective action built and taxes and public debt paid for. Remove most roads and bridges, except the small ones on private property built by their owners. Remove the internet. Remove the armed forces, except for local militias. Remove police forces. Remove the polio vaccine, other vaccines, indeed, all medical advances that were achieved through the NIH and as a result of the space race and wars, both tax-funded, hugely expenses, large-scale government endeavors. Remove public lands, national and regional parks, and so on.
And we’d have to go further: remove all other laws of positive obligation which require us to do certain things, and leave only those of negative obligation, which prevent us from interfering with one another’s personal autonomy. Remove laws which require individuals to care for children, the elderly, the incapacitated, and the mentally ill. Remove Good Samaritan laws. Remove laws which require doctors, product manufacturers, food producers, pharmaceutical companies, and others to provide, in good faith and to the best of their knowledge, goods and services that won’t harm their clients.

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/liberty-positive-negative/

Nussbaum, Martha. “Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UChBe5sNQbk

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/

The Myth of the Divide Between Individualism and Collectivism

Mirrored from http://halftimemag.com/articles/web-exclusives/encore-magazine-extras/top-10-marching-moments-of-2008-Details-photos-and-videos.html

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…

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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