Collectivism and Individualism III: On Ethics

TL;DR: We are now examining collectivism and individualism from a moral standpoint. Individualism respects individuals and their particular goals as ends in themselves. Collectivism respects individuals only insofar as they aid in the achievement of a greater goal. Individualists can accept alternative lifestyles and opinions, while to collectivists any opinion that violates their greater goal is an existential threat. The representation of collectivism and individualism within this article are “perfect” or extreme poles that most people fall between.

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Up to this point we have been discussing individualism and collectivism as a way of understanding the world. Now we will discuss these philosophies as a means of actually interacting with the world and with society as a whole. This is to say that now we are employing individualism in a moral or ethical sense. We are looking now at how we should behave, rather than simply what exists in the world.

It should be noted that it is not essential to have an individualist understanding of the world in order to have an individualistic morality, although this is rather bizarre. These kinds of situations will be described in the following article in this series.

A collectivist in the moral sense of the term views individuals as little more than units that build up to achieve a higher social purpose. This could be anything from national strength, to the glory of god, to global communism. Individuals are seen as means to ends, rather than as ends in themselves, individuals should be forced to act in accordance with the greater good.

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An individualist, on the other hand, sees individuals as being ultimate ends in themselves. The goals and welfare of individuals is the important factor. As such, then, individuals should be left to their own devices whenever possible. Socially the greatest goals are precisely those that maximize the welfare of individuals, rather than any goal separate from individuals and their values.

Just as with almost all doctrines, collectivism and individualism exist on a spectrum. In the same way that many consider relieving poverty a more pressing issue than whether or not god should be invoked in the pledge of allegiance, simply because someone values one thing more than another does not mean that one does not value both. I can value highly America’s state as a global superpower AND the ability of other individuals to pursue their own desires. In practice, almost everyone lies somewhere on this spectrum, with different weights being put on certain collectivistic and individualistic values.Large crowds gather on the footsteps of the Shrine of Remembrance for the dawn ANZAC service in Vic

An issue that is central in our own age is how individualists and collectivists treat others
within society. As I addressed briefly in my first article in this series, individualism is often misinterpreted as completely overlooking society. This simplistic understanding of individualism sees only a mass of isolated and perfectly omniscient individuals who disregard those around them. This is false.
The individualist can perfectly well see the mass of people, groups, and customs that make up what we call society. The individualist simply view it as a collection of valuable individuals, rather than an entity unto itself.

Individualists and collectivists are morally opposed in their treatment of society.. To a collectivist, others are only valuable insofar as they are useful in the achievement of their chosen goals for society. Wherever a particular individual obstructs this goal, they cease to have value and can be undermined wherever possible. In the eyes of a true religious zealot, infidels should be forcibly converted or killed whenever practical. From a collectivist’s perspective, value only comes with support for the collectivist’s greater goal. This is precisely why the “communist” regimes of the 20th century were able to kill with such stunning liberality. These regimes saw individuals only in regards to their ability to further the revolution. Wherever individuals were perceived even as unwitting roadblocks to the realization of communism, the government had no qualms with disposing of these individuals. Of course most collectivists would rather convert others to their side rather than disposing of them, but the option is always on the table if one is a strong enough collectivist.

This way of looking at society is wholly different from the individualist method. To a Image result for hand shakestrong individualist, a large diversity of opinions can exist within society. You go your way and I go mine. I might be happier if you followed my way, I might try to convince you to do so, but at the end of the day, if we cannot reconcile our differences then there is simply no need for us to associate. Where the collectivist might force individualist to conform to their viewpoint, the individualist allows for dissent with the understanding that the decision making abilities of others must be respected. Of course, this inevitably stops short of allowing for any kind of action. Allowing behavior such as murder is in direct violation of the individuality of those who are threatened by such action.    

From an individualist perspective, social norms are commonalities, they are a culture that we can either follow or choose to embody or reject. The choice of whether to accept cultural norms or not is the prerogative of every individual. If you choose to dispense with a particular cultural practice, then that is your right, but equally, it is my right to disassociate with you for doing so. To live in an individualistic society is to accept that people do not have to like you or support your life decisions. I might not like an alcoholic who is verbally abusive to those around him, but that doesn’t give me the right to use force against him unless he is threatening to use force against myself or others. If we grant that it is acceptable for individuals to break social norms in alignment with their Image result for communist flag reichstagown values, then we must also grant that it is acceptable for others to criticize them for doing this… Although of course we can criticize them for doing this too! Individualism is the acceptance of the decisions of others, but this doesn’t imply the support of these decisions. A pure moral collectivist would never accept alternative opinions (assuming they had the power to alter these opinions or silence them), precisely because such disagreement threatens the supremacy of their goals, which is the only reason individuals have worth in the first place.

The debate between collectivism and individualism ultimately lies on this question: do we wish to value individuals primarily as stepping stones to a purpose greater than themselves, or as ends in themselves, and as rational entities capable of making their own decisions? The former is the collectivist moral position, while the latter is the individualist position. The collectivist accepts individuals only in regard to achieving the collectivist goal, while the individualist accepts people as valuable in their own right. Where the individualist can accept differences in opinion and worldview, the collectivist must always attempt to bend all people to the realization of its own vision, and this often includes completely silencing and suppressing the opinions of dissidents.

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Author’s Note: It is worth reiterating that what I have done here, and in the previous article, is to outline a “perfect” collectivism and a “perfect” individualism. These are the most extreme incarnations of these philosophies possible, where in reality most people will land somewhere in between them.

7 thoughts on “Collectivism and Individualism III: On Ethics

  1. It seems you have put individualism in the camp of existentialism where the individual creates his own goals but they are ultimately arbitrary. With then your two poles I think there is a third position which does not fit within your analysis. That is that all humans have a shared nature, since they are human, which has built in-directedness (like a fertilised seed has in built directness to become a tree). Like the tree, flourishing implies fulfilling these ends. Note of course with humans it’s far more complex because humans choose in a relevant sense but from this it does not follow they don’t have a shared nature and thus some shared ends which make them flourish.

    So to you could take a paternalistic position, which interferes with individual, not for the greater good but for the individual himself. I’m not advocating this but the basis for this merits thought

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    1. Physiocrat,

      Thank you for the comment. I actually struggled rather hard with that precise question when writing this article. It is worth stating that I avoided more traditional definitions of collectivism and individualism (the good of the individual vs. the good of society) precisely because I think that these fail to adhere to certain cases that are clearly transcend the individual towards a greater goal. For instance, the sweeping judgments of a crusader or someone engaged in modern identity politics both lump people into groups and subvert their autonomy towards a greater goal, but neither are clearly favoring the collective over the individual.

      With that said, firstly views similar to what you are talking about are usually extremely respectful of individual autonomy. With any such view it is difficult to argue that for a normal human being reason and choice is not one of their central faculties, and thus it is hard to justify infringing upon their freedom (in most cases) to help them realize the full growth of their nature. It would seem to defeat the point. At any rate, if we assume that you can justify the paternal position, you would still be subverting the individual for the sake of the higher goal of their “nature”. I think that it’s important to realize that collectivism, at least at face value, does not entail that individuals are not made better off as a result of its actions. Individuals can be made better off under collectivism, and individual autonomy and will can be seen as a roadblock to making people happier. In this case individuals are barriers to their own happiness. This is a much more “individualistic” type of collectivism, on the spectrum I talked about it is not especially collectivistic, but it still moves in the collectivistic direction. While you care deeply about individuals, you still see them as tools to bend to your will, even if it benefits them.

      I should also note that I don’t agree I have adopted an existentialist point of view here. Even in the event that there is something which, objectively because of someone’s nature, someone should be doing, this does not change my analysis. The earth is round, but some people believe it to be flat. This is a fact of our world itself. It does not mean I agree with them or believe that they should believe that.

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      1. Banhus

        We could apply the individualist critique of collectivism to individualism itself. It is not the individual that acts, but an instance of the individual existing in the present. And yet this instance is not acting for itself but for the individual’s future needs…or someone else’s future needs.

        We know that people struggle with making choices concerning their long term benefit. While one may know that procrastinating, eating junk food, and maxing out the credit card is harmful to one’s long term benefit, one may nevertheless succumb to the temptations in the here and now. This clears the ground for paternalism. If we are talking about the well-being of a future state of an individual, then the present instance of that individual is not necessarily the one most capable of providing for that well-being.

        The force that the collectivist uses against the individual is the same sort that the individual uses against his future selves. The individual forces a near-future self to sacrifice well-being for the sake of a more-distant future self, or else vice versa. In fact, the ability to make judgments about one’s future well-being is neurologically tied to one’s ability to make judgements about the well-being of others:

        “Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self”
        https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/self-control-is-just-empathy-with-a-future-you/509726/

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  2. Die-Hard-Communist

    Collectivism is the mediating force through which an individual’s immediate desires shift and change over time. There is a great deal of benefit in precisely ignoring the desires of individuals, or challenging them. If we care too much about the immediate desires of each individual then we we place an existential preference on immediacy over mediation. An obvious example is a child who must get a shot. The child does not want to get the shot, but we give it to him anyways. Why? Because we know it is better for him. This is the heart of collectivism.

    To give people what they want all the time is to prevent them from being challenged, and thus to prevent their maturation and growth as individuals. I know of no human being who has not benefited from having their immediate desires rejected by the collective around them. Collectivism serves as a challenge to the individual to post-pone the immediate recognition and satisfaction of their drives, for the sake of creating something greater in the future. This lies at the heart of not only all education and learning, but of society.

    Saying that an individual has inherent value is idealistic, and empty. Individual’s can be fools, criminals, unhealthy, perverse, or simply mistaken. Value is created, but through the collective mediation and maturation of drives over time, and for this to happen, there needs to be a source of conscious resistance to and suspension of the desires of individuals. The collective that drowns out the individual’s arbitrary will, and that truly is greater than the individual, is precisely the means for this creation of value. Because objectively speaking, many are indeed greater than one.

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    1. Thanks for your response! This is well written and a critique of the kind that I expect to hear often.

      Firstly, it seems as though you are assuming the immediate plans and desires of individuals are foolish and short-sighted. While it is almost certainly true that most people are excessively short-sighted, it is not true that many plans that individuals come up with do not have an eye towards long run benefits. Moreover, it is plain as day that collectives can be just as short sighted and foolish as individuals are. Indeed, the moment that a collective becomes involved there are immediately serious incentive and communication problems within the collective emerge. Individuals are usually far more concerned with their own welfare than the leaders of a collective are concerned with the welfare of the collective. Even more fundamentally, with the rare exception of cut and dry cases (shots are indeed the perfect example of these cases) commandments from a collective are inherently likely to overlook an individual’s specific situations and desires, forcibly attempting to make the individual conform to what works for many others within the society. Most attempts to “force” homosexuals to become straight would fall directly into this category.

      Individuals can learn from their mistakes far more directly than a collective can. A child who eats excessively will experience a stomach ache, a student who stays up too late will fail their test, and so on. We all know that these are imperfect incentives, but they are far more direct and “painful” to an individual than downsides usually are to a collective. A failed economic plan or educational strategy will normally not harm large portions of the population and the overall costs and harm done will be diffused to the point where, for many, the large costs of trying to influence the collective in a meaningful way will be lost. This is in comparison to the direct costs to an individual and the complete and total ability the individual has to radically change his or her behavior. Once again, it is true to say that in bringing about human happiness both of these systems are flawed (they are human systems after all), but I think it is clear that collectivism is far more flawed. I would also add that while I am highly individualistic I am not a “perfect” individualist. I do think that there are rare cases where collectivism is worthwhile.

      Additionally, I think that it is far truer to say that “no collective has not benefited from individuals challenging the collective”. It is only through individuals bringing often radically different perspective to others, and thereby “the collective”, that the collective evolves. Individuals have the power to evolve in often quite beneficial ways on their own, but collectives do not. In this same vein, while I do think almost every individual has “benefited” from a “collective” force, I think that almost every individual has benefited far more from the concern, help, and challenge of other individuals. My individualism is not a sterile or anti-social one. The misunderstanding of individualism as an anti-social or solipsistic ideology has done much damage over the years. Individuals are routinely challenged by other individuals who care for them or have some other reason to challenge their beliefs and behaviors. This is often far more directly relevant and convincing to individuals than a faceless collective coming and forcing them to do something. Consider the difference between someone’s friend reprimanding them for littering as opposed to an organization reminding them not to litter.

      All of the above is, however, a consequentialist argument. To deal with your central claims in the final paragraph, it is entirely unclear why saying that an individual has value is empty while saying that a collective has value is meaningful. You provide no argument as to why this is. I consider individuals a baseline for value and that is that, it’s a premise, a starting point, and one that I think is rather widespread in our humanistic age. I don’t deny that some individuals have “more” value than others and that idiocy and foolishness compared to wisdom and cleverness are less valuable, but neither do I consider either of the negative traits to imply that an individual has no value. Nor is it obvious to me how a mass of worthless individuals suddenly gain value, or how they gain value over time. It seems to me that to negate the value of the individual is to negate the value of the collective made up of individuals. The only argument you seem to make is a “might makes right” argument at the very end. You can use that as your starting point, but among everything else power is highly contextual. Physically speaking the minority of a nation’s army is far more powerful than the collective of the nation itself. Contextually speaking a country’s leader is more powerful than much of the country. Therefore this collectivism would be highly contextual, to say the least.

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      1. Die-Hard-Communist

        The individual lacks value, but the collective has value. This is because an individual does not exist in a void. If the individual existed in complete isolation, his life would have no value, because there would be no third party to recognize his existence. Thus, the isolated individual would have a meaningless life. He could not know language, reason, or even have self-consciousness, precisely because these developments occur in society, through others.

        The individual does not come first. Society, i.e. the collective comes first. Meaning originates through one’s relations with others, and thus meaning is inherently relational, not atomistic. There is no “X has value,” but instead “value is created through X’s relationship with Y.” This is my argument for why individuals have no inherent value. Value could not exist without relations between individuals, and thus the collective is the only place value can have any form of existence whatsoever. The value exists between individuals, not within them.

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  3. I don’t find this a compelling point of view. “A society” cannot comprehend value. If a society comprehends value, then it does so through an individual, someone in the society realizes this. Thus someone with an idea of what value is recognizes that an individual has value. There is no reason why an individual cannot do this for themselves. So individuals can recognize and have value based upon the guidelines that you have laid out.

    Moreover, you can argue all day that “the individual would not exist without society”, but it is equally true that society cannot exist without individuals. This is part of the gross individualism and collectivism that I am trying to dispel. Insofar as you devalue the individuals that make up the collective, you devalue all parts of the collective. The collective becomes a strange entity, with no effective existence. A vague and unsatisfying concept because all parts are not only of less value, but without value or importance to the system.

    Effectively the collective spawns out of nowhere in a way that is unsatisfying both to known individuals and collectives. It is not a coherent understanding of the world or of peoples… or even of collectives.

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