Individualism in the Right Key
by Tibor R. Machan
Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: “I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.” An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others.
An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.”
Individualism is the view, put briefly, that human beings are identifiable as a distinct species in the natural world and have as at least one of their central attributes the capacity to be unique rational individuals. Whatever else, then, is central about being a human being, it includes that each one, unless crucially debilitated, has the capacity to govern his or her life by means of the individually initiated process of thought, of conceptual consciousness. In my book, Classical Individualism (Rutledge, 1998) the title calls attention to the type of individualism I regard sound, one that develops from ancient moral thought and stresses the fact that the individual in question is one with a human nature. This kind of individualism contrasts with the kind associated with the political thought of Thomas Hobbes and his followers. (The best source for appreciating the difference is David L. Norton’s Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton University Press, 1976).
Furthermore, excelling as such an individual human being is the central, proper goal of each person's life. A just political community, in turn, is one that renders it possible for this purpose to be pursued by all (or as many as is realistically possible).
As the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand put the point—following similar observations by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas—adult persons are "beings of volitional consciousness." This involves, among other things, the crucial capacity to choose to embark upon—to initiate—a process of (thoughtful) action.
If we are the type of entity that can be a causal agent, the initiator of its behavior, this serves as a crucial basis for individuation: different human beings will be able to and would actually choose to exercise their conscious capacities and direct their ensuing actions differently. Putting it more simply, if we have free will, our diverse ways of exercising it can make us unique. So even if there were nothing else unique about different persons, their free will could introduce an essential individuality into their lives. (This is something that will have a major impact on the social sciences, on psychology and psychotherapy, and, of course, on ethics and morality.)
Yet different people are also uniquely configured, as it were, as human beings; thus they can face different yet equally vital tasks in their lives. Our fingerprints, voices, shapes, ages, locations, talents, and, most of all, choices are all individuating features, so we are all unique. This is the crux of the individualist thesis. Nonetheless, since we are all such individuals, we constitute one species with a definite nature possessed by each member. This may seem paradoxical: one of the defining attributes of the human (kind of) being is the distinctive potential for individuality, based on both diversity and personal choice.
The position has certain implications that are very close to what is usually thought to follow from a somewhat different, often labeled "radical," individualism. These implications are the existence of the libertarian political ideas and ideals of individual rights to life, liberty, and property. We might call the earlier version of individual "atomistic" or "quantitative," while the latter "classical."
Atomistic or radical individualism is distinct. It is usually linked to Thomas Hobbes and his nominalist and moral-subjectivist followers. Its most basic, ontological thesis is that human beings are numerically separate bare particulars. Their individuality is quantitative, not qualitative, primarily consisting of their being separate entities, not of their capacity and willingness to forge distinctive lives of their own.
A problem some see with the neo-Hobbesian individualist tradition is that it implies that political norms are ultimately subjective—usually taken to be mere preferences. For Hobbes, to start with, "whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil." So the classical-liberal polity is itself, by the tenets of such individualism, no more than some people's preference, one that others may not share, quite legitimately. As some critics have put the point, in terms of the Hobbesian individualist position liberty is just one among many different values people desire. This political tradition has, thus, been vulnerable to the charge of arbitrariness, of resting simply on preferences that some people—for example, the bourgeoisie, capitalists, or white European males—happen to have.
Even in Hobbes's time there were other versions afoot, usually linked to Christianity. By the tenets of a Christian version, each person is a unique child of God, thus uniquely important and not to be sacrificed to some purpose of the tribe or state, for example. This, at least, is one path to the conclusion that a just political community must make room for the sovereignty of the individual human being—one's ultimate and decisive role in what one will do, be it right or wrong. Another path is the secular, neo-Aristotelian view in terms of which while human beings are rationally classifiable as such, one of their essential attributes is that they can and usually choose to be unique. So, in contrast to Marx's claim that "The human essence is the true collectivity of man," the classical individualist holds that "The human essence includes the true, unique individuality of every human being."
In the radical individualist tradition a major libertarian element is the subjectivity of values. Accordingly, free market economists have tended to reject all government regimentation of social affairs, seeing them as driven by subjective preferences that cannot be known to anyone other than those who hold them. Such a view has served to undermine all efforts to impose values on individuals.
The classical individualist position argues that values are objective but also most often idiosyncratic and require free choice to give them moral significance. This, too, prohibits government imposition of values but not for skeptical reasons. And it enables one to defend the political value of liberty is more than simply one of many subjective preferences.
As far as free markets are concerned, one main reason they function more successfully than statist alternatives is that in a free market individual aspirations, goals, preferences, values and such have a major impact on what will be produced. This, in turn, results in a more prosperous society than one where such individual goals and so forth are trumped by various so called public interest considerations that, in fact, are no more than the interest of certain, special vocal groups of individuals overriding that of others. Even the famous calculation problem identified by Austrian economists makes more sense if individualism is true. The reason governments cannot allocate or price goods and services properly is that such resources are ultimately (albeit objectively) valuable for individuals, not collectives.
The individualism that underpins much of libertarian political economy has vital implications for public policy. In the law, for example, the position of criminal culpability gains support from it. The rejection of collective guilt or pride in social theory also has its support. In environmental public policy it makes clear sense of the ubiquitous phenomena of the tragedy of the commons, suggesting that human beings must have an individual stake in caring for resources before those resources can be expected to be well honed. Public officials, since they can only represent a very general public interest - to secure the rights of individuals - have no clear-cut guide to policies of resource preservation and conservation.
Libertarianism is seen by most to rest on some version of individualism, although there are exceptions. Some believe that the betterment of society as a whole is what requires an individualist social and legal polity, even though there is nothing ultimately true about individualism. If, however, it is treated in public policy as if it were true, the results will be advantageous to the entire community. (Karl Marx held a view akin to this, claiming that for at least a stage of humanity's development, namely, capitalism, the illusion of individualism is very useful since it inspires a great deal of productivity.)
For nearly two centuries the emergence of classical liberalism has irked thinkers both Right and Left. Hegel, Rousseau, Comte, and of course Karl Marx did a great deal of pen-wielding to arrest this development and one of their most potent weapons has been to link the ideals of a fully free society to the flaws of scientism and one of its products, subjective or narrow individualism.
Scientism is the view that everything, including human community life, can be understood by treating things the way that classical physics recommends, namely, by analysis or breaking them into its constitutive bits. This amounts to reducing everything to its smallest component parts and once the laws governing those component parts are identified, the rest would easily follow. Until recently this has indeed been the method of the natural sciences but scientism extended the approach to understanding everything, including human beings and their social lives.
The reductive-analytical method for understanding social and political matters was most popular with Thomas Hobbes, the 16th century English philosopher who has been history’s foremost materialist. By Hobbes’ lights people are merely a collection of matter-in-motion, bits of the stuff of which everything else is made, and by understanding the laws of matter, their lives could also be fully understood.
Hobbes approach made him something of an individualist, especially when it came to metaphysics. He thought there were no classes or natures of things, such as human nature or the nature of an apple or zebra. All that exists, Hobbes advocated, is bits and pieces of matter which we, human beings, classify according to our needs and wants. The nature of a human being is merely the classification we have created to serve our interests. Sure, now we take it, roughly, that a human being must be a rational animal but we could change this if we wanted to and classify things by height or weight or color or anything else we chose. Its all a matter of convention. (Just how come it is human beings who can classify things along such lines, Hobbes doesn’t say—it seems the skill is something unique to beings with a rational nature. But let’s leave that be for now.)
From this methodological approach one kind of individualism did, indeed, develop, in terms of which everything is really merely the atoms that comprise it, nothing more. So, a human community became for Hobbes and his followers, many of them classical economists who favored free markets, a collection of self-sufficient individuals. (The reason this Hobbesian view recommended free markets is that in classical physics when something advances forward, the only thing that will slow it down is some force impeding its progress; so economic advances are arrested when governments interfere with people’s efforts to live their lives, including produce and consume. Ergo, the idea, a la Adam Smith & Co., that laissez-faire is most efficient for progress and prosperity.)
A serious problem with Hobbesian individualism is that it eliminates ethics or morality from human life. If we all move merely as propelled by the impersonal forces of nature, then how we act is not really up to us and we are not responsible for anything we do—there are no standards of right and wrong within this framework accept those we happen to lay down because the forces of nature impel us to do so. Although there were certain individualist elements to this view, Hobbes believed that this recommended an absolute monarchy that had full authority to run all of society (except in the case it turned against the lives of the citizenry).
Now the fact that Hobbes’ ideas encouraged classical economists and early free market advocates has been something of a liability for all those who love human liberty, as well as a boon to all who would find some excuse to denigrate such human liberty. Marx made the most of this and declared liberalism a sort of infantile stage of human social development, concluding that the fully mature human society would be anti-individualist, a collectivist community.
Marx’s ideas had their college try, of course, but they got bogged down, ultimately, because it turns out that human individuality is essential to understanding what a just society must be. When you ignore human individuality, you get a top down authoritarian or totalitarian state which is incapable of figuring out what is good for a human society; this is to be expected when a polity misunderstands human nature and treats us all as if we were members of a bee hive or ant colony.
Marx’s extremely costly and inhuman mistake finally came a cropper and landed us back in the position of having to figure out whether there might not be a form of individualism other than what we inherited from Thomas Hobbes. And there have been dozens and dozens of defenders of the free society who have gotten far away from the scientism of Hobbes as they have identified a version of individualism that does not suffer the deficiencies of the kind concocted by Hobbes and his followers. Sadly, their position hasn’t gotten much attention and, instead, we have the various efforts to salvage collectivism—as communitarianism, market socialism, the third way, economic democracy and so on.
Individualism does require some upgrading by being framed in terms of an objective human nature, contrary to what Hobbes thought. In other words, it is human individuals who comprise human communities, with a definite human nature. It is, however, also true that a central feature of human nature is the fact of human individuality—we are unique in the living and non-living world in part by virtue of being unique individuals, albeit human. That, indeed, is one of the most exciting things about people—they all share in their humanity and yet are unique and irreplaceable. And this kind of being needs a free society so as to flourish.
Alas, this revamped individualism has been a thorn in the sides of those who just do not want human beings to be free. They have insisted, as a result, that every form of individualism is atomistic, Hobbesian. One of those who has been most energetic in pushing this smear campaign against the new individualist outlook has been Amitai Etizioni, for example in his book The Monochrome Society (Princeton, 2003). Nearly the same as Etzioni’s theme can be found in such works as Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics (The Free Press, 1985); Thomas A. Spragens’, The Irony of Liberal Reason (Chicago, 1981); Charles Taylor, “Atomism,” in his Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart, Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985) and The Good Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1991).
All of these authors continue to insist that liberalism and its conception of human community life must be irretrievably wedded to Hobbesian individualism, refusing to consider either that there are other versions of individualism that also support the liberal polity or that in recent decades the new individualism has been developed rather astutely by such authors as David L. Norton (in Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism, Princeton 1976), Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (New American Library, 1961), Fred D. Miller, Jr., Neera K. Badhwar, Eric Mack, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, and many others.
In his new book Etzioni conceives of the classical liberal idea, in the apt words of one fan, as the “atomization of modern society.” Nothing new here at all—Herbert Marcuse made his name by characterizing modern capitalist society as producing the one dimensional man, which is pretty much the same idea. And Taylor's famous piece, “Atomism,” makes the point quite emphatically, too.
And of course there is nothing amiss with pointing out that one line of defense of the liberal social order has its limitations, although doing so over and over again, in books published by some of the most renown presses, suggests a certain measure of insecurity. (Many of those who advance a different version of individualism also repeat themselves but mainly because the presses that will publish their books are few and far between, given how the peer review process tends to be tilted against getting such works accepted by the premier publishers. Yes, Virginia, there is bias and turf fighting in the academic publishing community! If they managed to come to light, they would pretty much rival the scandals in the business world.)
What is worth noting in connection with this new book by Etzioni, containing very old ideas indeed, is how eagerly he and all his communitarian allies rely in their presentations on a lop-sided version of individualism. Aeon Skoble made this point almost a decade ago, in several forums, just for starters.
I suggest that these thinkers, with their redundant attacks on liberalism, know well enough that only if they link the liberal—or, more recently dubbed, libertarian—society intimately to a narrow type of individualism (which itself is linked to scientism), will they succeed in making their case that communitarianism or some other version of post Marxist collectivism is a better alternative. A more robust version of human or classical individualism will not easily yield this result, so such views must be hidden from view.
Individualism in its normative, non-Hobbesian rendition, insists not on some incredible idea that human beings are self-sufficient, have no social nature, can operate in the world independently of communities, make choices about their associations from birth—all of which is what is implied by calling the view atomistic—but on the notion that human individuals are at some basic level initiators of their actions, for good or for ill, and must be provided room for this in a just community. Such institutions as the protection of individual rights, to life, liberty and property, among others, secure for human individuals a sphere of personal jurisdiction, authority, sovereignty—or as Nozick put it, "moral space."
No community, such as the family, tribe, ethnic group, club, religious order, nation or humanity at large, has priority over the adult individual’s personal responsibility to decide what to do in his or her life. All those communities are in fact derivative of the decisions and choices made by innumerable individuals, all the while these individuals gain much of their resources, for making their decisions and choices, from other individuals in the various communities of which they are members. (Taylor, following Rousseau and others, at this point would use the phrase “belong to their communities,” thus assuming that the community is some kind of body of which the individual is but an organ, cell or limb.) This is contrary to the message of a long line of communitarian, collectivist thinkers who believe that, in the words of Jean Starobinski, explaining Rousseau’s ideas in the May 15, 2003, issue of The New York Review of Books, “The aptitude for moral life is a gift that the individual receives from the society in which he grows up; hence he is in debt to that society.” Starobinski reports, in addition, that “Rousseau treats the life of the citizen as a ‘conditional gift of the state’.” (Exactly how a gift places one in debt to someone is a mystery—genuine gifts aren’t supposed to be given conditionally.)
Two things are repeatedly missed in all these musings. First, it is individuals who utter these positions, hold these views and so betray their own messages of collective identity. Second, because of the first, whatever debts individuals might owe to the society, state, or community will be extracted and utilized by individuals with their own goals as the beneficiaries. States, communities, societies do not have goals, only individuals do, although those individuals who manage to convinced others that they are speaking in behalf of the community, state or society wherein one is a citizens will have an easier time to acquire from others the resources needed to support their goals, having hoodwinked everyone to believe those goals are actually theirs and they are repaying a debt when their own lives are spent on the pursuit of these goals. This is the ultimate message of Comte’s words, in Cathechisme positiviste (Paris: Temple de l’humanite, 1957), when he states, "[The] social point of view ... cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely." Had he been more forthright, he would have added, “And I’ll be pleased as punch to stand ready to extract from you the debt you owe to those predecessors, successors and contemporaries.”
No doubt, with the academic community being in the hands of thousands of scholars feeding off the collectivist political order—most universities are state run and supported and even those that aren’t play the game of sucking up to the state for grants and such—it isn’t likely that the individualist, libertarian theme will soon replace the currently popular semi-socialist communitarian, etc., alternatives. Still, it is useful, as one encounters repeated efforts to shore up what is ultimately a hopeless, indeed, self-contradictory idea—namely that human individuals are merely subsidiary parts of larger wholes (in whose behalf these thinkers are only too willing to speak)—to stress that “there is no there there,” despite all these valiant efforts.
Human beings are both individual and social beings and they do not belong to anything or anyone. Their lives are their own, something that obviously rankles those who would gladly take over and run it for them. And, in the process of living they are responsible to make sure that their inherited or chosen associations are wise ones, not ones that betray their humanity.
Still it is difficult to see how libertarians and defenders of free markets, freedom of trade, etc., can avoid being also individualists. This is especially true of those who stress the need for the protection of basic human rights in the Lockean individualist position.
*Machan is Professor Emeritus at the departments of philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama and at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA where he held the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise from 1997 to 2014.
Tibor R. Machan, Classical Individualism (London: Rutledge, 1998)
Hobbes, Thomas, "Good," chapter 6 of Leviathan (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
Norton, David L., Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism Princeton, N. J: Princeton University Press, 1976).
Rand, Ayn, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957)
Machan is Professor Emeritus at the departments of philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama and at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA where he held the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise from 1997 to 2014.
*The Declaration of Independence is sometimes criticized for failing to address the protection of the public interest but that is itself to fail to grasp that securing the protection of the individual rights of the citizenry is exactly the public interest that needs to be the concern of a free government.
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