Individualism vs. Collectivism

Aeon J. Skoble,

Release Date
June 29, 2011


Role of Government

Prof. Aeon Skoble claims that if we really care about the wellbeing of communities, we should keep in mind the unique and autonomous individuals that make it up. Each individual is deserving of respect and dignity, and should be free to pursue their own ends as long as they don’t infringe upon the freedom of others. Although the concept of community is important, it does not warrant overlooking the individuals that comprise it.

  • Methodological Individualism [Article]: Arnold Kling shares a quote from Donald J. Boudreaux underscoring the importance of methodological individualism when looking at the whole range of social phenomena.
  • The Collectivist Illusion [Article]: Tibor R. Machan examines the problem of grouping human beings and ascribing to them capacities only individuals can have.
  • The Dangers of Collectivism [Article]: Dennis Bechara explains how government intervention alters the nature of society and our relationship to government.
  • Liberalism [Article]: Gerald Gaus and Shane D. Courtland provide a broad philosophical overview of liberalism, highlighting in particular the classical liberal philosophical perspective.

Individualism vs. Collectivism
One of the defining characteristics of philosophical liberalism is the idea of individualism. Each person is an autonomous individual deserving of respect and dignity equal to that of all others, which entails the freedom to pursue ends of his or her own design provided that this doesn’t abrogate the similar freedom of others.
But aren’t we social creatures? Don’t we need community in order to flourish? And if the answer is yes, does that mean that individual rights are a big mistake? Actually it’s true that we’re social creatures, but this doesn’t imply that individualism is a mistake. Karl Marx claimed that our identities are constituted entirely by our socioeconomic class and that autonomy was an illusion. The prevailing economic system determines how you think. The liberal project was flawed, Marx said, because it caused people to have false ideas about labor, capital, society, even our own selves. Mussolini also claimed that the liberal project was flawed because it caused people to have false ideas about labor, capital, society, and our own selves, but his claim was that our identity was constituted and determined not by class but by our ethnicity.
These days few defend these claims, but it’s a lot more common to claim that the community determines our identity, and that liberalism is a flawed project. This is sometimes called the communitarian argument against liberal individualism. But what is the community? We’re all members of many different communities simultaneously: family, town, ethnicity, region, nation, religion. In addition to these, we become members of communities through our interests and affiliations, professions, hobbies, sports loyalties, and other manifestations of our preferences. To be sure, all these things play a role in helping shape who we become. But it’s a stretch to say that any of them trumps any of the others or that the process is deterministic.
Communitarianism seems to elide the distinction between influencing and determining. We still make choices about our values and actions despite there being many influences on our thinking. If you had to do everything yourself, you’d never get anything done. Being part of a community allows us to divide labor and benefit from specialization in trade.
Besides the economic benefits of social living, we also need friendships and culture and entertainment. But we get these benefits from social living because we’re individuals. One reason society has so much to offer is that we’re all a little different. The great diversity of human interests and talents and preferences is a testimony to our individualism, and society just is the manifestation of these differences as they’re brought together. If everyone thought the same way and liked all the same things, society would be a much less interesting place. So the idea that to protect community we need to stop thinking of people as autonomous individuals is getting it backwards. If we really care about the wellbeing of communities and preserving the way that society contributes to human flourishing, we ought to keep in mind the unique and autonomous individuals that make it up.