Friday, October 07, 2011

Musings on individualism and communitarianism

theObserver wonders, "if you need a Y axis with ‘Individualistic’ and ‘Communitarian’, and an X axis with moralistic and pragmatic?"

My initial suspicion is that individualism and communitarianism are not really fundamental distinctions. When I think hard about these words, their meanings and distinctions get more slippery, rather than less.

For the last three millennia (perhaps hundreds) we have lived in societies. To some extent, individuals have had to forego their personal desires for the "good of society". Few, I think, would take individualism so far as to say that an individual's desire to kill or rape should take precedence over "society's" desire to be free of murder and rape. (Ayn Rand might be an exception.) On the other hand, the "good of society" is an abstraction: there is no concrete thing as "society" which has goods or desires independently of the individuals comprising that society. Thus, there can be no real tension between the good of the individual and the good of society; there can be only tension between the good of individuals.

The first thing I want to know when I hear about some theory of political philosophy is: why that theory and not some other? What makes your theory better? Which is just a transformation of the atheists' creed: How do you know? I'm not going to say (at first) that your theory is insufficiently or excessively individualistic or communitarian.

One thing I see is that the political philosophies that I tend to find... well... icky... the theories that intuitively go thud instead of ding are strongly moralistic, whether they are traditionally labeled "individualistic" (e.g. Rand) or "communitarian" (fascism or Stalinist* communism). There is a right way for people to be — there is a right way to organize a society — that can be discerned without reference to how that society works out in practice. If 90% of the world has to freeze and starve when the lights go out in New York, well, that's the price we have to pay to get to the right way to live. (It cannot make us all happier, n'est pas?). If a million Jews have to go to the gas chambers, or a million to the gulags, again, that's just the price we have to pay. Hence I see Ayn Rand and Hitler as being politically similar, even though their philosophies seem superficially very different: they are both moralists to the core.

*At least how Stalinism is traditionally conceived. It's plausible that the worst abuses of Stalinism are the consequences of the only possible response available to early 20th century Russia in to Hitler's intent of annihilating the Slavic people.

I don't really see any tension between individualism and collectivism. The only "liberties" I have to give up under pragmatic collectivism are just those I don't want in the first place. I don't care that I have to give up the liberty to cause others to suffer; I don't want to buy happiness at that price. I don't care that I have to give up the liberty to exploit others; if I contribute an hour of hard work to the welfare of others, then I expect in return only an hour of another's hard work. If the product of my hour's work is somehow "more valuable", I am happy to take as my bonus only the public's good opinion. We have to determine what constitutes happiness and suffering and what constitutes "work" (and what constitutes hard work) to a large extent by a social process, but as long as I myself have a real say in that process, I'm willing (under most circumstances) to be satisfied with the judgment of my neighbors. I don't feel like my individuality is at all compromised by these limitations.

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