I recently had an interesting conversation with my sister (who resides in the US) about the uniqueness of western civilization. In my view, the most remarkable element of western culture is individualism. The west invented individualism and it is to my mind a monumental human construct upon which tiers of higher human accomplishments have been created. My sister remarked that individualism is a shortcoming as this ‘me first’ attitude prevents the vast majority of Americans from receiving universal health coverage in addition to keeping the fat cats fed. She then said that Canada, as a socialist country, was happier and more prosperous because of its collectivist socialist mindset. That all Canadians received health coverage for free along with a plethora of other welfare benefits was proof enough to her about the merits of collectivism over individualism. In her defense, I suspect that she was referring to hyper individualism but many have suggested that the passage from individualism to the latter is a slippery slope.
This is not a new argument, and I’d heard it being expressed several times in multiple contexts at university. However there are a couple of flaws with this argument which I shall address in this post. The first flaw is the classical fallacy of equating individualism with selfishness. Individualism is about self interest whereas selfishness is about pursuing ones self interest at the expense of others. Selfishness is universal and exists even in less developed tribal societies like those of the Middle East and South Asia. Individualism is a socio/cultural outlook that is concerned with the well being of society by foremost emphasizing the well being of each and every member of that society. The methodology of implementing this axiom has spawned a diverse set of ideologies ranging from Hobbe’s egoism to the hedonistic calculus of the great utilitarian philosophers like Bentham and Mill. Focusing on the general health of society is by no means a sign of collectivism. Even Indian society emphasized societal harmony through the social mechanism of caste. However Caste created a socially (and technologically) stagnant society which could only function by maintaining a static hierarchy that grinds individual aspirations to dust. Indian society is an excellent example of a culture that is collectivist and tribal to the core, yet remains miserable. Thousands of Indians attest to this sorry fact by migrating to the west in droves (legally or otherwise).
The argument that Canada’s socialist setup is a textbook example of collectivism is also deeply flawed. Canada’s universal healthcare is available to all citizens regardless of their ethnic and linguistic heritage whereas collectivism generally has a strong ethnic and/or linguistic basis to its character. Furthermore, any form of universalism, especially moral universalism, can only be fully expressed in an individualistic society. As Kevin MacDonald brilliantly points out, tribal/collectivist cultures (like the Jews for example) practice moral particularism, which is centred around the crucial question: Is it good for the tribe? Since collectivist cultures are characterized by a high degree of cooperation between members, it is in the members’ best interests to elevate the tribe’s interests above their own as the tribe bestows sustenance and identity to its members. In India, the effects of the collectivist institution of caste on morality were succinctly reported by John P Jones:
“And even as it is a foe to nationality, so is it the mortal enemy of individualism. The caste system is really a glorification of the multitude as against the individual. Individual initiative and assertion, liberty of conscience, the right of man to life and the pursuit of happiness,—all these are foibles of the West which it has been the chief business of caste to crush…In India, it has been the business of men, from time immemorial, not to do what they think to be right, nor to find out, every one for himself, what they consider to be the best and to act according to the dictates of conscience; it has rather been submission to caste dominance. “
(John P Jones, India, its life and thought , 1908)
Western culture on the other hand de-emphasizes extended kin relationships and as such individuals are not dependant on any group or tribe for their sustenance or identity. This is why western culture approaches moral issues with a fundamentally different question: Is it good for mankind? There are many examples of Jewish moral particularism in North American society, but that is the subject for a future post. I’d like to conclude this post with a quote from Adam Furgeson:
If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.
—Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society