The Myth of Individualism

I very much like this essay at the New York Times, “Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual” by John Edward Terrell. It ties together a lot of my themes.

At least part of the schism between Republicans and Democrats is based in differing conceptions of the role of the individual. We find these differences expressed in the frequent heated arguments about crucial issues like health care and immigration. In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.

I’ve written before about the fact that our economy is a web of interconnections, and that the failure of part of it hurts the whole eventually. Allowing cities like New Orleans and Detroit to rot; allowing families to be buried by medical bills; ripping the safety net so that lots of people fall into destitution and can’t get out; these things put a strain on the entire economic ecosystem, and with enough strain it all comes apart and hurts everyone. But righties can’t see that; they just think taxes are taking money away from me and giving it to someone else.

I’ve also written before about the utter obliviousness of Ayn Randbots, who sit in chairs somebody else crafted,  in homes supported by networks of utilities other people made and maintain, keyboarding through internet connections they couldn’t reproduce if they tried, and to anyone who will listen, that they don’t need ANYBODY ELSE. Take away the cocoon of civilization and these bozos probably wouldn’t survive the week. Yeah, go Galt, buddy. Please.

Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.

We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.

One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.

I want to go back to “Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.” This is another bit of elaborate hooey that’s been around for a long time. One doesn’t hear it as much any more, but the old line was that men are logical and women are emotional, which is why men ought to run things because women can’t make responsible decisions. This may explain why 90 percent of homicides are perpetrated by men … oh, wait …

And there’s another claim that is heard much less often after World War II than before, that white Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon people are logical and all those simple brown natives are emotional. The pattern is that if you can claim your decisions are based on “logic” and not “emotions,” you win. The problem is that, in retrospect, the pattern of Teutonic/Anglo Saxon behavior throughout history doesn’t reveal a preponderance of wisdom or sensible, dispassionate judgment. Aggression, yes. Greed and arrogance, you bet. Wisdom, not so much.

This is not to say that European civilization hasn’t created some wonderful stuff, but the cultures of other continents have created some wonderful stuff, also. Humans can do amazing things sometimes. However, show me someone who claims he is entirely rational and logical, and I will show you someone who is out of touch with his own emotions.

I’ve written elsewhere about Moral Foundation theory and how much research in psychology and sociology reveals that emotions are jerking all of us around, whether we admit it or not. Moral Foundation theory says that our moral decisions are really being generated in our subconscious, which sends emotional cues — sometimes subtle ones, but emotional nonetheless — to our conscious mind, which then crafts rational reasons for why we believe as we do.

In other words, all of that logic and reasoning is strictly post hoc and called in to serve the demands of emotion. We believe as we do because it pleases us (literally) to believe as we do. We join mass movements or adhere to political views because they stoke our egos and reinforce our biases. And then the more deluded among us think up “rational” reasons for all of it and deny the role of emotions. Because, you know, emotions are for girls.

Terrell continues,

This conclusion is unlikely to startle anyone who is at all religious or spiritual. When I was a boy I was taught that the Old Testament is about our relationship with God and the New Testament is about our responsibilities to one another. I now know this division of biblical wisdom is too simple. I have also learned that in the eyes of many conservative Americans today, religion and evolution do not mix. You either accept what the Bible tells us or what Charles Darwin wrote, but not both. The irony here is that when it comes to our responsibilities to one another as human beings, religion and evolution nowadays are not necessarily on opposite sides of the fence. And as Matthew D. Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written: “we think people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.”

While I do not entirely accept the norms clause of Lieberman’s claim, his observation strikes me as evocatively religious.

To me, there is no starker proof of the basic irrationality of Teabaggerism than the way so many manage to combine rigid, by-the-Holy-Book religious views with Ayn Rand’s “objectivism.” This is not just because Rand was an atheist. It’s because you can pretty much take anything Jesus ever said in the Gospels and compare it to Rand, and see clearly that Rand’s views are completely opposite Christ’s. There may be exceptions, but I can’t think of one. Rand’s views are also completely opposite those of the Buddha, which hasn’t stopped a few people from creating a Rand-Dharma hybrid called “dark Buddhism” or sometimes “dark Zen.” That this movement is pretty much a pubescent reaction to and denial of everything the Buddha taught shouldn’t surprise you.

Rand made a mistake commonly made by unthinking people — she assumed that if one ideology is bad, then the good must be its opposite. So Communism, with its denial of individual rights and the value of each person is bad, then the good must be untrammeled individualism. So Rand dismissed communities and societies as a “tribal premise” and denied that even activities such as trade and commerce should be about anything but individuals looking out for themselves. Yeah, try having an “economy” all by yourself.

Skipping a few bits of Terrell’s essay, which I recommend reading, we get to the Enlightenment philosophers. Now, on the whole I like the Enlightenment philosophers, because they are the ones who inspired the Declaration of Independence and the modern democratic ideal. But Terrell has a point here —

According to Rousseau and others, our responsibilities and duties to one another as members of society do not come from nature, but instead from our social conventions. Their speculations about the origins of the latter generally asserted that the most ancient of all societies was the family. Yet in their eyes, even the family as a social unit was seen as ephemeral. As Rousseau wrote: “children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.” When released from obedience to their father, the next generation is free to assume a life of singular freedom and independence. Should any child elect to remain united with the family of his birth, he did so “no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.”

In fairness to Rousseau it should be noted, as I observed earlier, that he may not have meant such claims to be taken literally. As he remarked in his discourse “On the Origin of Inequality,” “philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there.” Why then did Rousseau and others make up stories about human history if they didn’t really believe them? The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim that civilized life is based on social conventions, or contracts, drawn up at least figuratively speaking by free, sane and equal human beings — contracts that could and should be extended to cover the moral and working relationships that ought to pertain between rulers and the ruled. In short, their aims were political, not historical, scientific or religious.

Terrell is an anthropologist, so the notion of family as not originating in nature must seem particularly bizarre to him. Fossil and anthropological evidence shows us that hominids have lived in family groups since at least Australopithecus afarensis, if not earlier. We would not have survived otherwise.

Terrell then argues that what the Enlightenment philosophers wrote has morphed into a kind of primitive mythology that has become holy to the Teabaggers. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, this has resulted in the bizarre spectacle of people submerged in a dogmatic mass movement,  marching around wearing tricorner hats and carrying “don’t tread on me” signs to demonstrate how “individual” they are.

Terrell concludes,

The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. Nor is this what the world’s religions would ask us to believe. Or at any rate, so I was told as a child, and so I still believe.

I’ve argued for a long time that the ideal is a kind of balance between the needs and interests of individuals and communities/societies, and when one of these is weighted more heavily than the other there will be dysfunction. But Terrell makes a good point that this idea of untrammeled individualism is, in fact, antithetical to all of the world’s great religions, and it’s interesting to me that so much of right-wing Christianity in America is oblivious to that. Somehow, in their minds, laissez-faire capitalism and the Holy Free Market, blessed be It, are ordained by God and inextricable from Jesus’ teachings. Which makes no sense at all.

33 thoughts on “The Myth of Individualism

  1. “This is not just because Rand was an atheist. It’s because you can pretty much take anything Jesus ever said in the Gospels and compare it to Rand, and see clearly that Rand’s views are completely opposite Christ’s.”

    I don’t know about that, maha.

    After all, Jesus “went Galt.”
    And, when he “went Galt,” he wasn’t foolin’ around – he REALLY “went Galt!!”

    What’s that I smell?
    I’m just kidding!!!

  2. On a serious note, take a look at “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”
    Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry about Maslow and his hierarchy – typically drawn as a pyramid:

    After our metabolic/physiological needs – like air, water, food, followed by clothing and shelter from the elements, all of the rest our needs are social ones.

    And note that the tip of the pyramid, is what he called “self-actualization.”
    You can’t have “self-actualization” without the metabolic, physiological, and social needs, having been met.

    All of our Randians /Libertarians/ act as if they came fully-formed – like Athena – out of Zeus’s skull.
    They seem to have forgotten that, when they were mewling, shrieking, sucking, puking, peeing, defecating, infants, if their parents, their relatives, their siblings, and/or their neighbors would have abandoned them, they wouldn’t have been raised by wolves – but died a horrible mewling, shrieking, sucking, puking, peeing, defecating, death while they were still infants.

    And don’t get me started on teachers and friends, etc.

    Ask a person who lived in an extremely cold environment, “What’s better when it’s really, really cold? An open hand, or a closed one? And mittens or gloves?”, they’ll tell you closed hands keep you warmer than leaving your fingers exposed, and mittens are far superior to gloves.
    Together, your fingers stay warm and comfy.
    Alone, they freeze and drop off.

    Get it?
    Got it?
    Still no?
    Well then, aren’t you God special little snowflake!
    I hope that it’s true that God protects idiot’s and fools – because if that’s the case, you’ll be doubly protected – “MORANS!!!”

  3. The tea baggers and right wingers are all for individualism until their house is on fire, there is an epidemic (Ebola!) or the terrorists are coming to kill them in their beds (why is that always used? Is to be killed in your bed the scariest death of all?)

  4. “Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.”

    Aside from the points that you made, it’s also pretty easy to show that most self-described libertarians are actually very bad at using logic and reasoning, however highly they may value them. I always believe in giving opposing views a fair hearing, but most of the libertarian stuff that I’ve looked at has been total garbage. And the stuff that wasn’t garbage was shallow, repetitious, an entirely unpersuasive.

    Well, we don’t have to look too far for examples, anyway. As you say, all the science–which presumably is logic and reasoning at its most valuable–is telling us that human beings are social animals at the most basic level. How anyone who values logic and reasoning could deny this is amazing, and yet here we are.

    It’s not for nothing that the word “idiot” comes from the Greek idios, meaning personal or private.

  5. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I refer you to Neil Diamond’s song: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”. There’s a lot to think about in this blog so I better get busy.

  6. I believe the original greek use of “idiot” was in reference to those who believed they had no need to participate in , nor reason to be concerned with the needs of, the polis.

  7. “Fossil and anthropological evidence shows us that hominids have lived in family groups since at least Australopithecus afarensis, if not earlier.”

    Yes, from what I’ve read it looks like it’s always been that way. After all, our closest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, are also profoundly social animals. And one account I’ve read of the evolution of our big brains is that they were needed to keep track of all the social connections that were so vital to the survival of the earliest hominids.

    And that was driven by climate change, come to think of it. Our common ancestors with chimps and bonobos lived relatively luxurious lives in tropical forests, but then the forests shrank and our ancestors found themselves out on the savanna. So cooperation became even more important if they were to survive.

  8. The right-wing over-emphasis on the individual and individual freedom is adolescent. It’s the primary developmental task of teenagers to become free of their parents. It’s no accident that Ayn Rand’s writings have their greatest appeal to people in this age bracket. And it’s hilarious that teenagers (and Randoids) of any era look and act the same – they’re fitting in with their clique.

    (sidenote: one of the funnest arguments to get into with a wingnut is their contention that they got here all by themselves. This was popular a few years ago. It’s fun opening their eyes to the facts, that 1) someone raised them, 2) their town paid taxes to educate them, 3) the car they drive rides on roads that others paid to have built, and on and on. You can go on all night with this, because the interconnections are endless. If you need help with this, check out A Day in the Life of Joe Average Republican).

    Once individual freedom is gained, then the primary developmental task is interdependence, finding your place in the social world, and then later, usually after mid-life, the cosmos. Normally, Ayn Rand, along with comic books, is long forgotten by now.

    There will always be a tension between the individual and the community. Everytime I try to explain this to right wingers, their eyes glaze over, because their simple, childlike minds can only handle either/or, not both-and. They’re too focused on FreeDum, and Me, me, me.

    Not only do all religions emphasize the interconnectedness of all things, but so, increasingly does science. There was a great movie a few years ago that talked quite a bit about this, the trailer is here. It’s worth renting.

  9. Two things pop to mind while reading the beginning of this (I have fatigue issues and hope to have energy to read the whole thing later).

    First is the common (incorrect) use of logic.

    A lot of people think they’re being logical because they’re taking postulates, and reasoning from the and coming to conclusions. And this isn’t *entirely* incorrect. If we assume parallel lines never meet (Euclidean) we get a useful geometry based in logic. But we live on a sphere! Two lines parallel at the equator, both headed north, meet at the north and south pole!

    Thus, real logic requires unpacking your postulates and thinking about them – Euclidean geometry is not good sphere geometry. This failure to examine postulates is the massive failure on the parts of many of those who think they’re being “logical”

    Another massive failure is one that’s been cooking in my brain for a while. I’ve seen it said that monotheism set the world in a very bad direction because it went from “many conflicting forces” to “good versus evil/right versus wrong” and such. In polytheism (so the claim goes) it’s more easily seen that the world is a set of conflicts between different forces. Is this true? I don’t know.

    But I imagine it is obvious that this can mix *terribly* with “logic” which looks for the “right/good” and excludes all other considerations – it neither unpacks its assumptions, nor needs to consider alternate points of view.

  10. See “The Racial Contract”bu Charles W. Mills for a deconstruction of Enlightenment European rationality.

  11. Great article Maha…lots to think about…umm…I always thought Molon Labe was a feature on a woman that no one told me about…

  12. Moonbat, don’t insult comics by putting them anywhere near Randian nonsense. You can learn something from comics. Remember, comics are a medium not a genre. That’s like saying you should outgrow TV because you used to watch cartoons.

    Maha, is it called Dark Zen because you stumble around blindly and never see Enlightenment?

  13. Great post, Barbara and you make several points that I often throw in the face of my conservative friends. First, if we were all ranchers living on the plains of Wyoming in the 1800s, raising our own cattle for meat, making cloth from wool sheared from sheep we raised and drinking water from wells we drilled ourselves, I could understand the reluctance to pay taxes to “the government”. But, we aren’t! We live in a highly complex and interdependent society where the food we eat often comes from hundreds of miles away, wearing clothes from cloth made continents away and drinking water that must be pumped from miles away and purified in mass by government-funded entities. Not one of us would survive long if this interconnected web broke down and it certainly could not exist without government taxation.

    On the religious side of the coin, I prefer the Catholic view that we are all part of the “body of Christ” and we cannot all be whole and well unless all parts of the body are whole and well. Corpus Christi is more than a place. It is the bedrock foundation of the Christian faith and those right-wing tools (Joel Osteen among others) who chirp about having a “personal relationship” with Christ, don’t understand the Christian religion one whit. Thanks for a very insightful post!

  14. One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

    Kind of a trick question…By answering, it would require another person. The recipient to whom you are describing yourself to. Horse and carriage, love and marriage.. can’t have one without the other.

  15. I was thinking some more about the Enlightenment philosophers. If you compare them to our contemporary libertarians, there’s a pretty important difference in the context. Especially if they were French, these guys were living under an absolute monarchy and struggling to assert a kind of individualism that we can all approve of. This was appropriate in a time and a place where nobody had any rights.

    With our libertarian individualists things are different, since the government mostly doesn’t care what they say. They’re all waiting for a bunch of jackbooted Feds to come busting down their doors and take their money right out of their wallets. But this keeps not happening, so they start inventing imaginary oppressions to pass the time.

  16. “Why then did Rousseau and others make up stories about human history if they didn’t really believe them? The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim…”

    In ‘Rules for Radicals’ Alinsky talks about how the fathers of the American revolution manipulated the narrative to fuel the break from England. This has generally been true for any period of change – the changers create a narrative to power the revolution.

    IMO, you have two significant facets to the ‘Myth of Individualism’. This is a damn good post on the myth, from the point of view of the believer. The political myth that fuels ultra-conservatism didn’t ‘just happen’. That’s the second facet of the myth – the motives of the author(s) of the myth. The puppeteers don’t believe the myth any more than they believe in Santa Claus. They need an army of voters and vocal supporters. They could have just said they want suckers to protect their wealth – support the right to pollute – fight against rich people paying taxes but the mystique of those principles is lost on most poor people. So they created a different myth which incorporates all that, but is wrapped in a preposterous antisocial philosophy.

  17. are you all stupid yanks or just shitting on your own bill of rights. Perhaps you could move all to China and experience lovely socialism first hand.

  18. I weigh these thoughts from a mind pondering the Maha PrajnaParamita Sutra and simply see thoughts,,,thoughts perhaps perhaps drawn to libertarianism as a label for some folks trying to grasp some sense outta the endless chatter of their minds ,,,,knowing, somehow, salvation is within perhaps , but, perhaps, somehow knowing that the absolute unbelieving , which is a judgement , is not possible,,,,,

    • Wm. — Per the prajnaparamita teachings, “Buddhist libertarian” is an oxymoron. This is not to say that a Buddhist couldn’t favor limited government. Rather, the essence of prajnaparamita is that there is no intrinsic self; that no thing has self-essence or existence in itself. Phenomena have existence as phenomena only as objects of thought. In the absolute, nothing is distinguishable, and we are all each other. And the essence of Mahayana is the great bodhisattva vow to not enter nirvana until all beings are enlightened. This is not a matter of altruism, but a recognition that things cannot be otherwise; in Mahayana, “individual enlightenment” is an oxymoron also.

  19. Anthropologists have discovered very ancient remains of people who were obviously too elderly or injured to care for themselves in the remains of pre-historic caves. The obvious reason is that they were being cared for by their clan members.

    This seems to indicated that our natural way of being was communal. If it wasn’t natural, then it was learned and either way, it was and still is the best way for the most people to survive…one for all and all for one. Or E pluribus Unum. An excellent motto for modern times and one which Obama used to quote frequently.

  20. Pingback: Why People Are Jerks | The Mahablog

  21. There’s a major misunderstanding of libertarianism here. All libertarianism is saying is that you shouldn’t initiate aggression against others, using immoral violence, theft, fraud, etc., whether it’s you doing it directly to your neighbor or you indirectly having the state do it for you. That’s it. There is no tearing down of the importance and value of interdependent, social relationships — that’s beyond the limited, political scope of libertarianism. It never pretended to be a complete moral/ethical theory. It upholds non-aggression as a platform of Liberty, but we then still have to go on to discuss what we ought to do with our Liberty, which is beyond mere libertarianism.

    So you could indeed have libertarian hermits who eschew society; but then you could also have libertarians voluntarily living in a commune, and everything in between. This is no different then there being vegetarian libertarians and carnivorous libertarians, or whatever. How we ought to use Liberty is beyond the scope of mere libertarianism.

    • There’s a major misunderstanding of libertarianism here.

      It’s a widespread major misunderstanding, then, and its common among people who self-identify as “libertarian.”

    • Micah– I seriously do not want to hear anything from Murray Rothbard or anyone else associated with the Von Mises School of Bizarro World Economics, nor do I care to discuss anything more complex with the weather with anyone who takes that crap seriously. Go away.

  22. Ouch 🙂 Certainly will go away if that is your wish.

    My point with that link was not to get anyone to like Rothbard or Mises, just to point out prominent libertarians underscoring the same thing: libertarianism is a political theory of non-aggression, nothing more.

    Personally, I am a libertarian who appreciates much of what you emphasize here about interdependence; just clarifying that many if not most libertarians are not the type of individualist you are describing.

    But I will go…

    Peace and Love to you.


  23. I have been thinking of Individualism, vs groups, and so far it has come down to “Thinkers” vs “Believers.” Edward Bernays pointed out that “Group Think” could at times be manipulated, but not an individuals thoughts (a man thinking for himself, rather than considering consensuses) when he said “It is sometimes possible to change the attitudes of millions but impossible to change the attitude of one man. If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.”
    Since the intelligence of a crowd is always inferior to the intelligence of the individual, don’t BELIEVE consensuses, but “THINK Outside the Box,” with an “Open Mind,” and form your very own opinion.
    Of course this has nothing to do with how much you socialize, belong to clubs, & so on.

    • Meo — what you say is pretty much conventional thinking on the issue of individuals versus groups, but you miss the point. The idea that humans can ever function as stand-alone autonomous people-units betrays a vast ignorance of human nature. Our individual identity is built upon our function and position within networks of humans –your family, your occupation, your nation of origin, ethnicity, religion, whatever. And it’s well documented that “the box” we think in is largely built by cultural conditioning. As soon as we’re born, the programming begins, and the way we sort, identify and relate to other people and phenomena largely depends on our social and cultural orientation. The first step in actually thinking “outside the box” and avoiding groupthink is waking up to this. It’s only when you realize how much of your perspectives and your orientation toward the world is really social and cultural construction that you can even begin to think “outside the box.” I doubt anyone ever completely cuts himself loose from his programming, though.

      The great and terrible irony we’re facing in the U.S. right now is a persistent groupthink that worships “individualism,” or at least some ideal of individualism. Most of the time all those free thinkers who thump themselves on the chest and quote Ayn Rand about how individual they are are the worst groupthinkers on the planet. They’re living entirely inside a collective myth and wouldn’t recognize the real world if it bit their ass.

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