What is Individualism?

What is Individualism

by Raymie Stata (raymie@larch.lcs.mit.edu)
Copyright (C) 1992, Raymie Stata, All Rights Reserved

This is the text of an introductory speech first delivered in January, 1992 at the MIT Radicals for Capitalism, a student group.

As the presidential election nears, we start thinking about the choices we have to make. In the election, we face a basic choice of “left” versus “right.” Although “left” versus “right” accurately describes the choice we face in the voting booth, it does not fully describe the landscape of political thought.

A better way of carving up that landscape is into “collectivism” versus “individualism.” This is not a new dichotomy, but it’s been a long time since politicians have talked in such fundamental terms. Instead, they focus on details of implementation-policies, programs, and tax plans-leaving the fundamental issues implicit and confused.

Today I want to escape from election-speak and try to focus for a while on the more fundamental questions. I will define and contrast individualism and collectivism and explore their philosophic underpinnings and their political consequences.


Defining and contrasting individualism and collectivism

Individualism and collectivism are conflicting views of the nature of humans, society and the relationship between them.

Individualism holds that the individual is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value. This view does not deny that societies exist or that people benefit from living in them, but it sees society as a collection of individuals, not something over and above them.

Collectivism holds that the group—the nation, the community, the proletariat, the race, etc.—is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value. This view does not deny the reality of the individual. But ultimately, collectivism holds that one’s identity is determined by the groups one interacts with, that one’s identity is constituted essentially of relationships with others.

Individualists see people dealing primarily with reality; other people are just one aspect of reality. Collectivists see people dealing primarily with other people; reality is dealt with through the mediator of the group; the group, not the individual, is what directly confronts reality.

Individualism holds that every person is an end in himself and that no person should be sacrificed for the sake of another. Collectivism holds that the needs and goals of the individual are subordinate to those of the larger group and should be sacrificed when the collective good so requires.

Individualism holds that the individual is the unit of achievement. While not denying that one person can build on the achievements of others, individualism points out that achievement goes beyond what has already been done; it is something new that is created by the individual.

Collectivism, on the other hand, holds that achievement is a product of society. In this view, an individual is a temporary spokesman for the underlying, collective process of progress.

To further clarify the difference between individualism and collectivism, I’d like to discuss two widespread misconceptions about individualism.


The first misconception is that individualism means isolation—being alone, being outside society. This misconception is reflected in the popular images of “individualism,” images that stress being isolated, such as those of the lone cowboy, the fearless gumshoe, and the isolated prairie family. Such images can be exciting and heroic, but isolation is not the essence of individualism.

In fact, the concept of individualism does not make sense in the absence of other human beings. Individualism and collectivism are contrasting views of the relationship between the individual and the group. Individualism is called “individualism” not because it exhorts the individual to seek a life apart from others, but because it asserts that the individual, and not the group, is the primary constituent of society.

The belief that individualism means being alone leads people to say that individualism is incompatible with cooperation. If one is too much of an “individualist,” people say, one cannot “get along with groups,” one is not a good “team player.” Actually, a person who doesn’t listen to others, the person who would rather do things an inefficient way as long as it’s “my way,” is not being an “individualist”—he’s being closed minded. A true individualist wants the best for himself, so he seeks out the best, no mater who is the source. To the individualist, the truth is more important than any authority, including himself.

Living in society, cooperating with other people—these are tremendous benefits. Individualism does not deny this. But not all arrangements of living and working with other men are beneficial to the individual; the arrangement faced by American slaves is one example. Individualism is a theory of the conditions under which living and working with others is, in fact, beneficial.


Another widespread misconception about individualism is that it can somehow be mixed with or tempered by collectivism. In this view, neither “extreme” individualism nor “extreme” collectivism are correct. Rather, wisdom and truth lie somewhere in the middle.

Individualism and collectivism are contradictory positions—there is no middle ground between them. Collectivism maintains that the group is an entity in its own right, a thing that can act upon people. Individualism denies this. Collectivism sees us being influenced by the group; individualism sees us being influenced by other individuals. Collectivism sees us cooperating with the team; individualism, with other people. Collectivism sees us building on the ideas and achievements of society; individualism, on the ideas and achievements of individuals. These are contradictory positions; it’s either-or.

To accept the “balance” point of view is to accept collectivism. No collectivist has ever said that every single need of every individual must be frustrated for the sake of the society—if so, there wouldn’t be any society left to serve. Collectivism is the balance point of view; it is a matter of fine-tuning here and there, constraining individuals when their interests get out of line with the “good of society.”

Indeed, the main debate between the “left” and the “right” today is not a debate over collectivism and individualism—its a debate over two forms of collectivism. The “left” holds that the needs of society lie in the materialistic realm, so they are into regulating that aspect of individual affairs. The “right” holds that the needs of society lie in the spiritual realm, so they are into regulating the spiritual aspect of individual affairs.

Collectivism is, by its nature, an act of balancing the need of the individual against the need of “society.” Individualism denies that society has any needs, so the issue of balance is not relevant to it.

Philosophic implications of individualism and collectivism

Both collectivism and individualism rest on certain values and certain assumptions about the nature of man, which is what I want to explore next.

Responsibility vs. the safety-net

The first issue I want to explore is responsibility versus the social safety-net.

A primary element of individualism is individual responsibility. Being responsible is being pro-active, making one’s choices consciously and carefully, and accepting accountability for everything one does—or fails to do. An integral part of responsibility is productivity. The individualist recognizes that nothing nature gives men is entirely suited to their survival; rather, humans must work to transform their environment to meet their needs. This is the essence of production. The individualist takes responsibility for his own production; he seeks to “earn his own way,” to “pull his own weight.”

Collectivism doesn’t disparage responsibility; but ultimately, collectivism does not hold individuals accountable for the choices they make. Failing to save for retirement, having children one can’t afford, making bad investments, becoming addicted to drugs or smoking—these actions are called “social problems” that “society” has to deal with. Thus, collectivists seek to build a social “safety-net” to protect individuals from the choices they make. To collectivism, responsibility is only to be expected of the productive, and consists of doing one’s part in keeping the social “safety-net” in tact.

Regarding production, collectivism sees society, not individuals, as the agent of production. As a result, wealth belongs to “society,” so collectivists have no trouble dreaming up schemes to redistribute wealth according to their visions of “social justice.”

Egoism vs. altruism

The second issue I want to explore is egoism versus altruism.

Altruism holds “each man as his brother’s keeper;” in other words, we are each responsible for the health and well-being of others. Clearly, this is a simple statement of the “safety-net” theory from above. This is incompatible with individualism, yet many people who are basically individualists uphold altruism as the standard of morality. What’s going on?

The problem is wide-spread confusion over the meanings of “altruism” and “egoism.”

The first confusion is to confound altruism with kindness, generosity, and helping other people. Altruism demands more than kindness: it demands sacrifice. The billionaire who contributes $50,000 to a scholarship fund is not acting altruistically; altruism goes beyond simple charity. Altruism is the grocery bagger who contributes $50,000 to the fund, foregoing his own college education so that others may go. Parents who spend a fortune to save their dying child are helping another person, but true altruism would demand that the parents spend their money to save ten other children, sacrificing their own child so that others may live.

The second confusion is to confound selfishness with brutality. The common image of selfishness is the person who runs slip-shod over people in order to achieve arbitrary desires. We are taught that “selfishness” consists of dishonesty, theft, even bloodshed, usually for the sake of the whim of the moment.

These two confusions together obscure the possibility of an ethics of non-sacrifice. In this ethics, each man takes responsibility for his own life and happiness, and lets other people do the same. No one sacrifices himself to others, nor sacrifices others to himself. The key word in this approach is earn: each person must earn a living, must earn the love and respect of his peers, must earn the self-esteem and the happiness that make life worth living.

It’s this ethics of non-sacrifice that forms a lasting moral foundation for individualism. It’s an egoistic ethics in that each person acts to achieve his own happiness. Yet, it’s not the brutality usually ascribed to egoism. Indeed, by rejecting sacrifice as such, it represents a revolution in thinking on ethics.

Two asides on the topic of egoism. First, just as individualism doesn’t mean being alone, neither does non-sacrificial egoism. Admiration, friendship, love, good-will, charity, generosity: these are wonderful values that a selfishness person would want as part of his life. But these values do not require true sacrifice, and thus are not altruistic in the deepest sense of the word.

Second, I question if brutality, the form of selfishness usually ascribed to egoism, is actually in one’s self-interest in practice. Whim worship, dishonesty, theft, exploitation: I would argue that the truly selfish man rejects these, for he knows that happiness and self-esteem can’t be stolen at the cost of others: they must be earned through hard work.


The third issue I want to explore is reason.

The philosophic defense of individualism rests on the nature of reason and the role it plays in human life.

Reason is the faculty of conceptual awareness; reason integrates the evidence of the senses into a higher-level of awareness. But beyond simple cognition, reason plays a key role in imagination, emotions, and creativity. Every thing we think, feel, imagine and do is based on our awareness and our thoughts. Our character, personal identity, and history of achievement are defined by our thoughts. Our very survival depends on reason. Our food, clothes, shelter, and medicine—all are products of thought. Reason is at the core of being human.

Reason is individualistic. No person can think for another; thought is an attribute of the individual. One can start with the ideas of another, but each new discovery, each creative step beyond the already known, is a product of the individual. And when an individual does build on the work and ideas of others, he is building on the work of other individuals, not on the ideas of “society.”

Individualism, then, is based on the fact that humans are rational beings, and that reason is an attribute of the individual. Humans can get together and share the products of reason, which is beneficial, but they cannot share the capacity to think.

Collectivist philosophers go out of their way to attack reason. One broad method of attack is skepticism, the denial that reason even works. This attack is illustrated in bromides like “you can’t be sure of anything.” A more sophisticated attack on reason aims at turning reason into a product of the group. Each nation, race, economic class, creed, or gender has its own concept, logic, and truth. But in the end, all attacks on reason have a common result: they deny or confuse the role reason plays as the foundation of individualism.

Political implications of individualism and collectivism

The final issue I want to look at are the the political implications of individualism and collectivism.

These implications should be fairly clear. Under collectivism, the individual, in whole or in part, is a means to satisfying the needs of “society.” The state is the instrument for organizing people to meet those needs. So it is the state, not the individual, that is sovereign.

Under individualism, the individual is sovereign. The individual is an end in himself, whose cooperation is to be obtain only through voluntary agreement. All people are expected to act as traders, either voluntarily agreeing to interact or going separate ways; it’s either “win-win, or no deal.” The government is limited strictly to ensuring that coercion is banished from human relations, that “voluntary” is really voluntary, that both sides choose freely to deal and both sides live up to their agreements.

Radicals for Capitalism

Since I am representing the group Radicals for Capitalism, I do want to tie capitalism into the discussion so far.

Radicals for Capitalism advocates the philosophy of individualism, and supports capitalism as the only political system compatible with individualism. Unfortunately, the word “capitalism” is misunderstood today; everybody seems to mean something different by the word. Many opponents of capitalism blame the market for the result of State interventions in the economy. Many so-called “capitalists” mix socialist and interventionist schemes in with free market rhetoric—and call the result Capitalism. Today, “capitalism” is much maligned and misunderstood, buried under false allegations.

We want to liberate the term from such baggage. By capitalism we mean: a “social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” “A system where any and all forms of government intervention in production and trade is abolished, and State and Economics are separated in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of Church and State” (CUI, p109).

As mentioned earlier, it’s a system based on the notion that humans are traders—either voluntarily agreeing to interact or going separate ways—a system in which government is limited strictly to ensuring that coercion is banished from human relations, that “voluntary” is really voluntary, that both sides choose freely to deal.

Under capitalism, the government protects rights, including the right to property. Without the right to use and dispose what one has produced, one has no liberty. If individuals can’t work and produce towards goals they can’t pursue happiness. If one can’t consume the product of one’s effort, one cannot live. To the degree a government does not protect property rights, an individual is a slave at the mercy of someone or some group.

Capitalism is not a system under which unproductive individuals can leach off the productive ones, whether the “unproductive” are the unambitious or politically-connected businessmen. Nor is capitalism a system in which the government acts not as a protector, but as a coercer of productive individuals. There are examples galore of unjust acts committed under the banner of law and justice, for example, when the government takes from one person to feed another, or when government takes taxpayer money to bail out foolhardy bankers.

Unfortunately, our vision of capitalism is not the current state of affairs and has only been approximated in the history of the man kind. No system in the world today is capitalistic to the extent we advocate. All could be, but not without changes; in particular, the wide-spread acceptance of individualism.


I began this talk by mentioning the upcoming election. You might be wondering what the relevance of my words are to that election.

In terms of effecting change, the fundamental issues we’ve touched on today have a time horizon much longer than the electoral process—we’re talking decades and even generations. And yet, these fundamental issues are more important than the implementation details we hear about, in the sense that whether people accept individualism, moderate collectivism, or extreme collectivism has a tremendous impact on the range of implementation details considered at election time.

Our goal today, and the goal of RadCap’s in general, is to help raise the level of abstraction of political discourse to a higher level, to the level of fundamental issues like individualism versus collectivism. Of course, RadCaps advocates a specific point of view—individualism—and we would like to convince people that it’s the correct one. But just as important, we feel, is the more general goal of the level of discourse. So I hope that next time you hear a political advertisement or a debate between candidates, you’ll try to see the collectivist and individualist angles in addition to the concrete policies advocated.



Satu respons untuk “What is Individualism?

  1. I disagree with you with on Altruism. I think you gave a poor example of what altruism is by using a materialistic angle as far as giving everything you have while equating it to sacrifice. You also assumed that such specific acts constitute altruism, regardless of the reaction or impact it has on the RECIEVER. Such an assumption by the giver would actually fall into egoism, because it would suggest that the act itself is more valuable than the thought and response. What defines altruism other than the act, thought process, AND feedback? Will doing “everything” for the OTHER truly mean you are HELPING the other? That is the point, is it not? To help? If both giver and receiver are altruistic, according to your theory, then the boy who was offered the $50,000 from the grocery bagger isn’t possible, because he too would be concerned, for the grocery bagger’s loans, debts, and hard work put into the “altruistic” gesture and would not accept such a SACRIFICE for his own. Altruism is a selfless move defined by the OTHER. Merriam-webster’s dictionary states altruism is an unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. If a piece of advice, void of materialistic value is the best thing you ever received, would you qualify the giver as not altruistic enough because he didn’t give everything else he had, regardless if it was valuable to YOU or not? Did the father who gave his son a fishing pole instead of fish for him fall short of altruism because he knew that such knowledge would serve his son far more valuable and serve him forever instead of the temporary satisfaction of catching the fish for him? You are superimposing your own perspective of altruism on the actual definition and suggesting that a $5 dollar donation to a homeless man isn’t enough “sacrifice”. Your theory suggests you aren’t altruistic ENOUGH. You must give that person your house, car, savings account and job leaving you broke on the street while the once poor guy is now in your shoes and UNTIL then, it will qualify as an act of no benefit to yourself. Do you think the homeless guy himself doesn’t possess an ounce of altruism and wouldnt feel bad?You think the homeless guy would take it all? If he did, wouldn’t you say he’s selfish? If you say to this, “well that is going overboard”, then you are now picking and choosing what should be sacrificed-at what amount and what shouldn’t. Even altruism has its own balances and paradoxes; you have to find the middle ground. Ok enough analogies and stories, I agree with you that there is definite confusion with the term because people like me, those you talk about and yourself add to the numerous “confusion” perspectives altruism stands for. This is not to say your perspective is wrong, confusion isn’t necessarily wrong either, but your point of view is subjective, according to my point of view and it would do justice to view altruism in the realm of a giver and receiver perspective rather than what is defined by the “individual” giver. Kind of ironic huh? Thank you for reading this post. Hope to hear your opinion.

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