Individualism and Collectivism

What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to do good things? Individualism would answer these questions by saying a good person, who does good things, is kind, fair, thoughtful, empathetic, and self-actualized; that they do things to better themselves (ie go to the gym, stay informed, eat right, meditate, and do things that will make them happy). Collectivism would say that a person is good if they belong to a good group and that their thoughts and actions are in alignment with that group and work towards the betterment and actualization of the group and promotion of its ideals over others.

Individualism is politically expressed through capitalism. The benefit of capitalism is that, ideally, each individual is in sole control of their own economic activity, thus the economy is defined by the interactions of individual agents all working toward their own personal good via rational self-interest – one spends one’s money on food, shelter, clothes, medicine, and entertainment for oneself; nobody else forces one into any particular form of economic activity. The problem seems to arise from taking this political philosophy on as a personal ethical philosophy – if it is morally good that I have personal control over my economic activity, then it is also morally good that I have personal control over my ethical activity. This can then descend into hedonism and moral relativism – what is “good” must be what makes me feel good, and who is anyone to say that what is “good” for one person must also be “good” for another?

Collectivism is politically expressed through communism or nationalism – the two use different rhetoric and emphasize different collectives, but are functionally similar. The benefit of collectivism as political philosophy (whether communism or nationalism) is that, ideally, everyone in the group (economic class, in the case of communism, or racial/ethnic group in the case of nationalism) is on equal economic footing – if you are within the preferred group, then there are no winners or losers, and therefore things like greed or envy of other in-group members becomes obsolete, and economic activity is simplified by relieving everyone of economic responsibility, because certain economic privileges become economic “rights” for in-group members. Their are inherent problems in collectivism as political philosophy, but further problems arise when collectivism is taken as an ethical philosophy: you end up with identity politics. In this case, every individual is pre-judged based on whatever group(s) one happens to fall into (racial, gender, class, etc.), and one is expected to adhere to a certain orthodoxy as established by said groups in order to be a “good person” as defined by that orthodoxy. The groups are then confronted by a dilemma: moral relativism vs might-makes-right. By the former, all groups are mutually exclusive, but equally valid, and therefore it is not acceptable to criticize another group by the ethical standards of one’s own, since one group’s ethics is only valid within that group, thus one is wrong to speak out against potentially monstrous beliefs and activities within other groups (ie who is one group to say that female genital mutilation is bad if it is considered “good” by those groups that practice it?). By the latter, universal “goodness” is dependent on which group can conquer, subjugate, or silence the others, thus it is “good” for one’s group to try and conquer, subjugate, or silence other groups deemed not to be “good” before they are able to conquer, subjugate, or silence one’s group (ie shouting down out-group speakers on college campuses or petitioning the government for laws favorable to one’s own group or unfavorable to the out-group).

So, the question is, how is humanity to determine a proper ethical framework? Religion used to attempt to fill this role. However, without a universally agreed upon religion, it will (and has) devolved into collectivism. There is also the issue that modernity has shown that God has taken a lesser role in the universe that once thought, or at least in people’s lives, if God exists at all. Because of the de-emphasis of religion for the formulation of an ethical framework, the above political philosophies have taken that role, and it has led to divisiveness, shallow materialism, and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use.

Adhering to simple moral prohibitions – don’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder – although not perfectly practiced, are generally agreed upon, even if not always for the same reasons. Yet this doesn’t seem to be good enough to create a peaceful world of productive societies, made up of internally supportive and externally tolerant communities, each composed of happy, healthy, self-actualized individuals. How to achieve that is the question ethical philosophers must answer.

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