November 15, 2016

In Defense of Individualism

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

It is a great tragedy that the Western world has lost its emphasis on individualism since the progressive era of the early 20th century (and even in the late 19th century).  There are many methods to consider this issue and there are a variety of ways in which “individualism” has been utilized in the past.  But defining the word incorrectly and refusing to accept its real meaning has caused much confusion in both the church setting and also in the political setting. The word itself has become the enemy of all types of important concepts such as love, caring for others, community, mercy, etc.  To grieve the loss of individualism even seems misplaced in today’s world.  And yet at the same time, there are many who rightly refuse to accept it’s opposite: collectivism.  Intellectually unable to endorse either view, the Christian has been left defenseless in defending Biblical principles.

I want to start this discussion by quoting from John Robbins’ Freedom and Capitalism: Essays on Christian Politics and Economics.  From the Forward, page 12.

One idea that unites all the opponents of freedom and capitalism is a profound hatred for the individual and individualism. It takes one form in the corporate “salvation” hawked by the Romanist Church-State for centuries (“no salvation outside the Church”…). It takes another form in the rabid attack on private judgement and the vociferous defense of Tradition by both Romanists and nominal Protestants. This theological attack on the individual and individualism is what informs the economic and political attack on the individual in politics and economics. (…) The assumption of both civil and ecclesiastical autocrats is that the individual belongs to the Church and/or to the State. This anti-individualism -clearly contrary to all that the Bible teaches- explains much of the anti-freedom and anti-capitalistic mentality of the Churches.

As we can see, Robbins draws a connection between the collectivism that has seeped into the Protestant Churches from it source, the Roman Catholic Church, and the collectivism that has ventured into the economic and political discussions as well.  It is no coincidence, as Robbins points out time and again though the book, that individualism has been killed off in both realms of thought (politics and Christianity).

When the word individualism comes to discussion, it comes in a cloak of negative connotations.  For instance, to call someone an individualist can make people think of words like egoism, selfish, or, self-centered.  But these other words have nothing to do with individualism.  These words must be discussed, and dealt with, but such an endeavor must await a future post.

Individualism is part of a worldview that makes several important claims, none of which, when drawn out, can be opposed to by the Biblical or reasonable thinker.  Firstly, individualism is the claim that thinking can only be done by the individual.  There is no such thing as “the collective mind,” because groups cannot think.  Thinking is an operation of the individual, based on the gift of a unique mind given to the human by God.  Therefore, preferences and conclusions are individually pursued.  None can think on behalf of another and each man and woman is in control of, responsible for, the thoughts of their minds.  This is strictly opposed to the collectivist idea of the “corporate mind,” which not only has no Biblical basis, but also cannot be proven to exist scientifically (the epistemological method of the anti-theists) or rationally (a rationalist proof for a collective mind is self-contradictory).

Second, individualism is the claim that the actions of people can only be completed by individuals.  Each individual is exclusively capable, restricted only by his or her own nature, of causing himself to act.  This is the basis for Austrian School economics.  Others cannot act for you and neither can a group act.  Any activity said to be done by a group is best understood as a collection of individuals acting. If every man is exclusively in control of his thoughts, then it is only those thoughts that can physically compel the individual to move.

Third, individualism is the claim that the individual is morally responsible and accountable for his own actions.  After aggressing against someone or lying to a neighbor, no individual aggressor or liar can place moral responsibility on another.  No man is morally responsible for the sins and deeds of another human being.  In the same way that I should not be praised for writing a book that someone else wrote, so I should also not be blamed for murdering someone who was killed by another.  Man is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.  To deny this is to lay the groundwork for welfarism and false justice.  The implications of this are remarkable.

To provide an example, it is by this point that the claims of “social justice” are laid bare.  Justice is between individuals, sometimes many, but never between a man and a collective or two sets of “collectives” as in various forms of class warfare.  Moreover, this point renders it impossible to blame “society” for any evil.  One cannot say, given any number of gun homicides, that society has a “gun problem.”  Rather, we say that society includes some individuals who expresses the sinful desires by way of murder.  It is true that the crime rates around the nation are getting worse.  But to blame this on an undefinable “society” is to move away from the root of the problem: which is the inherent sin of the individual heart (soul).

Fourth, individualism teaches that in no sense are the masses more important than the individual conceptually.  In other words, justice applies equally between one individual and his neighbor and also between one individual and the rest of society at large.  It is unacceptable for the individual to be sacrificed by coercion for the sake of a majority.  This prevents against mob rule and the “two wolves and a sheep deciding on the menu” concept.  Not only is the majority restricted from harming the individual, the minority, perhaps an aristocratic government, is restricted from breaching the individual rights of anyone who is outside their group.  In this way, the law applies equally in a restrictive sense against the perpetrator and in a protective sense on behalf of the individual.  Such a doctrine renders democracy, a contemporary idol, as unjust and unethical.

Let’s apply this.  When the politician states that he will make a decision for the economy based on the preferences of the citizenry, this presents a problem.  Not only does the citizenry as a collective have no preferences (because preferences belong only to individuals), but each individual actually has competing preferences.  Therefore the politician (and the full force and influence of the State behind him) is stating that he will make a decision for the economy against the will of (some number of) the citizenry.  It is the confusion of the modern mind to only focus on the so-called positive aspects of a politician’s statements.

There are many who might claim that individualism stands in the way of normative principles like thinking of others before yourself.  But normative principles are simply in separate category from a metaphysical description of the way reality functions.  In fact, the principle of thinking of others before yourself presupposes the truth of individualism.  Such a statement cannot be a collectivist statement because in collectivism, contrary to individualism, there is no one to think, there are no others, and there is no yourself.  In this way, most so-called collectivist statements contradict that worldview as a whole.  Collectivism has become an excuse for either religious dominance or political dominance.

Contra Pope Francis, individualism is not the problem when it comes to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  Rather, this struggle is caused by collectivism itself.  When, as an example, an entire society is forced to use one currency which is handed from the central authority, this collectivism benefits those closest to the mentioned central authority.  The resulting inflation hurts the already poor and makes life much worse for them.  At the same time, especially for those bankers and politicians who receive and spend this newly created money first, those wealthy who are in a favorable position will benefit immensely.  It is collectivism, not the free decision making of individuals which causes poverty and other related pains.

Some might blame individualism on “kids these days” who would rather ignore those around them, stick in their earbuds, and refuse to engage in society.  These same people might also blame individualism for rudeness and greediness.  But this is quickly proven inaccurate when one considers that collectivism cannot possibly solve such problems.  Perhaps narcissistic, selfish, and egomaniacal are better words for what might describe immaturity in modern youth.  But individualism is wrongly applied here. Is it not a glorious thing when the God-fearing man stands alone in a world of corruption and foolishness?  Is Joshua to be criticized for not participating in the erection of Aaron’s golden calf?

Rather than blaming the downfall of culture on individualism, we should be honest with ourselves and find the problem in the rise of modern day humanism and the fall of social acceptance of Christianity. Individualism as a piece of a worldview is not to blame for individual actions.  Individualism as a piece of a worldview can describe why people do things but it cannot in and of itself necessarily produce specific action.

Individualism is vital.  Individualism is the basis for private property rights and economic growth.  It is the basis of salvation in Christ and the moral responsibilities that come with a God-given life.  Man is saved from his own sin and not the sins of any other.  Individualism is the foundation of liberty from tyrannies of democracy, monarchy, and dictatorship.  No man may coerce another to change his preferences or goals.  Man individually is responsible unto God and the plans which God has for that individual.  The Holy Spirit convicts each saved man individually, without the strong arm of either a central Church or a central government.  The law and the Scriptures apply equally to all and are enforced directly by God.

Those in society who desire increasing amounts of control are not sympathetic to individualism.  The Catholic Church despises the fact that Protestants find authority in Scripture alone and the Government despises that fact that individuals should make their own decisions.

What about caring for the poor?  Is it possible, under individualism for these things to happen?  Of course!  There is nothing in this description of the way things are that eliminates the possibility of individuals to do things with, or on behalf, of others.  If it were not possible for the individual to care for others, the Scriptures would not have mentioned this as a mark of a good Christian.

Individualism is not an ethic!  It is a view of how the world works.  It is descriptive, not prescriptive.  In itself, it teaches no man how to act.  Individualism must be coupled with a something more (capitalism, Christianity, etc.).  It therefore cannot be blamed for those things which it is most blamed.  Individualism must be defended.

“It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God.”  ~~J. Gresham Machen

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Brian K. Jacobson

    Great article C.Jay. Solid reasoning, very convincing and winsome. I’ll definitely try to promote and share this piece and maybe write some addendum blog post spin offs 😉

    I think one thing to keep in mind is to think of individualism in a similar fashion to the way we think about Libertarianism as a thin doctrine. Libertarianism only concerns itself with the just use of force in a social order. It is not equivalent with libertine-ism or the approval of activities it deems peaceful. Libertarianism and the ideas of liberty is simply a political theory not a holistic life philosophy/ethic. Liberty is not even the highest virtue individually or in society but is instead the base requirement for all other philosophies/ethics/etc. Liberty is not the highest end or the chief goal or even an end in itself. It is a means. It is not the highest virtue but the lowest and prerequisite of all other virtues. Nothing you do can be virtuous until you do it freely.

    I think we need to think of individualism in the same manner. It is the starting point for moral action, even for actions which places our neighbors (individual) need before our (individual) need. As you said “In fact, the principle of thinking of others before yourself presupposes the truth of individualism.” Individualism is a thin doctrine like libertarianism. So sure if you have individualism you are not going to get very far especially if it is being added to an already anti-theistic worldview. You can’t go very far with just individualism but you can’t really go anywhere without it. Also, collectivists are usually utilitarians and utilitarians suck, but other than that I don’t have any opinions on the matter.

    • C.Jay Engel

      Good points. Yeah I agree with what you said. Also your ending made me laugh.