Individualism Redux

In the past, I’ve written a fair amount about individualism. My last article on the subject (adapted to video by Second Thought) explored how difficult and problematic it is to try and explain the world in individualist terms — essentially: does anyone really believe that the poor freely choose suffering?

Although I contend that individualism falls apart pretty easily when we attempt to apply it robustly to the world that actually exists, I would like to explore whether it is compelling even in ideal conditions. In other words, even if individualism is deficient as a material philosophy which attempts to explain the world; how does it fare as a moral philosophy? — as an attempt to explain how the world ought to be?

To answer that question, let’s imagine a society free of discrimination. There is no racism, sexism, poverty, gender discrimination, or any other form of oppression. In this hypothetical society, let’s imagine there are 100 individuals and two kinds of jobs: artists and farmers. Everyone wants to be an artist, but there can only be a maximum of 50. Somehow, our 100-person society will need to divide itself into one group of 50 farmers and another group of 50 artists. How would you propose we do it?

If we assume that all people are equally capable of performing both the role of artist and farmer, surely the only “fair” way to distribute these responsibilities would be random chance. In the absence of any compelling reason to choose specific people for each role, and if we are interested in giving everyone the same chance at becoming an artist, I submit that there is no other fair solution.

(You may say “well, life’s not fair!” This may be true, but it dodges the point of the discussion. In a world where fairness is possible and we want to achieve it, what is the most fair solution?)

Now let’s add in talent. Let’s imagine that 10 of our hundred people are naturally talented artists. In that case, what would be the fairest way to distribute jobs?

Answering this question requires reckoning with your own values and imagined cost/benefit analysis. In other words, what does our society gain from guaranteeing 10 artist positions to the 10 talented artists? What does it lose? Does the quality of the art produced by the talented justify the harm of giving the other 90 individuals worse odds at their ideal careers? Would your answer change if you knew the farmers lived in poverty? Or if the test to identify talent had a known margin of error or other bias?

In this example, guaranteeing art jobs to the talented artists would require punishing the other 90 individuals for something which is ultimately beyond their control. In terms of sheer math, the existence of talented artists does not change the fact that random choice is still the fairest way to divide the jobs everyone wants. The question becomes instead about how much fairness are we willing to sacrifice, and for what?

Finally, let us imagine that rather than 10 individuals being born talented, everyone is in fact born with the same abilities, however they put in varying amounts of effort towards their goals. In order to conceptualize such a scenario, however, we need to reckon with the existence of “effort” and question from where it emerges.

If “effort” is the same as talent in the earlier example (a born-in ability randomly assigned to some but not others), the calculus is the same. Whether or not some individuals “tried harder” to become artists is no more of a useful justification than inherent talent if we know those born without the “effort” trait had no control over their predicament.

If effort is instead learned, then we’ve invalidated our original premise — apparently some individuals in this hypothetical society have access to education which benefits them in life while others do not. Such a society would no longer enjoy equal opportunity to begin with.

If it is neither learned nor genetic, then, we are left with a brain-melting question. Where else could this trait come from? I am unable to think of other possible material sources — nature and nurture are the only origins of human behavior we can study.

When faced with the same question, Descartes concluded that the only place “free will” (in this case, the ability to freely will yourself into working harder) could come from is the immaterial, immortal, and supernatural soul. Even if you accepted that as true, however, you would once again enter a headache of incoherence: Where does the “hard workiness” inside that soul come from? Where does the soul itself come from? Why would some people, if truly given free will, choose worse outcomes for themselves?

To Descartes and others who follow this line of reasoning (that free will comes from an immaterial soul), that paradox is unimportant. They assert and believe that all people have free will which is never entirely constrained by the material world and choose, logically or otherwise, to live the ways they do. It may well be that everyone wants to be an artist, but only some choose to work hard enough to become artists. Why anyone would freely make such a choice is irrelevant.

This Cartesian position is essentially the “divine right” approach to our problem. If we assume that a supernatural system is at play which guarantees the righteous outcome is occurring, then we don’t have to worry about the fairness of it all. That is quite literally taken for granted.

Needless to say, I don’t find such an argument satisfying.

Even in this ultra-simplified imagined society, we must either accept that the distribution of jobs must be unfair in order to guarantee some jobs for the talented, accept the existence of cartesian souls which have not only the ability but the right to influence a material society, or we must accept that the talents, efforts, or souls of individuals cannot have any bearing on the distribution of limited goods (in this case, professions) in a fair society.

I confess to being an anti-individualist myself for several of the reasons listed above — I do not believe in the existence of a Cartesian soul, nor do I believe that born talents or learned skills are sufficient cause to justify elevating some individuals above others. Although in our imperfect world it may be necessary to limit the prospects of some in order to ensure that all are fed, housed, and cared for, it certainly is not ideal.

The trouble with individualism as a philosophy is that it makes no such admissions. Individualism not only asserts that some people, for various reasons, deserve (in a moral sense) better lives, it also insists that such a system is fair. That somehow all people in all circumstances freely choosing their actions results in a moral justification for denying goods to some while providing them to others. This is not a moral question posed by individualism, but a fact asserted by it.

Even if we grant that that level of extreme free will truly exists, however, individualists still have to account for the existence of a “soul” capable of transmitting will into the world, explain why some “souls” make better decisions or are more capable of exacting their wills, and explain why those souls have the right to influence the way human societies function.

Ultimately, even if you don’t come around to anti-individualism by running through the above, I would at least encourage you to wrestle with those ideas and promote a kind of individualism which is more willing to question whether “good or bad choices” are a sufficient moral foundation for the distribution of human well being — and of human suffering.




Writer, Activist, Leftist.

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Matthew Barad

Matthew Barad

Writer, Activist, Leftist.

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