The Good of Individualism and the Evils of Collectivism

Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University Carlos Eire (NPR)

In his confessionary book “Learning to Die in Miami,” Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University Carlos Eire explores his cultural assimilation to American life.

As young Carlos learns English, he notes that his thinking is different in English, and that this new way of thinking alters his perception of the world. Carlos is surprised by the way in which his new language assigns much more choice and responsibility to the self than his native Spanish.

He did not know it then, but young Carlos was beginning his cultural conversion from collectivism to individualism. Today, nearly 75 percent of the world’s cultures, including most of Latin America, can be labeled as collectivist. But what does it really mean to have individualist or collectivist values?

In Professor Eire’s example, if on the way to class one of our books falls to the ground, we would say in Spanish: “Se me cayó el libro.” This construction is difficult to translate since reflective verb forms are rare in English. It would be something like: “The book dropped itself from me.”

In essence, the Spanish construction implies a shifting of responsibility and the conception of a victimized self. In contrast, the English composition is one where responsibility is fully acknowledged as we would simply say: “I dropped my book.” We would say “the book fell” only if we had not been responsible for holding it.

With humor and wit, Professor Eire brings home the point: “Oh damn, the book had the nerve to fall from me. Damn book. Damn gravity. Poor me. If only the laws of gravity were different, I would not be having this problem.”

This example offers an insightful cultural contrast. In English, it is our own fault that we dropped the book. In Spanish we are excused; the book dropped itself from our hands.

Political ideologies appeal to either ideas of individualism or collectivism. Individualists speak of “individual rights” or “individual freedom,” whereas collectivists appeal to “the common good” or “obligations to society.” At the philosophical center of this debate is a fundamental question of whether a person’s life belongs to him (or her), or to a community, society or the state.

Individualists believe that an individual’s life belongs to the person, and that the person has an inalienable right to act according to his own judgment; the individual is sovereign, and is the basic unit of moral concern. He is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others.

Collectivism is the theory that life belongs not to the person, but to the group or society of which she is only a part. The individual has no rights of her own and she must sacrifice her beliefs and goals for the “greater good” of the group. For collectivists, the group, not the individual, is the basic unit of moral concern.

As young Carlos discovered, in individualistic cultures, life requires self-oriented values and skills. American individualism highly values self sufficiency and the freedom to choose for ourselves holding us responsible for the outcomes; e.g., “I dropped the book.”

In collectivist regimes, authority figures demand obedience to the collective requiring that we accept our place within the social hierarchy, and perform only the roles expected of us for the benefit of the group. Collectivist cultures fancy external explanations for the cause of an event, and assign less personal responsibility for outcomes; e.g., “The book dropped itself from me.”

The moral hymn for collectivist societies is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” which sounds democratic until we consider that this philosophy can, and has been used, to justify the most inhuman actions by collectivist regimes and the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. Consider that, under “the greatest good for the greatest number” idea, the majority in a group of hungry cannibals can morally eat the minority, and 51 percent of humanity would be morally justified in enslaving the other 49 percent. Collectivist morality is demonstrably evil.

A moral, principled society must protect individual rights so that we can act on our judgment, free from collectivist coercion.

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