The Paradox of Individualism

by Martin Butler

Individualism has been blamed for the break up of communities, personal alienation and rampant western consumerism. At the same time, with its focus on liberty and human rights, it is lauded as the crowning glory of western culture. How do we come to terms with this paradox?

Individualism feels natural to the modern western mind. We balk at the idea of living according to the preconceptions of tradition, religion or authoritarian elites. Individualism is promoted in diverse lifestyles, chosen identities, family structures and types of relationships, in everything from artistic and popular taste to our belief systems and ways of making money. This trend has been turbo-charged by the Internet, as now we all have a mouthpiece through which to proclaim our choices and opinions. The philosopher Charles Taylor recognises that modern western culture is not uniform but identifies three ways in which it embraces individualism: “it prizes autonomy; it gives an important place to self-exploration, in particular of feelings; and its visions of the good life generally involve personal commitment.”[1] He also points out that the political expression of this individualism comes in the modern focus on rights.

On the other hand, individuals need society, but there is a sense in which individualism is anti-social and works against community. Historically, societies have placed limits on autonomy and rights, on personal commitments and even self-exploration. Liberalism was supposed to be the solution through building a society on the acknowledgment of the value of individualism, and so was designed to cope with conflict and difference – this, after all, is the essence of Mill’s harm principle. The modern thinker who has gone furthest in exploring the consequences of full-blown individualism, however, is Robert Nozick. Starting from the simple premise that individuals are autonomous beings with rights, Nozick struggles to form anything we would recognise as a fully functioning society, famously concluding that “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labour”.[2] So he avoids the paradox simply by downplaying the social nature of human existence and embracing the individualistic.  His insistence on individual rights is so strong that the group can make next to no claims on anyone without their explicit consent. His minimal state does no more than protect these basic rights.

Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice, which is at the heart of this thinking, is deeply individualist because it is concerned only with individual interactions and not with the overall shape of the society that results from these interactions.[3] It is consistent with gross inequality and is not even meritocratic since Nozick has no problem with unlimited inherited or gifted wealth. Provided what you hold has been acquired justly, then any consequences of the acquisition are of no account. Any kind of distributive justice beyond this is completely rejected. Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain illustration makes the point that significant inequality will inevitably result from autonomy.[4] Those with particular talents (even if those talents consist of simply being able to impress others) will accumulate wealth from the rest.  This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that many use their autonomy to follow the crowd; which does not, in itself, necessarily contradict individualism. Think of the mob in the film The Life of Brian chanting in unison after being extorted to be individuals:  “Yes! we’re all individuals!” Despite the apparent absurdity, they have a point. They can, theoretically at least, be individuals and follow Brian.

The ‘Utopia’ Nozick outlines allows for sub-communities under the umbrella of a minimal state, which can be based on any principles consenting participants choose. Ironically perhaps, it would be possible to construct a communist community within the minimal state, or indeed any variation on this.  However, all this leaves us with far more questions than answers. The relationship between the minimal umbrella state and the sub-communities is anything but clear, and for this individual at least, his ‘Utopia’ sounds like a distinctly unattractive place.  Despite his faith in individual rights, he has produced an environment that is hardly conducive to individual well-being. Again, we encounter paradox. Nozick’s project is important, however, because his unwavering logic draws out some potentially uncomfortable implications of individualism, but his vision becomes a reductio ad absurdum of its own initial premises.

Where has he gone wrong? One major criticism is that he has confused atomism with individualism, and this atomistic vision is built on negative liberty which is simply about removing restrictions and barriers. In the Rousseauian tradition, Nozick assumes that society places restrictions and barriers in the way of individuals, so concludes the less of it the better. Nozick also ignores the fact that many apparently consenting relationships between individuals are anything but, when the power of the parties involved is unequal. The relationship between an employer and an employee, for example, may have the form of a voluntary agreement but if there is unequal power, as there often is, individualism can easily turn into a licence to exploit. So the vision of a minimal state consisting of individuals making voluntary agreements with each other on an equal footing is a myth. Autonomy and consent within such a state not only contain the seeds of inequality, as the Wilt Chamberlain example shows, but also of exploitation and probably deprivation.

So – do we want conflicting disconnected atoms or thriving autonomous individuals? And what role do culture and society have in their formation? The very notion of ‘autonomy’ is a sophisticated cultural product with a long history. As Taylor notes “the free individual, or autonomous moral agent can only achieve and maintain his identity in a certain type of culture…”[5] Only in a society with a developed education system and structured opportunities, a culture of tolerance and debate and legal protections well beyond those envisaged by Nozick can individual autonomy be fully exercised. The social context empowers autonomy, and without empowerment autonomy is empty. We might call this positive freedom individualism as opposed to Nozickian individualism.

This ideal of social individualism through positive freedom sounds as if it is pointing us in the right direction, but it is merely an aspiration and does not provide an easy solution to our paradox.  Nozick acknowledges no more than individual rights but, as we have seen, that is not enough for the individualism of positive freedom.  Rights might protect individuals from hostile neighbours but they do nothing to bind us into a community – some kind of social glue is required for society to be a well-functioning integrated entity that lets us make good on all those desirable features of society that allow for empowered individuals to attain positive liberty. We need something that will allow us to create the ‘certain type of culture’ that Taylor refers to. Traditionally the role of social binding agent has been played by religion, tradition, ‘ways of life’, or shared history. But the very idea of ‘the individual’ implies a bare human being stripped of all these contingencies, and the whole point of individualism is that it does not tie a society down to any set of specifics. The binding agent we are left with is the ideal of common humanity that we all share, which is deeper than all the contingent details that have divided us in the past.[6]  We might call it the ethic of shared humanity, and it is an ideal which lies behind the possibility of radical diversity within a unified society. This is a sophisticated and abstract move to make, perhaps too abstract, but it is not without content and is not compatible with just any set of individualistic beliefs. It requires us to accept that there is a shared humanity that can be stronger than all the things that divide us.  It is difficult to see how those who reject this idea could happily coexist with others who are very different from themselves. So, the price we pay for an individualistic yet unified society does in fact impose some limits on the individual – the paradox of individualism must lead to compromise; autonomy seems to lead to limitations on autonomy.

Exactly where to draw the line is a major headache, and there is also the question of resolving the economic dimension. The freedom to participate in private economic transactions leads to inequality (the Wilt Chamberlain illustration), and inequality leads to significant power differences which in turn can produce exploitation and so undermine the autonomy of those at the short end of the inequality stick. This again is the paradox. At the opposite end of the political spectrum to Nozick, the socialist solution involves major restrictions on private economic interactions so that power differences are strictly controlled. We might square this with individualism with the thought that economic interactions are not essentially expressions of individuality anyway, at least not in the way that creativity and intellectual debate are. I think this is a prejudice. You don’t need to be a hard-line capitalist to recognise that entrepreneurs and private business can be creative and innovative, and can be an important avenue of self-expression and economic wealth which can have a wide social benefit. We should also note here that governments, even those that are democratically controlled, can exploit through unequal power as much as private business. None of this means failing to recognise that the paraphernalia of global capitalism (such as private equity, hedge funds, investment banks and so on) may act as a mechanism for value extraction for a small elite, rather than part of a culture of empowered individuals. Economic individualism does at a certain point turn into something that is anti-social and indeed toxic to the kind of positive freedom individualism we aspire to. So again, we have the problem of drawing a very imprecise line

The paradox of individualism lurks in the background of most contemporary political and ethical controversies, and is not open to a ‘solution’. It is something that has to be dealt with piece by piece with messy compromises. There are no ideological solutions that allow all the pieces of the jig-saw to neatly slip into position, and, crucially, we must recognise that it is not a conflict between the morally righteous and the malevolent.

[1] Taylor, C. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p305

[2] Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p169

[3] The theory states: 1. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding. 2. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, fromsomeone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding. 3. No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2. Ibid. p151

[4] Wilt chamberlain was a star basketball player in the 1960s. Nozick imagines the following. “Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. … He signs the following sort of contract with a team: in each home game, twenty-five  cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. … the season starts and peoplecheerfully attend his games; they buy their tickets, each time dropping a separate twenty-five cents of their admission price into a special box with Chamberlain’s name on it. They are excited about seeing him play; it is worth the total admission price to them. Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger than anyone else has.” Ibid p161 (This is of course arelatively modest sum by today’s standards.) The point of the illustration – we can think of many more contemporary examples especially with the advent of the internet – is that autonomous decisions lead to glaring wealth inequality. Nozick asks the simple question; is this unequal distribution produced through autonomous decisions unjust or not?

[5] Taylor, C. 1985. Atomism. In: Philosophy and the Social Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  p205

[6]  National identity is another modern binding agent. An increase in nationalism is perhaps the inevitable corollary of individualism.