The ‘I’ and the ‘We’

by Martin Butler

Bemoaning the ills of individualism is nothing new. Jonathan Sack’s bestseller, “Morality, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times”(2020) provides us with one of the more comprehensive accounts of how we lost community and why we need it back. Justin Welby sums it up well in the foreword: “His message is simple enough: ours is an age in which there is too much ‘I’ and not enough ‘We’. Sacks himself puts the point succinctly when he says: “The revolutionary shift from “We” to “I” means that everything that once consecrated the moral bonds binding us to one another – faith, creed, culture, custom and convention – no longer does … leaving us vulnerable and alone.”

The book is divided into five parts, the first four giving a detailed account of how the shift from ‘We’ to ‘I’ took place and the fifth, entitled ’The Way Forward’, providing some suggestions as to how we might return to a more ‘We’-based society. The breadth and depth of knowledge Sacks displays is impressive, and he draws on a vast range of philosophers and numerous psychological and sociological studies to make his case, which is both detailed yet accessible to the general reader. Sacks divides society into three domains, the state, the economy and the moral system, and it is in this third domain that he claims an ‘unprecedented experiment’ has taken place in the western world, the long-term consequences of which – the divisive politics of recent years, populism, the epidemic of anxiety and depression, increasing inequality, “the assault on free speech taking place on university campuses in Britain and America” and more – we are now living with. He identifies three phases.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, he cites the liberal revolution of the 1960s in which he believes the ethics of self-fulfilment, autonomy and authenticity, which are essentially self-orientated, took priority over a more traditional morality in which duties to others were central. The harm principle – that you can act as you like providing you do not harm others – became the sole moral rule governing our relations with others, and this, he suggests, is insufficient. The second phase was the economic revolution of the 1980s, commonly known as Thatcherism or Reagonomics, in which market capitalism was given free reign. Although this phase appears to be exclusively concerned with the economy, Sacks attaches an important moral dimension to the changes that took place. The kind of self-interest inherent in any market economy was lauded as a moral virtue. The negative description of this change would be that ‘greed became good’. The more positive description would be that ambition and ‘wealth creation’ were given the value they deserved. The third and final phase is the technological revolution which accelerated in the 1990s and is ongoing. The development of the internet and social media are perhaps the most obvious and significant elements in this phase, and all of this leads, Sacks argues, to “social life as being about the presentation of one’s self to others, rather than of genuine social interaction”.

Sacks’s take on all this is certainly interesting and articulates what many feel, whether justified or not. Politically Sacks is keen to distance himself from both left and right, and in a sense there is something for everyone. Crucially, by locating the discussion within what he calls the moral system, he tries to avoid the idea that it is all about the political or economic policies a society adopts. To set the scene it is worth saying a bit about the I/We distinction itself. Sociologists commonly distinguish between so called collectivist(We) and individualist(I) cultures. Traditional cultures, usually based around a set of religious beliefs, are typically collectivist, whereas western culture is pre-eminently individualistic. This individualism, however, certainly predates the 1960s. In fact, the UK and US of the 1920s and 30s (and even before) were more individualistic than, say, many Middle Eastern countries of today. Surely the I/We contrast has to be understood as part of a continuum, rather than the simple binary distinction Sacks often seems to assume. Even if we accept that during the 60s western cultures moved towards individualism, there is still a debate to be had about how far the dial moved, and we should also remember that by world standards this change occurred within an already individualistic culture. It is not enough to argue, as Sacks does, that the UK and US simply turned from ‘We’ to ‘I’ moralities in the 60s; far more realistic to say they merely moved further along the I/We continuum until an important tipping point was reached. But what was that particular point and what was special about it? Unfortunately this book does not provide that kind of detail, and this reflects a wider problem with the book – the lack, despite the focus on the last 60 years, of a truly historical or global perspective. There is an almost myopic focus on the UK and US. Some comparisons, even with European countries, would have been useful, as their trajectory over this period has had important differences to the anglosphere.

But more important still is how we understand the relation between ‘I’ and ‘We’. Sacks says little about this. One kind of collectivist ethic is exemplified by the heroic warrior who lays down his life for the good of his country. Here the ‘We’ is unambiguously put before the ‘I’. But this is not the kind of relation between ‘I’ and ‘We’ that Sacks seems to have in mind, for most of his arguments and studies support the claim that a collectivist ethic is actually good for the individual. Ironically there’s a sense here in which collectivism actually supports individualism. This type of argument says the best way to achieve certain things is to aim for something else (happiness, for example, is not reached by trying to be happy). Sacks points to the fact that loneliness and mental health problems are likely to be higher in an ‘I’ culture where everyone is chasing their own ends with little regard for others – something like Durkheim’s anomie. This still places the primary value on the well-being of individuals. The ‘I’ and the ‘We’ are not competing entities between which we have to choose. Only such extreme ideologies as Fascism or Stalinism give the ‘We’ a value in-itself quite apart from the well-being of the individuals that comprise it (e.g., Hitler’s ‘Volk’). The Borg in the old Star Trek series, where the ‘We’ becomes a super-individual, is perhaps another example. We need to be clear that the central argument Sacks gives for moving back towards a ‘We’ and away from an ‘I’ culture is actually that it is good for the individual, that talk of ‘the common good’ still refers to the good of individuals but just by means of cooperation, pooled resources and sharing rather than by each pursuing their own end separately. Even for Sacks, it’s still the individual that matters.

This point reminds us that there are still good arguments in favour of individualism. Some of the best of these are to be found in the work of J. S. Mill (1859), a philosopher Sacks unsurprisingly says little about. Here are three from the third chapter of On Liberty.

  1. The adult individual is best placed to know what kind of life would be best suited to him/her: “…it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character”.
  2. Individuals are like plants; they grow in their own unique way; “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”
  3. “Unless individuality be allowed to successfully assert itself…” a culture will become ossified and stationary.

The message here is that individuals are different and that, once they have reached adulthood (a crucial proviso), they should have the freedom to live the kind of life that best suits them. It’s easy to forget that these arguments are moral. They are developments of Kantian insights about the autonomy and dignity of the individual, which in turn were only made possible because of the religious individualism brought on by the reformation. Charles Taylor gives a brilliant account of this in his Sources of the Self.

Sacks casts the 60s values of authenticity and self-fulfilment, values central to Mill’s arguments, in a negative light because he regards them as destructive of the bonds community requires, but if we keep in mind the principle that ultimately it is individuals that matter, even for Sacks, these values can’t be dismissed. He’s right to argue that an overly individualistic society is not actually good for individuals, but a community which enforces a rigid set of beliefs and practices, especially when they benefit some sections within that community at the expense of others, as has often been the case, is equally bad and clearly not moral. I don’t think Sacks sufficiently acknowledges the real tension between these two poles. There’s a fine line between communities that are oppressive and those that are supportive. He also, as many do, fails to see the moral dimension within individualism, reducing it to an amoral selfishness. This comes over in the following:

What emerged in the liberalising measures of the 1960s was something that has never been managed successfully before, namely sustaining a society not held together by certain predominant ideas, not bound by a shared moral code, not committed to a substantive ethical ‘ideas held in common’. How can there be society in the absence of anything to bind its members in shared moral belief? p270

This is deeply misguided, not because he is wrong to claim that societies require ‘ideas held in common’ or because society does not need shared moral beliefs, but because of the implication that the 60s introduced a period of moral anarchy. Let’s remember that before key legislation was enacted in the 1960s and 70s (in the UK & US), homosexuality was illegal, openly racist and sexist employment policies were accepted, civil rights in the US for whole swathes of the population were severely limited. These and other legislative changes allowed many individuals to live better lives. In fact, one way to describe them is to say that they simply extended who is to be included in the ‘We’, and it’s surely undeniable that these key changes were part of ‘the liberalising measures’ Sacks refers to. The 60s no doubt produced lots of nonsense, but their enduring legacy is highly moral. Ask most people today if they think human beings should be respected as individuals, if they should be treated equally whatever their race or sexual orientation, if everyone should be given the best opportunities to thrive, if humans have an intrinsic value, if children should be given a stable and caring homelife, if we should care about our environment and so on – I’m pretty sure that well over 90% would say yes. Many of these beliefs actually gained strength in the 1960s.

Just as Sacks fails to say enough about the ‘I’, he’s rather vague when discussing the ‘We’. ‘Community’ is a fashionable word, but before making too many abstract generalisations it’s worth looking at some actual examples. Often, communities form strong bonds based on opposition or even conflict. A strong sense of ‘We’ can be the result of a divide with some other ‘We’. There was a strong sense of community in the working class Catholic or Protestant communities of Northern Ireland during the troubles, more so than in many working-class communities in other parts of the UK, but community based on opposition is hardly desirable. It’s always been true that communities grow stronger when there is an outside threat or some kind of hardship to overcome, as we saw to some extent during the COVID pandemic. Strong ties in many immigrant communities are based on a feeling of isolation or on a need to preserve a common set of religious beliefs not shared by the host population, and Sacks acknowledges that his own sense of the value of community comes from his experience of growing up in a tightly knit Jewish community. Communities may also come together to help those in need. It is impressive how money can be raised for children who need some kind of special and expensive medical treatment, or how a sense of community develops very quickly when an area gets flooded. Communities can also develop around the raising of children – sleepovers, babysitting and so on – or be built around a place of work: the old coal pit villages in the UK famously had a strong sense of community. And then there are myriad online and real-life communities built around some particular interest, activity or sport which encourage the virtues of cooperation and social support.

Sacks makes much of the decline in this ‘social capital’ which is documented in detail by Robert Putnam in the classic work “Bowling Alone”. Putnam documents the decline in voluntary organisations in the US, and uses the decline in bowling leagues as emblematic of a more general decline in participation in social organisations of all sorts. He gives one of the main reasons as the increase in technological entertainment which is often more individualised. But surely this is not necessarily indicative of a moral decline, and since Sacks’ theme is morality, this is surely of peripheral relevance. Should we not just accept that social capital has just changed its form as it always will? Is it so terrible that fashions change and there are fewer voluntary organisations? A bowling league would fill someone like me with horror, some people are just not joiners, and certainly there’s nothing to stop people from forming these kinds of societies if the demand is there. These sorts of voluntary associations will wax and wane and change their form but human beings, as Sacks constantly reminds us are social beings, so it’s really not something we need to worry about. Online communities have seen a massive increase, and in the UK in recent years there has been a boom in such things as amateur choirs, book groups, organisations centring around fitness, meditation, mindfulness and so on, and I know there is a thriving board game community.

These voluntary communities, however, lack the thick web of moral obligation and belief that is required for the kind of full-blown moral ‘We’ that is perhaps more what Sacks has in mind, exemplified by the kind of religious community you are born into, just like his own Jewish community, the kind that mark your identity for life. But surely he’s not seriously arguing that we all need to belong to such a community? Alternatively, he might have in mind the nation as a culturally united ‘We’ with a clear set of beliefs and practices, but then again questions arise over what is required for inclusion. I am a full-blown Englishman born and bred, but I am an atheist, have never been part of a close-knit community and have no time for the Royal family. That’s not at all unusual. Others see the bedrock of national identity completely differently. And what about the immigrant experience? What is the British national ‘We’? Sacks is vague. It would perhaps have been useful to delineate some minimal moral requirements for his idea of ‘We’. The notion of neighbourliness rather than community is perhaps useful here, and I certainly wouldn’t deny that more neighbourliness in many communities would not go amiss. This virtue is quite compatible with deep differences in religious and political affiliations, and with the positive aspects of individualism I have tried to highlight through the arguments of Mill. Neighbourliness is about cooperation at a basic level with those who live close to us. Recently I was shocked to learn from the postman that many people refuse to take in parcels for anyone they don’t personally know, and I also know someone who won’t take in mail for anyone who doesn’t vote as they do. This may sound like meagre fare in relation to the big moral change that Sacks seems to be after, but perhaps it is exactly these modest changes that are needed.

However, the main problems I have with Sacks’ book concern his discussion of economics. As I pointed out earlier he is at pains to distance his thesis from any commitment to either right- or left-wing policies. This is disingenuous, for though he’s unambiguous about the harms of ‘the liberalising measures of the 1960s’, when it comes to the economic individualism of the 1980s, he says:

One of the underlying factors of the change in corporate culture in Britain and America was doubtless the financial deregulation in the 1980s that came to be known as respectively Thatcherism and Reaganomics. I have no criticism of that policy, it was right for its time. The 1970s was a time of deep depression in both countries, economic, social, and psychological. Deregulation led to sustained economic growth from which most of us have benefited… p89

There are a number of odd things about this passage. Firstly, he admits that economic policy changes can lead to cultural changes, yet one of the basic assumptions of the book is that morality/culture are somehow to be treated quite separately from politics and economics. Secondly, he is quite wrong about the economics, and here I am focusing exclusively on the UK. Economic grow in the 80’s was no better than in the 70s. In fact the highest economic growth between 1970 and the present was in 1973. When he talks about ‘deep depression… economic, social, and psychological’, that is exactly what the Thatcherite policies of the 1980s visited upon numerous communities in the north of England and Scotland. We might accept that a move away from the heavy industries those communities depended upon was inevitable, but the government of the day showed little sense of the ‘We’ in the way these changes were managed, with the consequent array of societal ills that followed – increased drug use, family breakdown, increased mental illness, and so on. Many communities were just left to die. Thirdly, the question arises of what matters most, economic growth or a strong sense of ‘We’ within a country or community? You’d have thought Sacks would opt for the latter but this passage is clearly slanted towards the former. Unlike the ‘liberalising measures of the 1960s’, the negative effects of Thatcherism, which were undeniable, are downplayed. In fact the whole chapter ‘Markets without Morals’ is bizarre. Sacks lists the economic iniquities that have occurred since the 1980s, the corporate scandals such as the collapse of Enron, the ballooning pay levels of company directors as compared with ordinary workers, the appalling irresponsibility of bankers that led to the collapse of Leman brothers and the banking crisis, and so on. One would expect here another reference to ‘the change in corporate culture’ due to the deregulation of the 80s and the ‘greed is good’ culture. But no, we are back with the 60s again:

But that behaviour is the logical consequence of the individualism that has been our substitute for morality since the 1960s: the ‘I’ that takes precedence over the ‘We’.p100

Sacks might want to argue that the ‘greed is good’ culture came out of the 1960s but that is quite implausible to someone who has lived through both periods. 60s hippy slang gave us the term breadhead for someone who was overly concerned with money. The 80s gave us yuppies and, in Britain at least, the TV character Loadsamoney. The assumption here is that business leaders of the pre-60s world were more corporately upright. What about the South Sea Bubble of 1720 when corruption and the speculation mania of greedy investors led to the world’s first financial crash? What about the almost complete monopoly, achieved through all sorts of corrupt practices, of Standard Oil in the US at the beginning of the 20th century? The appalling exploitation of workers in the cotton industry in 19th century Manchester? Sacks just likes to blame everything on the 60s.

The fundamental problem with Sacks’s approach is that he wants to separate morality from the rest of society as a stand-alone domain evolving independently from socio-economic factors.  Consequently he cannot allow that a government’s social and economic policies might actually have a positive effective on a societies morality or culture.

One of his more striking claims is that we have in recent years ‘outsourced’ morality to the state, that we expect social services, for example, to help when things get difficult rather than community. But surely in large complex industrial societies this kind of ‘outsourcing’ is inevitable and not necessarily bad. In fact it’s exactly what you’d expect in a ‘We’ society. Individuals, and even families or informal groups of individuals, are too limited to take on the major responsibilities of overseeing communal health, education, housing, poverty reduction, protection against pollution and the harms of the internet. Individual action cannot solve societal problems, although of course it can help, and expecting individuals to deal with it all is surely exactly what you would expect in an ‘I’ culture. It’s the exact opposite of what Sacks tells us. He may have legitimate concerns about an overbearing top-down bureaucracy, but that is not an argument for a minimal state. This is not an either/or issue. Unless we cast the state as somehow inevitably oppressive, as right-wing libertarians do, why can’t we see the state as representative of the ‘We’? Localism and individual involvement in decision making is crucial, and of course it doesn’t mean we have no moral responsibility. There are obvious dangers in state power and that’s why democratic accountability, checks and balances, and government transparency are crucial, but I see no alternative to the state playing a major role in supporting us through our lives. Why can’t the state encapsulate the common good, why can’t taxes be regarded as the pooling of our resources and sharing? A good example of the moral importance of the state relates to the third phase of the ‘experiment’ Sacks outlines – the technological revolution. In the UK, despite clear evidence of the harmful effects of social media on children, very little in the way of legislative controls have been put in place. That is surely due to the deregulation culture that has dominated since the 80s and that Sacks seems to endorse. There is an ‘Online Harms’ bill making tortuous progress through parliament at the moment but it is not yet law. But surely the state is the only body that can tilt the balance of power towards the common good and away from the private interests of the giant tech companies. The best kind of individualism is one in which the ‘We’ supports the ‘I’ in order to gain in autonomy and self-fulfilment. The two should not be in opposition, something with which Sacks would surely agree.

Because Sacks separates morality from political and economic policy, the last section of the book – The Way Forward – provides next to no actual suggestions for the way forward, just a vague hope that future generations are more moral than that dreaded 60s lot. No one denies that modern liberal democracies face enormous problems, but perhaps the next big ‘experiment’ should be to initiate economic and political policies that genuinely attempt to promote greater equality, more community, less poverty, less corporate greed and so one. Such policies are possible. It is at least worth a try.