Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Individualism, Society and Responsibility


This post comes from a section of "Philosophy for Groups", a collection of philosophy essays which I am working on for a discussion group, and which I might one day collate into a larger more organised work.

Arguably, philosophy has had no greater impact on human life than in the areas of individualism, society and responsibility. Every community is forced to take action to achieve common goals, overcome obstacles, successfully relate between individuals, and otherwise play out the passing of human life.

In these interactions, people make often choices based often on little more than what seems like a good idea at the time. Sometimes, this will be informed by a religious or philosophical position, but as much they are a naïve response to the facts of the matter and how the person is feeling. It is not easily possible to separate our obligations to one another from the kind of society we live in, and this has spurred much philosophical discussion.

Let's start by examining what the three terms mean.

This is a term which refers to placing personal concerns ahead of general ones. Typically, it is used in a pejorative (negative) sense, to indicate where an individual's desires are being put ahead of those of the community. It is used, for example, when considering what responsibility we owe to our community. Issues surrounding this include the appropriate levels of taxation, the moral value of friendships, romantic and family relationships.

An individualistic society will reward people who are individually successful (such as the rich and powerful), and punish those who are not (such as the poor or uneducated). Personal gain becomes the primary goal of all people, and the good of others is considered only insofar as our own well-being is involved. The worst features of this kind of society are the tendency for unsuccessful individuals to be marginalised, and for the problems of poverty and crime to further compound. The best features of this kind of society are that people are free (subject usually to some kind of criminal law obligations) to choose their own moral beliefs, without the judgement or punishment of others.

A more community-oriented society will reward people who contribute a lot to the well-being of others, and punish those who do not. They are usually essentially conformist, at least in terms of their core principles. The worst features of this kind of society are that people can be castigated (severely punished) for perceived difference (intolerance of outsiders, etc), and that original thinking can be punished. Conservatism can stagnate the intellectual culture. The best feature of this kind of society are strong support mechanisms for those who are in need.

Both individualist and communist ideals can be used positively and negatively, and may be coupled with other political, economic and religious positions.
This refers chiefly to the abstract features of community organisation, such as the political and legal processes, class structures endemic or explicit, etc. Often, this is reflective of power struggles which are a regular feature of humanity throughout the ages.
This is one of the most practical elements of morality, but also includes responsibilities which are not morally laden. There are a number of things which people are obligated to do, sometimes because of what they believe is right, sometimes through agreement or contract with others, and sometimes in submitting to justice.

These three things are often in tension. Resolving the conflicts between, for example, a personal moral agenda, and the wider beliefs of society, is something which is often difficult for people. This is true both in the world of corporate ethics, where one may be asked to do something which goes against personal moral beliefs, but is nonetheless ones responsibility as an employee. Another example is criminal behaviour, which is at least sometimes due to a basic failure to properly understand or agree with society's moral beliefs. (Obviously criminal behaviour is often as simple as harming someone else, but there are many interesting examples such as a refusal to fight in war, where it is not at all clear that the morality of ones society should determine ones actions)

Philosophical Responses.

The number of varied philosophical responses to the dilemmas posed by the conflicting goals of individual freedom, the success of a community, and the status of rights and responsibilities is astonishing. The particular positions taken can surprise those who have not considered them before. Presented below is a short discussion on many views actually taken by both individuals and groups throughout history, as lived ways of life.

A number of questions are prompted by this, relating to what the best possible kind of society might be, whether morality is peculiar to kinds of society, whether the principles underlying our morality change with out society, or whether there are universal principles involved, etc.

In many ways our current society is, for better or worse, the pinnacle of philosophical practise to date on the issue of how to live. Certainly a progression in moral thinking can be identified which follows closely the pattern of development from tribalism, to feudalism, the city state, nation building and modern life.

So let's start at the beginning.


Blogger Skip Weisman said...

You've got a good point in your last posting. Most people would not get it, but the way you explained long term goal, it makes all the sense in the world. I should know because I post similar information about long term goal.

10/05/2005 09:57:00 PM  

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