In Defence of Ethical Individualism

By Brittan, Samuel | New Statesman (1996), March 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

In Defence of Ethical Individualism

Brittan, Samuel, New Statesman (1996)

Communitarians are wrong to equate self-interest with selfishness

There are many writers and critics who regard what they call individualist liberalism as the root of many of the evils of the modern world, and the emphasis of their attack is on the individualist half of the term. Those who take this line often call themselves communitarians.

In Britain the debate is confused because almost everyone on the left and centre now adopts a communitarian rhetoric. Having accepted much of the economic counter-revolution of the past decade and a half, the main issue on which Blairites dig in their heels is opposition to supposed Thatcherite individualism. This is based on a false chain of reasoning which identifies individualism with self-interest and self-interest with selfishness. The last is a howler, as can be testified by anyone who has laboured for a charity, a good cause or any of the arts or religion, or merely to improve the lot of his or her own family and intimates.

Many on the left will wonder why I am putting right-wing authoritarians together with benevolent communitarians. The American debate sheds some light here. A whole movement has arisen to attack the liberal individualist foundations of western politics and culture. United States communitarians dislike almost equally ultra-free-market libertarians and the more left-wing liberals, such as the philosopher John Rawls, who support the welfare state and other forms of economic intervention. Communitarians condemn them both for regarding the individual person and his or her choices as the measure of all things in politics, and for their failure to find a higher purpose for government.

The harder version is found in the Republican religious right, with its support of compulsory religious practices (of which school prayer is but a symbol), belief in savage punishment for retributive reasons and paranoid nationalist fears that foreigners are taking away American jobs. The two kinds of anti-individualists come together in their advocacy of a year or two of compulsory national service to knock some patriotism and civic virtue into the young. Another recent tell-tale symptom (now happily less prevalent) is propaganda for so-called Asian values and admiration for Singapore's prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who justifies his brutal punishments by saying: "To us in Asia, an individual is an ant."

Communitarians like to start from some metaphysical proposition. They say, for instance, that an individual is constituted by his or her social relationships. He or she is a grandfather, a doctor, a member of certain clubs, an active Scottish Nationalist, and so on. Without these relationships he or she is said to be "nothing". We soon get into an impasse. Groups are made up of individuals; but individuals form groups. A debate on which fact is "primary" is the kind of dispute that never gets settled.

Communitarians are inclined to say that the issue depends on the "nature of man". To my mind this is a biological matter rather than one for armchair speculation. It is a cliche to say "man is a social animal". The statement can be given empirical content by noting that for the greater part of our existence we have belonged to clans of hunter-gatherers of no more than a couple of hundred people. It is, therefore, not surprising that people feel alienated, both in mass society and if left entirely to their own devices in nuclear families. Let us, however, not romanticise the small group.

The worst side of group psychology is the hostility almost always generated to those outside the group. This long predates modern nationalism. Byzantine emperors were able to generate artificial hostility between groups of citizens by dividing them by an arbitrary line into blues and greens. From here it is but a short distance to the bitter struggles in former Yugoslavia, where people who previously lived at ease with each other for generations, and indeed intermarried, went in for the barbarities of ethnic cleansing. …

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