Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being

Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being

Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being

Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being


In Classical Individualism, Tibor Machan argues that individualism is far from being dead. Machan identities, develops and defends what he calls classical individualism: the sort with roots in Aristotle rather than Hobbes. This type of individualism does not reject the social nature of the human being, but finds that every human being is also a self-directed agent who is responsible for what he or she does. Machan rejects all types of collectivism, including communitarianism, ethnic solidarity, racial unity, and gender identity.

The ideas in Classical Individualism have important social and political implications, and will be of interest to anyone concerned with the notion of individuality and individual responsibility.


Over the last three decades, I have been spelling out some of the details of a position in ethics and political philosophy that I have called classical individualism. It is the view, put briefly, that human beings are identifiable as a distinct species in the natural world and have as at least one of their central attributes the capacity to be rational individuals. Whatever else, then, is central about being a human being, it includes that each one, unless crucially debilitated, has the capacity to govern his or her life by means of the individually initiated process of thought, of conceptual consciousness. Furthermore, excelling as such an individual human being is the primary purpose in each person’s life. A just political community, in turn, is one that renders it possible for this purpose to be pursued by all (or as many as is realistically possible).

As the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand put the point—following similar observations by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas—adult persons are “beings of volitional consciousness.” This involves, among other things, the crucial capacity to choose to embark upon—to initiate—a process of (thoughtful) action. The following work is animated by Rand’s thought, although mostly not in the precise terms she made use of in the presentation of her ideas. Instead I will couch the case for classical individualism in the philosophically familiar—as well as ordinary—language of virtue ethics. The classical-individualist stance I develop in the ensuing pages is to be seen as fitting within the tradition of eudaimonistic ethics and Lockean politics.

If we are the type of entity that can be a causal agent, the initiator of its behavior, this serves as a crucial basis for individuation: different human beings will be able to choose to exercise their conscious capacities and direct their ensuing actions differently. Putting it more simply, if we have free will, our diverse ways of exercising it can make us unique. So even if there were nothing else unique about different persons, their free will could introduce an essential individuality into their lives. (This is something that will have a major impact on the social sciences, on psychology and psychotherapy, and, of course, on ethics and morality.)

Yet different people are also uniquely configured, as it were, as human beings; thus they can face different yet equally vital tasks in their lives. Our fingerprints . . .

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