What individualism is not

I take care, as much as possible, to point out that our enemy, as a society, is not religion or the State per se, as these things have no power on people who refuse to give them power. Rather, our main enemy is collectivism. But what exactly is collectivism, and how can we contrast it to individualism?

Epistemically defined, collectivism is the partial abandonment of one’s value system and ability to think in favour of some inter-subjectivity which promotes an individual-transcending standard. That standard can be anything which relies on authorities, aggregates or “higher forces”: democracy, “divine will,” the “common good,” “the good of the family,” “the good of the nation,” “social justice,” the “survival of the planet,” etc.

I said that collectivism is a partial abandonment. This is a moral necessity, as no one can completely abandon his value system, if only because the maintenance of the desire to submit requires one to take a decision which cannot be founded on the belief system. For instance, if one is a Christian, the fact that one decides to remain a Christian cannot be dictated by the parameters of his belief system. Even if the Bible, for instance, says that one must remain Christian, acceptance of this duty depends on one’s prior acceptance of the Bible as epistemic standard. If one accepts the Bible on the basis of it being “God’s word,” then such an acceptance depends on one’s prior acceptance of the existence of “God.” And so on. Because belief systems are exterior to us, and must be indoctrinated, must be the result of conscious choice, they cannot be morally fundamental, unlike human nature. This disproves the claim that any belief system can be the basis for morality.

Individualism must be the refusal to submit one’s values to an extraneous collective standard. But furthermore, individualism entails that morality is generated, first as an emergent property of the individual’s thoughts and actions, and second as an emergent property of coordination within a system of individuals or a society at large. The individualist thesis, therefore, is not a rejection of value or meaning, but rather a drastic shift in perspective from the collective as the meaning-giver to the corrupt, impotent individual, to the capable individual as the meaning-giver to his world. All sentient organisms live in societies which further the pursuit of the values of the individual.

This shift in perspective has profound social consequences. The way people think and relate to each other creates a favourable or unfavourable setting for voluntary action and rational incentives. To understand this, we need to turn to the study of sociology as regards to the individualism-collectivism axis.

First, the bad ways to look at the issue. The way to define the sociological effects of individualism and collectivism is by looking at our premises and their empirical confirmation, NOT by asking random scientists about it. The following “study” is a good example of how not to make a study:

A sample of psychologists and anthropologists from all parts of the world was asked to respond to a questionnaire the way they believe an individualist and a collectivist would respond. The questionnaire described 10 target persons in seven situations. The responses converged, suggesting that there is consensus about the meaning of the dimension. Accordingly, collectivism can be defined as (1) concern by a person about the effects of actions or decisions on others, (2) sharing of material benefits, (3) sharing of nonmaterial resources, (4) willingness of the person to accept the opinions and views of others, (5) concern about self-presentation and loss of face, (6) belief in the correspondence of own outcomes with the outcomes of others, and (7) feeling of involvement in and contribution to the lives of others. Individualists show less concern, sharing, and so on than collectivists.


Since most psychologists and anthropologists depend on State monopolies or on State financing, there’s no reason for such people to be friendly to individualist attitudes. Why should we trust their a priori reasoning to tell us how individualists and collectivists act? Given that he depends on how well he can function with others more than a collectivist, whose belonging to a group is assumed, why would an individualist not be concerned by the effects of his actions on others? Why would someone who is epistemically independent, and thus depends on having as much information as possible, not use other people’s views as possible avenues? Why would someone who depends on the livelihood of other people not correlate his outcomes with other people’s?

This kind of belief about collectivism is based on collectivist premises. To the collectivist, society does not exist without the forced cohesion imposed by belief systems. To be moral is to believe. To be a part of society is to share beliefs. Given this framework, is it surprising that they believe individualists don’t care about others? The opinion is sometimes expressed that non-believers are anti-social and amoral because they refuse to participate in the common beliefs. This is perfectly explainable within the collectivist framework, but if we’re going to talk about reality, we have to forego such models in favour of a more realistic approach.

The actual empirical data tells us that individualism in a society is in fact correlated with greater social capital (see “Individualism-Collectivism and Social Capital,” Allik and Realo, 2004). Individualism has been shown to strongly reinforce social bonds, trust and the desire to participate in social institutions.

These are not surprising results if we keep in mind the nature of society. Society is the process by which people voluntarily cooperate and trade value (not only monetary value, but any kind of value). Friendships are based on an affinity of values. Trust is based on the sharing of values with people around us. The desire to participate in social institutions can only exist if one perceives his institutions as furthering his own values.

Collectivist belief systems create a superficial affinity, a superficial form of sharing of identity, but have nothing to do with the value system of the individual. If I am a Democrat and you are a Democrat, we share an identity and an inter-subjective process, but we cannot assume that we share values. Indeed, any two Democrats may be very different in values, and even show more difference than a Democrat and a Republican, say (for example, atheist “Democrats” who believe in civil liberties and small-government “Republicans” who want less government interference).

And the same thing is true for any collectivist identity- the family, the nation, the political party or ideology, the religion, etc. In a society where collectivism is systemic, and belonging is a flag of general acceptance, I have no more way to know whether I can trust the other fellow or not, since all he has to do is profess belief in order to be accepted. Collectivism scrambles the normal signals of behaviour-accountability. In essence, the individual has been indoctrinated into accepting all sorts of people as “trusted,” even though these people may not be worthy of trust by any moral standard, simply for openly professing belief. Realizing that these people cannot be trusted, he is still trapped into the “the collective is all you have” mindset, and feels trapped. This is dramatically observed in cults, but a part of any collectivist belief system.

In addition, when people are judged on the basis of their belief (which is hard to determine) and not their actions (which are easier to determine), that judgment may be swayed more easily by irrational factors.

On my next post, I will look at more empirical studies and what they tell us about the sociological implications of individualism and collectivism.

Continue to next post.

8 thoughts on “What individualism is not

  1. aaronkinney March 9, 2007 at 19:31

    Individualism has been shown to strongly reinforce social bonds, trust and the desire to participate in social institutions.

    Precisely!!! This is an extremely important point to make, if only because so few people understand it. In fact, most people think the opposite of this!

    When one is free to choose his level of cooperation and interaction, the virtue of interaction and cooperation is much easier to appreciate.

    How can anyone appreciate or want to do ANYTHING if its constantly forced down their throat? A person being forced to interact with a group will resent it merely because of the force applied to him; the removal of his self-determination.

  2. alleee August 11, 2008 at 06:12

    A “transcendent collectivism” makes unreal, unscientific–however you wish to phrase that–claims about morality. Or rather, reality. One such claim being that sacrificing your highest values to this collective is a virtue. Another twisted claim is that of the “necessary evil.” The collective doesn’t try and deny that the act is evil, but that actually doing evil is in fact good–like any cult that redefines words.

    Did I get that right?

  3. Francois Tremblay August 11, 2008 at 14:37


  4. sam October 10, 2008 at 14:23

    Why is this not obvious to some?

  5. northernavenger March 15, 2009 at 11:58

    you tell em

  6. […] individualism and collectivism In my previous entry, I reviewed the epistemic nature of individualism and collectivism, as well as some […]

  7. Raw Vegan January 10, 2010 at 01:48

    This is the bomb!

  8. […] I get into this topic, I have to define exactly what I mean by individualism. I have defined it in the past as “the refusal to submit one’s values to an extraneous collective standard.” To be […]

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