Individualism: Liberalism’s False Premise

Liberalism is a “disputatious family of doctrines”[1] which share the same core political values. These values are the priority of individual rights and an emphasis on individual freedoms; it can be argued that these values form Liberalism’s intellectual foundations. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics reflects this position and describes Liberalism as,

“…the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximise freedom of choice.”[2]

Professor of Philosophy Will Kymlicka confirms the bedrock of Liberal thought, “…liberals base their theories on notions of individual rights and personal freedom.”[3]

The proposition upon which these values are based on – in other words, the premise for Liberalism’s core political values – is atomism or individualism. Political Philosopher Marilyn Friedman adds that,
“…individualism…underlies some important versions of liberal political theory.”[4]

Individualism is the consideration that individual human beings are social atoms abstracted from their social contexts, attachments and obligations.[5] In light of this, is individualism a correct premise to base a political outlook or philosophy? Similar questioning is expressed by Political Philosopher Charles Taylor, he states,

“The very idea of starting an argument whose foundation was the rights of the individual would have been strange and puzzling…why do we begin to find it reasonable to start a political theory with an assertion of individual rights and to give these primacy?…the answer to this question lies in the hold on us of what I have called atomism.”[6]

If it can be shown that individualism is ontologically false – which refers to whether this viewpoint has a basis in reality – this should raise fundamental questions about the validity of Liberalism as a suitable ideology for humanity. The argument here is that individualism is a false premise and the reasons for this are many. This view is supported by Philosopher and Professor Michael Sandel who concludes that the problem with individualism is with its faulty foundations.[7] Individualism views, and seeks to understand, the self – in other words the human being – as an abstract entity divorced from its social reality. This is incorrect because:

1. There are social and communal attachments which determine the individual.[8] For example, during the cognitive development of a child, developmental psychology has moved away from emphasising the child as the “independent constructor”[9] of his or her own development. According to research cognitive development is not so abstract but is more closely tied to social attachments including socially prescribed routines and tasks.[10]

2. Individuality is dependent on aims and values. The human being is a vessel of aims and values. Aims and values must be considered when determining the individual, and aims and values can only be truly understood within a social context. Shlomo Avineri and Avner de- Shalit argue this point, “We cannot analyse their behaviour as if they were abstract entities, as if their values existed somewhere in the distance, ‘outside’, so to speak. This is a critique of the image of the person put forward by the individualists, who tend to distinguish between who one is and the values one has.”[11]

3. There are dynamic links between society’s values and behaviour. Social Constructionist Vivien Burr concludes that key features – or values – of a specific society will affect an individual’s personality, she uses competition as an example, “For example in a capitalist society competition is fundamental; society is structured around individuals and organisation that compete with each other for jobs markets etc…so that where competition is a fundamental feature of social economic life, what you will get is competitive people.”[12]

4. Charles Taylor argues the incoherence of individualism. He contends that human beings have capacities and the affirmation of human capacities, defined as the presence of characteristics and traits of individuals that ensure the possession of rights, has normative consequences in that it cultivates these capacities in a society. Liberalism’s core political value of the primacy of rights, affirms the capacities that were nurtured in a society, therefore the obligation to belong to a society should be as fundamental as the assertion of rights.[13] However by asserting the primacy of rights, one cannot always claim an equally fundamental obligation because at times the assertion of an individual right is achieved at the expense of the society. To assert the rights to the point of destroying a society, deprives the environment for nurturing the required human capacities as well as prevents future individuals in exercising the same capacity, therefore rights cannot be ensured if individual rights are taken as a priority (primacy) at the expense of society.

It can be concluded that the premise of Liberalism – individualism – is a false one. Its attempt to understand the individual or the self is incorrect as it seeks to dissociate the human being from its social reality, in other words, it argues that the individual is shaped, influenced and developed without any reference to social links. This raises an important question: if an entire political outlook is based upon a false premise, will it negatively effect its society?

[1] The Liberal Project and Human Rights. Cambridge University Press. 2008. p. 1.
[2] Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics. Oxford University Press. p. 309.
[3] Will Kymlicka. Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press. 2002. p 212.
[4] Marilyn Friedman ‘Feminism and Modern Friendship: Dislocating the Community’ in Shlomo Avineri and Avner de- Shalit. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. 1992. p 101.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Charles Taylor. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. p 31.
[7] See Michael Sandel. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press, 1982. p 64 – 5, 168 – 73
[8] Charles Taylor. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. p 31.
[9] Peter E. Bryant and Andrew M. Colman (Eds). 1995. Developmental Psychology. Longman Group Limited. 1995. p. 20.
[10] See R. Hinde, A-N. Perret-Clermont & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds).1985. Social Relationships and Cognitive Development. Oxford University Press.
[11] Communitarianism and Individualism, p 3.
[12] Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge. 2003. p 33.
[13] Charles Taylor. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. p 31 – 38.

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Comments (2)

    • You are right. In February 2009, the Children’s Society launched a report entitled ‘A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age’ and sums up the situation in the US/Britain concerning social breakdown: “Britain and the U.S. have more broken families than other countries, and our families are less cohesive in the way they live and eat together. British children are rougher with each other, and live more riskily in terms of alcohol, drugs and teenage pregnancy. And they are less inclined to stay in education. This comes against a background of much greater income inequality: many more children live in relative poverty in Britain and the U.S.” [ A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. Penguin Books. 2009, page 4]

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