8/03/2005

Individualism vs. Tribalism?

Reading an opinion piece in the Orange County Register reminded me again why I don't care much for committed individualists. The piece, "Terrorism and Tribalism" by Prof. Tibor Machan, ascribes the existence of terrorism to the "tribal" mindset, i.e. that individuals have no inherent meaning or value except as part of a larger group or tribe. Therefore, killing people has no significance except as an attack against a rival tribe as a unit; "innocence" as a concept has no relevance, since killing an innocent harms the enemy just as much as killing an evildoer.

It is true that there are societies built around this principle. If you look at the Code of Hammurabi, murder is punishable by a stiff fine, paid to the government of that city; or, if you murder a man's wife or child, your own wife or child is killed as a consequence. Theft, on the other hand, is a capital offense. In other words, murder is bad since it diminishes the economic capacity of the community, and family members are meaningful only as extensions of the "man of the house." Theft, on the other hand, threatens to undermine the very fabric of society and cannot be tolerated.

I understand that this principle of inflicting punishments on innocent family members is sometimes used in the Muslim world; and in any event, it is clear that the mujahadiin consider their victims only cells in a larger organism. So Prof. Machan's thesis has some merit. My quarrel is that he sets up against tribalism the "distinctive American view of individualism—that it is what the individual does that establishes who someone is, not where he comes from, what tribe he belongs to…"

Prof. Machan closes his piece by saying in part:
[Tribes] are nasty fictions behind which the few who are privileged and unjustly favored hide their vested interests. They are the ones who are most threatened with the idea of individualism, of a rejection of collective duty and guilt. [My emphasis—ed.]
Clearly, this piece is not only an attack against tribalism per se but against the very concept of a community. Prof. Machan explicitly rejects the notion of collective duty, and paints a picture of the free individual as beholden to no one, master of his fate, shaper of his own mind and soul.

This is absurd. That an individual is profoundly shaped by his parents, teachers, and general social setting is so widely acknowledged as to be a cliché today. While people can certainly sieze control of their life and shape it according to their active desires, very few actually do so. Where you come from is a powerful determinent of who you are, Prof. Machan notwithstanding.

Moreover, you enter the world thanks entirely to your parents, and you owe them your very life. You amass debts to your teachers, your mentors, your family and friends for protecting and nurturing you; and indeed, this is the function of a community. To say then that an individual has no duty to the collective, and that the collective is a "nasty fiction" which does not itself have duties to its members and to the world, is incredibly arrogant and morally suspect. You are repudiating a debt solely because of your dislike for the creditor.

There is an alternative to sheer tribalism on one hand, and egotistical individualism on the other. That is the idea of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. In a society built on such an idea, you are acknowledged to be an individual and to have certain rights thereby. On the other hand, you also have a duty to the society which must be fulfilled if you wish your rights to be respected. I believe Jewish law to be such a system in concept, balancing as it does the sanctity of human life with the obligations of Divine decree. The U.S. Constitution was meant in this spirit, as could be seen in the words of John Adams that now that we had free speech, we should take care that it is responsible speech.

Unfortunately, many people today want their rights gratis, without the accompanying responsibility. Individualists are quick to assert their inviolate status in the face of government action, but are allergic to any sort of communal obligation or compulsion. This while they are taking advantage of the many fruits of communal action, such as roads, plumbing, schools… In my book this is called parasitism.

To be fair, the shrillness of the hard-core individualists takes place in a context of increasing government encroachment in private life, in the name of communal responsibility. The statist faction has used the language of community to erect a nanny-state superstructure that inexorably crushes our freedoms, our opportunities for material success and our mental independence. When fighting against "community," the individualists are most often fighting against statism; this may have been a large factor in the development of individualism in the first place.

That said, the philosophy itself is shallow, narcissistic, and if ever allowed full rein will be far more destructive than your average welfare state.

3 comments:

Joel Català said...

Very well put, Sir.

As you probably know, Prof. Machan is a member of the Objectivist movement, which, in spite of his article, is indeed a community.

Anonymous said...

Not everyone is part of a society. A lot of people find society to be very dangerous, and keep very quiet about their opinions, where as society is very loud because there is safety in numbers. In my experience, society is the refuge of scoundrels, allowing individuals to perpetrate great crimes as a group. Ganging up on people is the main function of society. And it may be that the minority are part of society, in that a minority people vote for example. But the majority who are individualists are not heard from very much.

Mastiff said...

"In my experience, society is the refuge of scoundrels, allowing individuals to perpetrate great crimes as a group. Ganging up on people is the main function of society."

Fair enough. And my dissertation work is about precisely that topic; this is pretty much the key problem for non-statist philosophies to work through.