Moderation and Social Individualism
Individuals matter. Communities matter. It's not zero sum.
Social Individualism and Moderation
Following on my recent post on the two sides of human nature and the reality of tradeoffs, it’s high time for a post on a major theme in Radical Moderation, which I’ll call “social individualism.”
Social individualism is a concept I discussed at length in my first book, Family and the Politics of Moderation. The concept is deceptively simple: individuals need strong communities to flourish and communities need strong individuals to flourish too. That’s it.
Unfortunately, the way we often think about politics involves (unsurprisingly) 2D moral and political thinking about how individuals and groups interact. We often view particular kinds of moral problems as a simple zero sum game between an individual and the community they’re a part of, with that simple two-agent conflict occurring at a single discrete point in time.
I find this particularly true of the conversations around rights. First, rights claims are difficult to moderate; when someone claims a right to free speech or a right to own a gun or a right to an abortion the implication is that there are no legitimate limitations on that claim, even when different kinds of rights claims conflict. But even more than the difficulty of balancing rights claims is that rights claims don’t exist outside of a particular historical, cultural, moral, and political landscape in the first place. Rights claims take place in a 4D moral and political world.
Burke’s 4D Balancing of Individual and Community Claims
This is partly why I like the 18th century political thinker Edmund Burke’s approach so much. Burke’s critique of abstract rights talk isn’t that rights don’t exist (he’s very clear that they do), but instead that the way we talk about rights separates them from the complex moral and political landscape in which humans actually live and pits individuals against communities, when the two are fundamentally interdependent. (If you want my dry and scholarly take on Burke’s position, you can find it here.)
For Burke, rights need to be filtered through the history, culture, norms, and affections individuals have for their communities. These affections develop not only over the course of a human lifespan, but over generations of related and unrelated people living and working together. These filters, ideally, turn conflicts over rights claims from conflicts between individuals and their communities into more nuanced conversations about how to support a range of complex and interdependent goals to secure a common future while supporting individual flourishing, identity, and agency.
Why Individuals and Communities Both Matter
In one sense, of course, the individualists are right. Individuals actually exist as discrete agents, while communities are social constructs consisting of individuals who come together in overlapping groups to fulfill different functions. Individualists are also right to point out that for much of (at least recent) human history, individual needs were subsumed by powerful groups in ways that were predictably very bad. Everything from witch burnings to chattel slavery to the Holocaust to the removal of indigenous people from their lands are examples of individuals being sacrificed, usually unwillingly, on the altar of group purposes or goals.
At the same time, a sole focus on individual rights can lead to the extreme of thinking that humans emerge, mushroom-like, with full agency at the age of 10 or 18 or whatever and that they contract with their communities from a place of rational independence. I personally don’t think this a fair caricature of a lot of the social contract thinkers, but it is a bit closer to some of the arguments made by the most extreme individualists like Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard.
The problem with the extreme individualist approach, of course, is that it ignores everything we know about human development, how humans become moral and political beings, and what mature humans need in terms of social and moral and political engagement to lead healthy and flourishing lives.
It also ignores how our very rational capacities are shaped by the groups in which we live and grow and learn.
The complicated reality is found in more moderate thinkers who recognize the importance of strong communities in shaping strong individuals and the fact that far from being able to untease them from each other, individuals and the communities they make up form a complex and interdependent web.
An Unrealistic Binary
Leaving aside theory for the moment, this binary between individual and community is responsible in part for much of the polarization on difficult social and political issues that we see in our lives. An individual/group binary not only makes rights claims harder to adjudicate, but it also makes it harder to diagnose social/political problems in the first place.
The Left, which tends to be more group-oriented (at least on some measures), focuses on structural causes for human ills. The Right, which tends to be more individually oriented (at least on some measures), focuses on individual choice and agency as solutions. If you take a problem like homelessness, the Right and the Left will come up with completely different causal explanations and therefore solutions, based on whether they see the group or the individual as bearing the ultimate responsibility for the issue.
In reality, almost every complicated social problem has at its root both individual and structural causes. And almost every single social problem is best addressed with both sets of causes and the full range of potential solutions in mind. And that’s because individuals exist in communities with particular structures and incentives and those communities are made up of individuals who make choices that affect their communities.
For the vast majority of human problems, it’s not about only individual character (bootstrapping) or only about structural/institutional causes, but about how structures interact with human agency to create intended or unintended consequences that may have enduring downstream effects, sometimes for generations. Addiction is a story of individual choices and how those choices are influenced (or not) by the communities in which people find themselves. Taking one without the other might give us a partial solution, but not a holistic one.
Bringing Communities and Individuals Back Together
There’s also a broader lesson for people who care about moral and political ideas, namely that there’s probably an adaptive relationship between communitarians and individualists, meaning that despite all our tensions, we probably can’t do without either, in the same way that individuals and communities themselves are powerfully interdependent. Both probably serve really important purposes at different times, and keeping both around may in fact be adaptive, according to some researchers.
More practically, there are some pretty cool institutions that help moderate individual and community claims by allowing individuals and their communities to adapt to each other’s needs over time. Some of these mechanisms include language, the family (both developmentally and generationally), common law, and market prices (among others). All of these mechanisms share in common that they’re complex adaptive systems that allow individual needs and goals to influence community outcomes while providing individuals important signals about their community, which helps them better plan their lives. And, crucially, they help both individuals and communities adapt to changes in their environment, lifestyle, economy, and so on.
Are these systems perfect? Of course not. But they get us closer to aligning individuals and their communities than force or bald rights claims or philosopher kings ever could. Which is not to say the latter aren’t occasionally necessary, but they can’t be what we based our common lives on, not if we really want to flourish. Relying on force and bald rights claims and philosopher kings are what we rely on when we’re already in crisis and when we don’t know what else to do.
There’s a lot more to unpack here, but there’s a whole book ahead, so expect more details. For now, let me know what you think in the comments.
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