Are We Not Bored of Binaries Yet?

Ah! Individualism vs Collectivism: the age-old, philosophical debate! But, do we really need to be having it? Hm, I’m not so sure.

All the political theory books that dominate Cambridge wider reading lists are trying to answer this question – whether they say so or not – because politics is, at its core, about how humanity works, and how our institutions can reflect that. And, because people are complex and therefore difficult to analyse as a whole group, philosophers create huge generalised statements with ‘proof’ that every human works and thinks in the same way. Now, I may have a personal vendetta against putting people into binaries, but the idea that people are either individualistic or collectivist entirely baffles me.

When you look to the ‘state of nature’, a time when the societies we live in now didn’t exist, the general belief is that people acted in a way that prioritised the survival of the group, not the individual. And so, left-wingers swoop in and scream that this is ‘Fact! People are naturally collective, only capitalism has created the individualist mindset!” – this was the view I also held for a while. However, when you look deeper and apply a bit of objectivism, Mesolithic people needed the group to survive for their own self-preservation. “So, you see! Humans are purely rational beings and their only priority is their own survival and happiness”, the individualists chime in, to counter the views of the socialists. Each of you reading this will already have a side which you prefer.

The issue is, however, that both of these arguments only look at humanity through one lens. Individualism looks at the innate rationality of humanity, collectivism looks at our socialisation – why can’t we look at both? If you take Ayn Rand’s standpoint and you look at every action someone does, you can argue that self-interest is always the incentive of humanity. But, to counter that, let us look at an example:

If someone falls over in front of you, an objectivist would argue that you would help them because otherwise you would feel guilty, so your selflessness is really to preserve your own happiness. A collectivist would argue that your innate connection with other human beings would spur you to help someone else in need, even if there is no benefit to yourself. The debate has always been that you have to decide between the two, when really, both are part of who we are. When that person falls, our instant reaction is emotional because despite what individualism says, humans are not always rational. So, we help them due to our innate empathy towards people of our own kind – we are pack animals, after all. However, Rand was also right, because if we left that person, we wouldn’t like ourselves too much and so the ‘hero complex’ kicks in. Helping that poor, bruised person on the ground was a reaction that wasn’t ‘either, or’, it was both, because humans do not react to things in one way, they react with complexity.

Even with this argument, the debate is too generalised. Some people will walk past that person because they are late for a meeting, and so their self-interest overrides the human empathy. Others would turn up late to that meeting anyway, because helping someone, to them, is more important than a bollocking from the boss. I know some people who would just stand and laugh. Reactions would also depend on who the fallen person was. If an old, feeble lady happened to trip due to her meekness, people would flock to her aid; a 20-year-old guy on his phone might get a different response. As you can see, suggesting that every person is either individualistic or collectivist is far too simple. Even within these factions there are differences as people have varying priorities, personalities and thought processes – suggesting that everyone is the same is naïve.  

Since the dawn of the Enlightenment and philosophical discussion, people have been trying to validate how they think by suggesting that everyone else thinks the same. And often, we get large groups of people who do share these beliefs in common – hence we have individualists and collectivists; dog-lovers and cat-lovers; men and women. But not everyone fits into these categories because humanity lives on a spectrum, not within boxes. So, when you finish this article and decide to read some of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, such as Atlas Shrugged, have a think about whether she was just trying to validate her own thought process, and her followers are just people who agree with her. Human nature is an existence that we live every day and yet never fully understand. A year ago I would have fought to the death to defend collectivism as the ‘mindset of the people’, now, I accept that everyone is, well, an individual – it’s almost like I’m a complex human who will believe and think in many different ways throughout my life, just like you.

Written by Frankie Arren Kendal

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