Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

The wealthy, the powerful and privileged, even the mere middle class to a lesser degree — they get to be individuals when everything goes right. They get all the credit and all the benefits. All of society serves them because they deserve it. But when anything goes wrong, they hire lawyers who threaten anyone who challenges them or they settle out of court, they use their crony connections and regulatory capture to avoid consequences, they declare bankruptcy when one of their business ventures fail, and they endlessly scapegoat those far below them in the social hierarchy.

The profits and benefits are privatized while the costs are externalized. This is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, with the middle class getting some combination of the two. This is why democratic rhetoric justifies plutocracy while authoritarianism keeps the masses in line. This stark reality is hidden behind the utopian ideal of individualism with its claims of meritocracy and a just world.

The fact of the matter is that no individual ever became successful. Let’s do an experiment. Take an individual baby, let’s say the little white male baby of wealthy parents with their superior genetics. Now leave that baby in the woods to raise himself into adulthood and bootstrap himself into a self-made man. I wonder how well that would work for his survival and future prospects. If privilege and power, if opportunity and resources, if social capital and collective inheritance, if public goods and the commons have no major role to play such that the individual is solely responsible to himself, we should expect great things from this self-raised wild baby.

But if it turns out that hyper-individualism is total bullshit, we should instead expect that baby to die of exposure and starvation or become the the prey of a predator feeding its own baby without any concerns for individuality. Even simply leaving a baby untouched and neglected in an orphanage will cause failure to thrive and death. Without social support, our very will to live disappears. Social science research has proven the immense social and environmental influences on humans. For a long time now there has been no real debate about this social reality of our shared humanity.

So why does this false belief and false idol persist? What horrible result do we fear if we were ever to be honest with ourselves? I get that the ruling elite are ruled by their own egotistic pride and narcissism. I get that the comfortable classes are attached to their comforting lies. But why do the rest of us go along with their self-serving delusions? It is the strangest thing in the world for a society to deny it is a society.

Altruism: Human Nature and Society

Below is an article about how psychological research is disproving traditional Christian theology.  Humans aren’t born sinners.  Humans are born altruistic or rather humans are born with a sense of self that includes others.  The ideology of the sinner combined with the Enlightenment ideal of individuality led to our modern capitalistic model of democracy which is particularly favored by conservatives.  Sadly, this model that has been forced on humans for so long turns out to be wrong.

Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand’s libertarianism, admitted that he misunderstood human nature.  Humans aren’t rational in the Randian ideological sense, but more importantly they’re not selfishly rational.   Human nature, however, is perfectly rational when you look at it from the perspectives of psychology, biology, and evolution.  When human nature doesn’t conform to your “rational” expectations, it’s your expectations that aren’t rational and not human nature.

Another problem to early scientific understanding of human nature is the species we compared ourselves to.  Chimpanzees became the model of human nature and Chimpanzees are a fairly violent species.  The problem is that genetically we’re closer to Bonobos which are a very peaceful species.  Comparing ourselves to a violent species was a mere convenience for those who ideologically believed in violent worldview.  Also, comparing ourselves to any of these primate species may not tell us much about natural and hence non-deviant behaviors for these species have suffered greatly themselves from human violence and environmental destruction.

Some have noted the way modern capitalism is understood.  Through a manipulated legal fluke, corporations gained precedence as being treated as humans.  However, as they’re not actually persons, they’re not treated according to social norms.  The description of how a corporation is expected to behave most cloesly resembles that of a psycopath.  In defining corporations this way, we set up a standard by which humans also should strive towards in being successful.

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help  By NICHOLAS WADE (NYT)

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

[…]   “We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.

11.  Steve R.

While we may be born with the urge to help, it gets squashed out of existence. Today, the Times published Open Source as a Model for Business Is Elusive. This article appears pretty much mundane, but anecdotally it is simply one more unfortunate example that highlights the fact that those who wish to contribute to society through volunteerism are vilified when it comes to competing with business interests. The people who volunteer to help develop MySQL or Wikipedia should be celebrated.

13.  D Z

No doubt Dr. Tomasello’s work uses recent findings, but to those interested in this article (and to Mr. Wade), I would recommend Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue” – published in 1997!! – which present similar arguments with a combination of outstanding examples from biology, anthropology, economics, and supported by mathematics.

20. Rael64

Read Mencius. One should have a proper _xin_. Then read MacIntyre; intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in regards to ethics. Then, ponder the possibility that if this is the case, then what, or who, ruins us, eh?

As said in the article, “the only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.” Well, maybe, in a strict sense (i.e. no internal reaction whatsoever), yet people are taught, are encouraged to be immune to the plight of others. And many of us buy it, whether we’ve ‘no time’, ‘not my business’, ‘nothing in it for me’, or simply ‘don’t care’.

Yes, we teach our children well: consume, hoard, and ignore; get yours while you can; it’s only wrong if you get caught; winning is everything.

Phffffft.