Selfishness, the Individual, and the Collective

This post was inspired by a conversation with Jim Rigby who I follow on facebook. It started with a short conversation-provoking post, and the follow up highlights the resulting discussion. I recommend following Jim (on facebook, not in real life) and/or reading his blog, he’s a thoughtful and stereotype busting guy and never shies away from debate.

“We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what is best for society.”

I recently learned of this old quote from Hillary Clinton (circa 1993). At first glance, it seems to follow the aesthetically pleasing moral’ish guideline of “don’t be a greedy bastard, there are other people to think about.” Reminders to put perspective on one’s own wants and desires and to balance them with the wants and desires of your fellow human beings are all to the good, in my opinion.

But notice, that’s not really what’s being said. The quote doesn’t read, “stop thinking of yourself and start thinking about what is best for society.” The purpose of the quote isn’t to check the listeners greed, it’s to check the listeners concern for other individually recognizable people.

All of us humans have a subjective experience of being part of a larger whole. In a physical, this is clearly the case. Every physical part of our body is interacting with every other material object in the universe; we absorb and exchange material from all around us; we are literally composed of star dust; and every physical speck of each one of us will exist until the end of . . . well, existence.

On a social level, we belong to a species whose every advance is based on collective action, peaceful cooperation. To quote Jeffrey Tucker slightly out of context:

Without it, our world would fall apart. All progress is due to it. All order extends from it. All blessed things that rise above the state of nature are owed to it…. [W]e need ever more . . . to make the world a more beautiful place.

Speaking of “society” or “community” or “humanity” is entirely reasonable as a shorthand for the collection of individuals being discussed. The politicians trick which perverts the concept (and, secondarily, turns non-violent people into seeming lunatics stuck on the idea of individuality) is to talk about the collective concept–I’ll use “society”, but all have been used–as if it were an actual entity apart from the individuals that make it up with its own measurable level of well-being.

Once that fiction is in place, any number of individuals can be harmed in pursuit of the good of the society–as if there’s something somewhere that’s doing better even though the individuals that supposedly comprise it have been hurt.

As a quick, concrete example, 1 in 3 African-American men are entangled with the criminal justice system–mostly as part of the war on drugs. Thousands of people have been murdered on the border. Thousands more are threatened by various armed agencies, kicking down doors (sometimes even the intended ones), breaking up families and shooting anyone who resists or is slow to comply. Millions of individuals have clearly been aggressed against in a whole variety of ways. No individual can be identified as a beneficiary (other than the prison-industrial-complex and police state). The political argument is that drug suppression is for the greater good. It benefits society. We should, after all, stop worrying about the individual so much.

Another great example is the “liberation” of [name of American occupied country here] where whole civilizations have been destroyed, countless persons killed, millions of refugees created, in the name of improving the state of the social abstraction that is supposedly comprised of the victims of American aggression.

It’s possible, of course, that there’s some citizen who is better off because of the drug war. There are certainly people better off under one political regime than another. It’s impossible to coherently argue that the “greater good” is being served, or not served. It doesn’t have a physical existence and it’s well-being can’t be measured.

This makes talking about abstractions an ideal way to manipulate people into supporting aggression against other people. Part of the politician’s trick is to speak for the “greater good” the way the Pope speaks for God. We’re meant to believe that we common folk can only access our own subjective state, while political leaders can calculate any number of weighted sums of millions of individuals’ subjective experiences and then determine which weighting to maximize with each policy decision.

It’s nonsense on the face of it. Politicians do what they want, or what their patrons want, and call it the “common good,” just as the Pope does whatever he and/or his patrons want and call it the “will of God.”

When you hear somebody lamenting collectivist thinking or championing a world-view where the individual is exalted over the collective, it’s possible you’re listening to some selfish asshole who just wants to do what he wants and to hell everybody else.

It’s also possible that you’re talking to somebody who has noticed the pattern by which individuals are being harmed, on an epic scale, in the name of some abstraction and always for the gain of the advocates of said abstraction.

One more caveat and I’m out: there are obviously good people in the world who would self-describe as serving the common good/greater good/society. This doesn’t bother me at all, though they may be adopting political language beyond the convenience of using collective nounts–I have no evidence of this at all, mind you.

The litmus test for whether or not someone is using abstractions manipulatively is whether they are advocating violence against certain individuals in the name of the abstraction. If not, they may still be trying to manipulate you personally (into donating money, time, etc), but they’re certainly not violating any core moral principle. If their devotion to the “greater good” *does* require the harming of individuals, then they’re either delusional or criminal; they should be shunned by all good people and their duplicity should be exposed as far as possible.

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