Individualism is an expression of social thought and interaction rather than a primary characteristic of social organization and action. The teachings of Jesus stressed the worth of the human soul, and His church was the most important institution–and yet individualism gained very little hold until the protest was made against the medieval church and society in the early Renaissance period. In fact, individualism may have been more a protest against the old order into which it broke than it was a development of an agricultural society at the end of the 19th century. Modern society sees individualism as a social, economic, and political sphere. Modern societies grant too much room for individualism to penetrate all spheres of our life.
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Modern society gives too much freedom to individualism justified as freeing people from a pre-existing collectivized society or oppressive and arbitrary political and economic absolutism. As a people become well organized and integrated, individualism is of greater or less consequence. The national government has a clean slate upon which to write any laws it chose to make since there had never been any earlier national government. Even the slogan “a government of laws and not of men” does not produce much legislation for that generation which thought the less government the better. This new “individualism” grows out of the old, yet it is almost its opposite (Cottingham, 1996). When public health is named as a chief basis of action by government and safeguarded through an unwritten if not a written constitution, a still larger and more important element develops–the right of society to protect itself, regardless of the limitations which that protective action may place upon the individual in his relations with other individuals or with society. In the field of individual rights, more or less for the purpose of protecting the rights of citizens in society critics (Triandis, 1995) have a shift from a philosophy of individualism to one of public welfare and socialization. The protection of individual rights through business competition has been the main purpose of some of the most liberal and forward-looking government agencies. For the individual and for society the understanding of what is involved in new standards will be a considerable part of this task of socialization and reorganization. Those standards are necessary which will help the individual develop himself wisely and well, and help society find and do what is fair, just, and best, since those will be ethical (Dewey, 1999).
From a historical perspective, in the middle of the nineteenth-century governments may have been formed as they were fifty centuries earlier, but the groups governed were organized in a modern way rather than an ancient. The modern state has been a natural development from the feudal state. In medieval times people were governed in countries with a hereditary king as the political figurehead (Dumont, 1992). Political authority rested with a noble who controlled his local estate isolated from its neighbors by impassable roads, and by limited community requirements. Politics and good government were the least of the interests of a noble little concerned with his tenants, but vitally interested in warfare (Hayek, 1995). In the modern development of society politically, there has been a readjustment of the interrelations of individual and group. Ancient states made almost a religious fetish of the idea of group solidarity. The family, the clan, and later the tribe, was everything; the individual was a social nonentity. A new society appears: not simply a mass, but a group of members, important as individuals. Centuries elapsed, however, before these ideas penetrated beyond the confines of a few New England towns or the churches of some of the more progressive Protestant sects. The Puritans led the way, but, stiff-necked as they had to be, they did not lead very far (Hayek, 1995).
The power and influence of individualism on modern society are explained by the greater role and importance of democracy and democratic institutions. Individualist democracy brought universal suffrage to women as well as men earlier in northern European countries than elsewhere (Dumont, 1992). Modern conditions, even before the present time, have been unsuitable for the family system bequeathed by antiquity. Democracy and the emancipation of women are corollaries. The Individualism that has pervaded all modern thought, aided and abetted by crowded city conditions, has been a centrifugal force that has affected family solidity. Possibly it is responsible to some extent for breaking up the unity of home life. One by one the characteristics of the outgrown patriarchal family disappear, unhonored if recognized as obsolete but deeply regretted when still of some value or part of our present culture pattern. The frontiersman practiced it; the pioneer farm-owner used it daily and carried it into his political and social thought or action. “Te freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider” (Cottingham 1996, p. 287).
Competing merchants or manufacturers claimed it as their own, when not too busy lobbying for public help or organizing publicly created corporations. It became a part, possibly the essence, of the old Americanism (Hayek, 1995). To it, people owe the vision of a new concept of the individual, his rights, and his social opportunities. Not in theory but in fact, a new social order was created out of which a really socialized society might arise if it could subordinate individualism to itself. For generations, almost to the present day, to question it, or the rural democracy growing out of it, or the shift of dollars dependent on it, was to question patriotism or challenge deity. It may have been a by-product of agricultural civilization; probably its chief victim has been the agriculturist (Triandis1995).
The democracy that seems ideal and certainly was adequate for a simple, rather primitive community with few outside contacts could hardly be transplanted to an urban society living in a complex world. In the larger cities, the closest neighbors frequently know nothing of each other, except possibly some unfortunate gossip of each other’s affairs. That may be gained through the press more often than from those living near. An individualist theory of government, therefore, which stressed the rights of men, offered an argument for separation from Great Britain. It did not provide a suitable philosophy for building an integrated, industrialized, complicated society (Triandis1995). The political breakdown of rural democracy was hastened by the rise of the city until nearly seventy percent of the people came to live in fairly large communities. It may still claim freedom of initiative, freedom of contract, exemption from interference by the public; but it has ceased to exist profitably unless it works harmoniously with a complex society in which alone it finds purchasers and its general market. It has destroyed individualism by a collectivist corporation, developed into combination and consolidation. It has destroyed individualism so far as it may have deprived the workers of freedom of choice and of the opportunity of selling their labor to the highest bidder. Following Dumont (1992) “as a whole- and not only from the working class directed against the capitalistic economic order based on individualism, while individualism itself and its conceptual and economic forms are described as disreputable immigrants from the West” (p. 157).
The free contract is a desirable if not an essential feature of any successful economic society. The difficulty is to have it free when the parties are so unequal as in our day. To be just and fair a contract should give what it declares, “value received.” The farmer, the worker, and the consumer are wondering why they did not get it. Private enterprise and initiative stimulate interest, give the capable a chance and change a static business or social organization into a dynamic (Triandis1995).
The land of the free has it, for those who can invent, and keep the invention, for those who play the game, perhaps for those whose field is not already semi-monopolized. The small businessman has his troubles, with local organizations that give no outsider a chance, under codes or substitutes that protect chiefly the average producer or seller. The free competition was sharply in contrast with paternalism and monopoly of court favorites of the pre-“laissez-faire” period. Free competition, somewhat like a contract, is assumed if it did not assure the power of equal bargaining (Hayek, 1995). This was most easily secured for the producer against the producer, seller, and buyer. It was less easy to protect the seller against the seller and the buyer against the buyer. It has been hardest of all, in days not far gone, to safeguard buyers against producer and seller. In a close hundred-yard dash the judges try to pick out those in first, second, and third places, for all cannot watch first only. New electric checks show a fair percentage of error. The judges of our economic competition have had their eyes too much on the modern winners, the producers. When producers only are in the race, they try to weed out those who jump the gun, “box” the fleetest, or foul their competitors. They pay very little attention to crude tactics in the other races. We have often failed to appoint judges of fair competition to protect consumers; and sometimes groups of workers have not even had rules for their protection (Dumont, 1992).
The capitalist and the industrialist have the direct advantages of the new power and technology as well as the indirect advantages of combination. The combination works to the disadvantage of the farmer and the worker and the consumer, who compete against each other as well as against the industrialist. Until that competition is limited, or each of these groups, or all together, can compete on equal terms with those directly in charge of production, the industrial capitalists alone will enjoy most of the fruits of the new industrial revolution (Dumont, 1992).
A well-balanced society is as important to a nation as a well-balanced personality and character are to an individual. The proper adjustment of one part to another is difficult in proportion to the attempt to combine old with new or profit-seeking with welfare service. Even production planning is better than either unorganized competition or predatory combination. Give us a better balanced and more unified society, with less thought of gain, and more of progress; capital industrialism then can become a real part of civilization instead of civilization being a by-product of industrial capitalism (Triandis1995). The decline of Individualism, a philosophy, will involve too high a price if the individual under the new order has less training, less self-direction, less self-control, less individuality. The place of the individual in society, and the part he has in its work and progress, will depend upon the responsibility he assumes as much as upon our reorganized society. It is possible that the solution of our difficulty may depend in large part upon our finding better proportions of the materials of civilization out of which we can rebuild our economic and social system. If the foot rule by which we have measured values and decided worthwhile actions is too simple and too material, we may need one that is composite. Such a standard probably would not be furnished by the engineer, the captain of industry, or the money king, whose real contributions have been made too much with an eye on the year’s ledger balance (Triandis1995).
To make clearer the trend from an individualist philosophy of society toward a more highly socialized one, possibly attention might be drawn to some outstanding changes in successive periods of the twentieth century. Undoubtedly there will be some repetition of material already given, just as there has been in these accounts just presented. Certainly, there was little government interference even when businesses used distinctively unsocial methods at home and abroad (Dumont, 1992). The power of the Department of State was used to promote foreign business, especially in Latin America; at times it gave permission for Americans to expend good money on doubtful investments abroad. Socialization seems less noticeable during this new era, but socialization may have been hastened more by business consolidation during those years than in any other period. Moreover, the reaction against profit-taking during this period, although not observable until the depression may make that time of prosperity one of the epoch-making periods of progressive advance. Probably most of the criticisms hurled at the existing order dealt chiefly with industrialism and were awakened by the armies of the unemployed and the interminable bread lines. The debt problem may have caused almost as much feeling against the investment financiers, but it did not give an equal understanding of the problem or show up so well the weaknesses of the existing system (Triandis1995). The worldwide extent of depression brought into relief the problem of attempting to create social order, not local or even national, but at least as wide as a western civilization, which was built upon so slender and temporary a foundation as that furnished by present-day capitalism (Dumont, 1992).
In sum, modern society grants much power for individualism and sees it as a part of political, social, and economic agenda. It might be worthwhile to inquire whether society might attain a satisfactory social reorganization, not by changing the bases upon which the new is built, but just by remedial legislation, by concerted neglect of old and poor laws, by disregarding through almost unanimous consent the evils of unjust past political, social or economic institutions and systems. Certainly, an individualist society seems to defeat its own purpose if it seeks to leave uncoördinated a large amount of personal initiative, self-direction, and self-development; for, as a consequence, it loses cohesion and unity. Group organization ought to represent better recognition of each person’s individuality, ought to promote rather than stifle that individuality. Even though it is not conscious of such a purpose, when it gives him the place for which he is fitted, training him carefully and successfully for that sphere, and enables him to find the work which he can do, valuable to himself and helpful for the best development of society, it is foredoomed to success. A society may thus gain greater mobility than any individualist order could possibly attain. Capitalization of abilities means the offering of new opportunities for self-expression and self-direction within the limits of the activity which the society sets for itself rather than for its members. There is no reason why, in a system of growing socialization, the new individualism should not be better than the old, because the society cannot achieve its purpose of making humanity safe for humanity, and attain its best stature, unless it does make the most of individual members. So far as the individual is concerned, the point is chiefly that any member benefits from good group organization and the right kind of cooperation between himself and society far more than he can by any independent, uncorrelated attempt to serve himself.
- Cottingham, J. (1996). Western Philosophy: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishers.
- Dewey, J., (1999). Individualism Old and New. Prometheus Books.
- Dumont, L. (1992). Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective. University Of Chicago Press.
- Hayek, F.A. (1995). Individualism and Economic Order. University Of Chicago Press
- Triandis, C. H. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism (New Directions in Social Psychology). Westview Press.