Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, or social outlook that stresses independence and self-reliance. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires, while opposing most external interference with one's choices, whether by society, the state, or any other group or institution. Individualism is opposed to collectivism or statism, which stress that communal, community, group, societal, or national goals should take priority over individual goals. Individualism is also opposed to tradition, religion, or any other form of external moral standard being used to limit an individual's choice of actions.

Individualism has a controversial relationship with egoism (selfishness). While some individualists are egoists, they usually do not argue that selfishness is inherently good. Rather, some argue that individuals are not duty-bound to any socially-imposed morality and that individuals should be free to choose to be selfish (or to choose any other lifestyle) if they so desire. Others, such as Ayn Rand, argue against moral relativism and argue selfishness is a virtue. Others still argue against both moral relativism and egoism.


The concept of "individualism" was first used by the French Saint-Simonian socialists, to describe what they believed was the cause of the disintegration of French society after the 1789 Revolution. The term was however already used (pejoratively) by reactionary thinkers of the French Theocratic School, such as Joseph de Maistre, in their opposition to political liberalism. The Saint-Simonians did not see political liberalism as the problem though, but saw in "individualism" a form of "egoism" or "anarchy," the "ruthless exploitation of man by man in modern industry." While the conservative anti-individualists attacked the political egalitarianism brought about by the Revolution, the Saint-Simonians criticized laissez-faire (economic liberalism), for its perceived failure to cope with the increasing inequality between rich and poor. Socialism, a word introduced by the Saint-Simonians, was to bring about "social harmony."

In the English language, the word "individualism" was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the 1830s, although it is unclear if they were influenced by Saint-Simonianism or came up with it independently. A more positive use of the term in Britain came to be used with the writings of James Elishama Smith, who was a millenarian and a Christian Israelite. Although an early Owenite socialist, he eventually rejected its collective idea of property, and found in individualism a "universalism" that allowed for the development of the "original genius." Without individualism, Smith argued, individuals cannot amass property to increase one's happiness. William Maccall, another Unitarian preacher, and probably an acquaintance of Smith, came somewhat later, although influenced by John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, and German Romanticism, to the same positive conclusions, in his 1847 work "Elements of Individualism".

Political individualism

In political philosophy, the individualist theory of government holds that the state should protect the liberty of individuals to act as they wish as long they do not infringe on the liberties of others. This contrasts with collectivist political theories, where, rather than leaving individuals to pursue their own ends, the state ensures that the individual serves the whole society. The term has also been used to describe "individual initiative" and "freedom of the individual." This theory is described well by "laissez faire," which means in French "let [the people] do" [for themselves what they know how to do].

Individualists are chiefly concerned with protecting individual autonomy against obligations imposed by social institutions (such as the state). Many individualists believe in protecting the liberties of the minority from the wishes of the majority. After all, the individual is the smallest minority. Thus, individualists oppose democratic systems without constitutional protections exist that do not allow individual liberty to be diminished by the interests of the majority. These concerns encompass both civil and economic liberties. For example, they oppose any concentration of commercial and industrial enterprise in the hands of the state, and the municipality. The principles upon which this opposition is based are mainly two: that popularly-elected representatives are not likely to have the qualifications, or the sense of responsibility, required for dealing with the multitudinous enterprises, and the large sums of public money involved in civic administration; and that the "health of the state" depends upon the exertions of individuals for their personal benefit (who, "like cells", are the containers of the life of the body). Individualism may take a radicalist approach, as in individualist anarchism.

For some political individualists, who hold a view known as methodological individualism, the word "society" can never refer to anything more than a very large collection of individuals. Society does not have an existence above or beyond these individuals, and thus cannot be properly said to carry out actions, since actions require intentionality, intentionality requires an agent, and society as a whole cannot be properly said to possess agency; only individuals can be agents. The same holds for the government. Under this view, a government is composed of individuals; despite that democratic governments are elected by popular vote, the fact remains that all of the activities of government are carried out by means of the intentions and actions of individuals. Strictly speaking, the government itself does not act. For example, the point is sometimes made that "we" have decided to enact a certain policy, and sometimes this usage is used to imply that the entity known as "society" supports the policy and thus it is justified. The methodological individualist points out that "we" in fact did not enact or carry out this policy; among those who voted, a certain group of people voted for the policy, individuals all, and another group voted against it. The decision that emerged was not made by the "people", or by the "government"; it was made by those on the winning side of the vote. This is significant because in any collective there exists individuals who oppose the policy whose wills are being overridden, and the use of "we" tends to obscure that fact. The individualist wishes to highlight the importance of the individual and prevent subsumption into a collective. For these reasons, methodological individualists tend to disagree with claims such as "we deserve the government we have, because we are doing it to ourselves," since perhaps that individual and very possibly many others disagree with the actions of the individuals who hold government power. That said, many individualists are willing to use "we" in reference to government or society as a convenient shorthand as long as the fact that these entities are composed of individuals is kept in mind.

Individualism and society

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "social contract" maintains that each individual is under implicit contract to submit his own will to the "general will." This advocacy of subordinating the individual will to a collective will is in fundamental opposition to the individualist philosophy. An individualist enters into society to further his own interests, or at least demands the right to serve his own interests, without taking the interests of society into consideration (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not lend credence to any philosophy that requires the sacrifice of the self-interest of the individual for any higher social causes. Rousseau would argue, however, that his concept of "general will" is not the simple collection of individual wills and precisely furthers the interests of the individual (the constraint of law itself would be beneficial for the individual, as the lack of respect for the law necessarily entails, in Rousseau's eyes, a form of ignorance and submission to one's passions instead of the preferred autonomy of reason).

Societies and groups can differ, in the extent to which they are based upon predominantly "self-regarding" (individualistic, and arguably self-interested) rather than "other-regarding" (group-oriented, and group, or society-minded) behaviour. Ruth Benedict argued that there is also a distinction, relevant in this context, between "guilt" societies (e.g. medieval Europe) with an "internal reference standard", and "shame" societies (e.g. Japan, "bringing shame upon one's ancestors") with an "external reference standard", where people look to their peers for feedback on whether an action is "acceptable" or not (also known as "group-think").

The extent to which society, or groups are "individualistic" can vary from time to time, and from country to country. For example, Japanese society is more group-oriented (e.g. decisions tend to be taken by consensus among groups, rather than by individuals), and it has been argued that "personalities are less developed" (than is usual in the West). The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") end of the spectrum (the term "Rugged Individualism" is a cultural imprint of being the essence of Americanism), whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness", state "socialistic" spending, and in "public" initiatives.

John Kenneth Galbraith made a classic distinction between "private affluence and public squalor" in the USA, and private squalor and public affluence in, for example, Europe, and there is a correlation between individualism and degrees of public sector intervention and taxation.

Individualism is often contrasted with either totalitarianism or collectivism, but in fact there is a spectrum of behaviors ranging at the societal level from highly individualistic societies (e.g. the USA) through mixed societies (a term the UK has used in the post-World War II period) to collectivist. Also, many collectivists (particularly supporters of collectivist anarchism or libertarian socialism) point to the enormous differences between liberty-minded collectivism and totalitarian practices.

Individualism, sometimes closely associated with certain variants of individualist anarchism, libertarianism or classical liberalism, typically takes it for granted that individuals know best and that public authority or society has the right to interfere in the person's decision-making process only when a very compelling need to do so arises (and maybe not even in those circumstances). This type of argument is often observed in relation to policy debates regarding regulation of industries, as well as in relation to personal choice of lifestyle.

Economic individualism

The doctrine of economic individualism holds that each individual should be allowed autonomy in making his own economic decisions as opposed to those decisions being made by the state, or the community, for him. Moreover, it often advocates the private ownership of property as opposed to state or collective arrangements. In some countries, corporations have gained for themselves the legal status of individual persons.

Individualism and US history

At the time of the formation of the United States, many of its citizens had fled from state or religious oppression in Europe and were influenced by the egalitarian and fraternal ideals that later found expression in the French revolution. Such ideas influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution (the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans) who believed that the government should seek to protect individual rights in the constitution itself; this idea later led to the Bill of Rights. According to Ronald Scollon, the "fundamental American ideology of individualism" can be summarized by the following two statements: 1. The individual is the basis of all reality and all society. 2. The individual is defined by what he or she is not." Explaining the latter statement, he says that American individualism emphasizes that the individual is not subject to arbitrary laws, and not subject to domination by historical precedent and preference.


Further reading

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1847). Self-Reliance. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.. ISBN.
  • Dumont, Louis (1986). Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-16958-8.
  • Lukes, Steven (1973). Individualism. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-631-14750-0.
  • Renaut, Alain (1999). The Era of the Individual. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02938-5.
  • Rand, Ayn (1964). The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet Book. ISBN 0-451-16393-1.
  • Shanahan, Daniel. (1991) Toward a Genealogy of Individualism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-870-23811-6.
  • Watt, Ian. (1996) Myths of Modern Individualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48011-6.
  • Gad Barzilai. (2003). Communities and Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-11315-1.

See also

External links

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