By Dr. Joseph Chuman
We sense that American society is in distress in the current era. There is a range of social ills that, in my view, bear something in common. I think we are all struck by the extraordinary increase in what are sometimes referred to as “deaths of despair.” The suicide rate has gone up significantly in the past two decades, perhaps most poignantly among teenagers. Death from opioid addiction has reached truly alarming proportions, to the point that the average life expectancy in the US has actually declined. We all shudder at the perpetuation of violence and mass killings that is at a level with no global equivalent outside of war zones. Although it is more difficult to quantify, increasing numbers of Americans report feelings of loneliness, so much so that a recent article in “Psychology Today” referred to the phenomenon as an epidemic. Depression is surging among Americans. And commensurate with loneliness, depression, and despair, there has been a documented decrease in the number of people involved in civic associations, be it unions, clubs, educational organizations, neighbor groups, and churches as well. Americans are increasingly alone. Atheists may applaud the decline in church affiliation, which now exceeds 25 percent of the American population, but on a social level, I am not willing to concede that this is an altogether good thing. I include among the issues I wish to add to these phenomena the increasing privatization of American life and the extraordinary wealth gap that puts extraordinary power into the hands of a few individuals while the laboring classes and the poor suffer the anxieties of falling through the bottom, or barely stay afloat with crappy, insecure jobs that leave them alone and isolated while the social safety net becomes increasingly frayed.
These realities serve as a backdrop for what I want to discuss this morning, and that is at bottom a philosophical question; namely what is the place of the individual in society, and the more expansive question of to whom we, as members of society, and moreover as humanists, should feel ourselves accountable?
If we were traditional God-believers, the answer to this question, in an ultimate sense, would be obvious. We ultimately would be accountable to the Creator, to the Supreme Being, who is the author of the universe to whom we owe our existence. God is the source of all being, including us, and we live our lives in response to his will, which we know through his word and his commandments. And since for most traditionally religious people, God is the author of morality, when we are acting morally we also being accountable to God’s will. No, doubt, for those who are traditionally religious, we are also accountable to other people, perhaps to the community of believers and to all humankind, But in the final analysis, God claims our highest allegiance and all accountability funnels back to the creator.
It’s not a trivial question
But if our ultimate loyalty is not to God, the situation is somewhat more open-ended. If not God, to whom are we responsible? There are, no doubt, a good number of responses to this question, which is by no means a trivial one. How we answer it, in great measure, shapes the quality of our lives and, writ large, the nature of our society. How we answer this question stands as the foundation of the kind of society that we want to have, and strive, politically and otherwise, to create.
A good place to start is with the individual and our individual selves. In many ways, the modern world is centered on the individual, and a commitment to individualism is a much heralded value of our modern lives. Beyond that, the United States has always put a great premium on individualism, perhaps more so than any other nation and it is, for many, a source of nation identity and pride.
In answering the question of accountability, if we focus on the American experience, perhaps a compelling response should be that we are accountable to ourselves, to our own welfare, our success, our power, and our happiness – “looking out for number one” in the colloquial idiom. As an individual, I should be accountable to myself, primarily, or maybe, if brought to an extreme, myself alone to the exclusion of others
Some historians have argued that people as individuals didn’t truly exist in the pre-modern world. If one looks at Medieval Europe or traditional societies, people’s identities were much more grafted into their community, usually religious communities, but also clans, tribes, castes, social classes, and where you were situated in the social hierarchy. Asserting oneself as distinct from others or striving for individual achievement was not especially valued and not part of one’s sense of self. Embeddedness in group values, and sharing their myths and practices is how people lived out their lives. Conformity and performing prescribed duties as well as obligation to authorities was assuredly more in evidence than expressions of individual freedom, personal striving, achievement, and aggrandizement.
Modern America emphasizes individualism
This historical interpretation, I think, has been somewhat overstated. We find descriptions of distinct, individual personalities even in the Bible. But I think it is the case that the heavy emphasis placed on individualism such as we witness in contemporary America, is something that doesn’t emerge until modern times.
Somewhere around the 16th century, or maybe a bit earlier, we see evidence of the sketching of individual persons in art, poetry, literature, and then somewhat later, certainly in the domain of political thinking. It is sometimes said that the novel is a distinctly modern literary form, and it is not coincidental that among the first novels was “Robinson Crusoe,” which depicts an individual living alone on an island, outside of society.
But focusing on the individual and his or her interests is a good place to start, for obvious reasons. Each individual is the center of his or her own life experience. It is we who experience and interpret our world. When pain is inflicted on us, it is we, as individuals who suffer it. It is our own subjective, individual experience that makes all the difference, and it is our own individual life, with perhaps a few extraordinary exceptions, that we value more than anything else.
We may be extraordinarily rich, powerful, and popular. We may win honor and fame directed upon us by other people. We may be objectively extolled as being a great person and have everything going for us. But if, for whatever reasons, we psychologically feel ourselves to be unhappy, miserable, and worthless, that subjective, individual sense of ourselves trumps all the validation we receive from the external world. Our individual selves are the seat of our experience, and we are fated to live our lives from the inside out, so to speak, and if we are miserable, how the world beyond us evaluates us makes little or no difference in the final analysis. And, of course, our death will be ours and ours alone, which is a thought that often sits uncomfortably.
But to my way of thinking we can think of individualism and our individual self in two ways. Individualism, as I have come to understand it, has two employments, so to speak. One way is political and the other is social. In other words, the individual and individualism is a two-fold concept.
Let me begin with a political formulation of the individual.
Individual rights are basis of today’s democracy
I think that appreciation for the importance of subjectivity in the 17th and 18th centuries gave rise to a growing appreciation of the importance of the individual, individualism as a way of understanding the place of the person in society, and to a philosophy of individual rights, which became the basis of modern democracy. The historian Lynne Hunt has a very interesting thesis in this regard. She thinks one of the factors that gave rise to the appreciation of the individual emerged primarily in France, when upper-class women and men developed a widespread interest in reading novels that dealt with the lives, including the inner lives, of people much different from themselves, such as paupers, young girls, and foreigners. For the first time people became acquainted, through reading such novels, with the humanity of others, and this spurred an appreciation for their lives, subjectivity, and personalities as individuals. This, in turn, gave rise to the idea that individuals possess rights as individuals, what we call today human rights.
This idea is of the greatest importance. In modern political theory it is the individual who is the possessor of rights. What this means, most of all, is that the individual person is protected from and is immune to control, oppression, coercion, and violation of others, especially the state and its government, whose power compared to the individual is overwhelmingly great. For Lynn Hunt, the paradigmatic human right is the freedom and protection of the individual from being tortured, especially be the state. And historically, this is very interesting. Up until the middle of the 18th century in France, torture was an established and totally accepted practice in the French judicial system. If the state sought a confession from a suspect, it was a routine and accepted practice to torture him on the grounds that the body in pain could not lie. But within a short span of about 20 years, sensibilities changed and the thinking about this totally flipped, with the result that torture was banished from the judicial system. It’s for that reason that we have an Eighth Amendment in our American Bill of Rights to protect the individual from cruel and unusual punishment.
To put this concept into positive terms, the idea of the individual that goes along with the individual possessing rights is that the individual is a free, autonomous agent, who possesses the liberty to direct her or his life as she pleases. Each person possesses freedom and agency, un-coerced by the state, by others, or by society. And in this freedom is vested the person’s dignity. As the 19th century philosopher of liberty, John Stuart Mill, so nicely put it, “each man should be free to pursue his own plan of life.”
What this implies is that rather than being absorbed into society, the individual in her freedom stands somewhat apart from society, outside of society, and has the freedom and agency, as Spinoza stated at the dawn of the modern era “to think what he wants, and to do what he thinks.”
These ideas need to cherished, upheld, and defended with the greatest militancy. Because it is in this idea of the individual and individual rights that our freedom and democracy rests, as well as a commitment to equality. It is the basis of our civil liberties. If we lose this defense of the individual in the political sense, then we are paving the way for oppression and tyranny.
Perhaps no society, no nation has appropriated this modern invention of individualism and taken to greater extremes than the United States. It lies at the heart of the American spirit and presupposes a particular way of life that implies a whole set of values.
But derivative values can devolve from this understanding of the individual and his or her relation to society and begin to shade into what I refer to as a social appreciation or employment of individualism, some which, especially if brought to an extreme, may conflict with other very important values and may not be so attractive.
The individual and society
Let me give some examples. The idea of the individual does imply, to varying degrees, that the individual person stands outside of society and in a certain sense stands against society. This can be construed as a zero-sum game. What society gains comes at the expense of the individual and what the individual gains comes at the expense of society.
Such a notion of the individual can imply that I am totally sovereign over my own life and I can do as I please with it as long as I am not hurting anyone else. In short, my sole allegiance is to myself, and if taken to an extreme, I owe nothing to society or to anyone else. This concept of the individual is the basis of what we refer to as libertarianism.
I suspect in many of its applications, people such as ourselves support such a libertarian view of the individual. When it comes the heated issue of abortion, I suspect many advocates of a woman’s right to choose would adopt the position that a woman’s body belongs to her individual self alone and not to the society, the state, or the fetus. Many would support the law just enacted by New Jersey, which allows for physician-assisted suicide, under certain stringent conditions. At bottom, the right to suicide is based on the notion that the individual’s life, and her choice to end it, belong to the individual alone and not to society, the state, her family, or to God. Likewise, we would invoke individual rights,when it comes to speech, with few exceptions, to religious conscience, to be free of slavery or torture, and to a range of other immunities that individuals hold against society and the state.
Here many of us would concur with the libertarian position rooted in a stark, and absolute, or almost absolute, sense of individualism. As a matter of rights, the person is accountable only to himself or herself.
But, I suspect that when it comes to issues pertaining to the economy, we very same people begin have lot of problems with the unfettered, sovereign individual whose only allegiance or accountability is primarily or only to oneself. We know through painful experience where this application of individualism as it pertains to the market leads. It leads, inevitably, to a privileged few becoming extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, while the vast majority grow increasingly impoverished. Free-market capitalism, which places individualism at its center, is a powerful engine in creating wealth, but it inevitably kills around the edges.
America glorifies individual freedom
This reality opens the door to what I am a referring to as individualism in a social sense. While we need to defend individualism as a basis for individual political rights as militantly as we can, individualism in the social sense, what I would call “radical individualism,” is very problematic. True enough, America often glorifies the individual. The classic case is the icon of the stoic cowboy, who rides alone, and often engages in heroic deeds. Or Americans often point with pride to American genius, creativity, and inventiveness that emerges from the freedom vested in individuals to pursue their dreams, although I would contend that this praise of individual creativity is often based in a fiction in the sense that American individual accomplishment often rests on social contributions made by others and springs from the social soil in which the individual is rooted.
But the negative side of radical individualism becomes clear by invoking several extreme cases. If I am a radical individualist and thereby feel that I am accountable to no one but myself, this might lead to a situation, for example, in which I am walking along, see a small child drowning in a shallow pool and do absolutely nothing to save him on the grounds that we are all individuals who owe nothing to anything to anyone but ourselves, and if I walk on by and do nothing, so be it. In a legal sense, I may be in my rights, in that there is no law that forces me to be a good Samaritan. But in a moral sense, we would conclude that such a person was morally deficient or depraved to let the child drown because he felt no accountability to the welfare of the child or because he just had his pants dry cleaned and didn’t want to get them soiled.
Individualism seen from this perspective concludes that we are as individuals totally separate from other human beings, we are exclusively responsible only to and for ourselves alone, and we survive or thrive based on individual power, privilege, luck, and perhaps our cunning, aggression, ruthlessness, competitive instincts, and unbridled egoism.
Such radical individualism portrays the individual person as standing alone in a world and society that are essentially hostile and combative—what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes referred to as a “war of each against all.” Moreover, it is also a formula for isolation and loneliness. Raise this portrayal to the level of society and ,in my view, we get to see where America in the current era is ominously moving.
It is a philosophy of the individual and society that I personally reject, even as I defend the rights of the individual in a political sense. Rather, I see individuals as not standing alone, but deeply embedded in social environments, in families, and in communities, both those into which we are born, those which are created, and those that are identified with those institutional frameworks that are part and parcel of society, such as the work, schools, and other organizations. In short, we live in web of social relations and we are profoundly dependent on other people and society as a whole, including those generations that came before us.
Examples of this dependence are endless. No individual had to invent the language that he or she speaks. It was handed down to us as an endowment or gift from the linguistic culture into which we were born. We are proud of the values we hold and espouse, and cherish them as a product of our experience, our intelligence, and our original thinking. But this conclusion is in great measure a product of blind egoism. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the values we hold are greatly molded by the culture we inhabit, the family we were born into, and the values of those we are exposed to. If we were born into a different culture and in a different time and place, we would think very differently. Socially speaking, our individual selves are like the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is the funded endowments of society we receive and rest upon, and what is distinct to us as individuals is for the most part taking what comes from others and perhaps rearranging in somewhat distinctive ways. Much of who we are is an internalization of others. We are individuals, yes, but are also social creatures at the same time, biologically, culturally, psychologically, and in many other ways. That which is individually unique to us is to be cherished and respected, but I would argue it constitutes a small fraction of what make us up. As the poet John Dunne remarked, “No man is an island…” And I believe this is pervasively true.
Without community, there is no individual
Rather than see the individual as separate from society, I would argue, in a social sense, that without community, without others, there can be no individual. It is my view that our individuality is forged out of active engagement with others and active engagement with communities. Becoming who we are is a dynamic, social activity.
Likewise, I would argue that while in the political sense the individual is free, in a social sense there can be no freedom outside of society and the conditions within which a person lives out his or her life. Being free has a great deal to do with my ability to exercise my capacities. But if society has relegated me to poverty, or deprives me of education, my freedom is greatly curtailed.
When it comes to the question of to whom am I responsible, to whom am I accountable, I would argue that by virtue of our social natures, just as we inhabit a web of social relations, so we morally inhabit a web of moral obligations. I believe in what the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel refers to as the encumbered self. I believe in what I would refer to as associative obligations. In other words, every relationship I inhabit comes with incumbent duties to the other. Parents have obligations to their children, children to their parents. Employers to their employees and co-workers. Friends to friends. Government to the citizens and citizens to their government. And in the widest circle, human beings to human beings, both known to us and strangers. And even beyond the human realm, especially urgent in our times, I believe we have a responsibility to nature and the natural environment, which has given us life, sustains us, and on which we are dependent.
Before concluding, I want to take this notion of social obligation one step further, indeed even beyond the bounds of classical liberal thought.
The political idea of individualism and individual rights bears with it the central idea of freedom. The individual is a free agent and this bears on the notion of responsibility. Most of us would conclude that a person can be responsible only for acts or behaviors that he himself has chosen to undertake or has consented to. It seems morally wrong, indeed very wrong, to hold a person at all responsible for acts that he has not himself done or that someone else has done. Indeed, all of us would strenuously protest if we were held responsible for something we did not do. This conclusion follows directly from the idea of the human person as an individual.
But, if we conclude, as I do, that we are social beings and that much of who we are is the inheritance we receive from others, maybe this conclusion is not quite so certain. Indeed, one of the great moral and political issues that confronts us at this moment raises this very question of where to draw the lines of responsibility.
We are shaped by our communities
And that question is illuminated by the reality that we are all products of particular communities that shape us, with whom we share common values, and in which we partake in common narratives that mold our identities. And to the extent that they do, they may justifiably claim our loyalty.
Let me give the starkest example of where I am leading. Assuredly the most intimate community, so to speak, that claims our loyalty is our family. It is important to note that families are communities that we did not consent to belong to.
Let’s assume I come upon two drowning children, and one of them is my own child and the other is the child of a stranger. But I can physically save only one of them. Few people would argue that I should respond on the basis of a dispassionate commitment to fairness and flip a coin to decide which child I would save. And few would find fault with my choosing to save my own child, recognizing that parents have a special bond of loyalty to their children that they don’t have to others. Or one might conclude that I am responsible to care for my aging parent even though I certainly didn’t choose my parents. In other words, we can be responsible for things we did not choose to do. In this case, be the child of a particular parent. The fact that my consent was not involved does not free me from being responsible.
Now let’s broaden the community and the loyalty that ostensibly goes with it from the family to the nation. And let’s look at the responsibility that the citizens of a nation have to historical injustices. One can ask the question, especially at a time when we painfully see a reemergence of right-wing nationalism and anti-Semitism in Germany as to whether German citizens today bear responsibility to their Jewish population for the the Holocaust and the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, even though those atrocities were committed before they were born. Moral individualists would say “no.” Those who played no role in the Holocaust and themselves did not commit those crimes have no responsibility at all for what they themselves did not do. And this response does have some compelling character.
But I am not sure that the answer is so clear. This position of moral individualism presupposes that the self is detachable from the community from which the person derives his identity. The Germans of today share a common culture, a common historical lineage, and therefore in some way a solidarity with their German ancestors who did perpetrate those atrocities. The Germans of today are embedded in a continuous German narrative, so to speak. They certainly cannot be blamed for the acts themselves, but that does not mean as part of the German people and inheritors of the past they have no responsibility for the way in which they relate to Jews in Germany today. To disavow any moral responsibility at all seems to me to be morally too thin.
Moral responsibility and the legacy of racism
You may see where this is going. In the American context, the issue of reparations for the African-American community, which endured 400 years of slavery and institutionalized racism, is not new, but it has emerged again as a matter of contemporary debate. It is again certainly on the agenda. And behind it is the same moral dilemma about accountability.
In 2008, the New Jersey legislature debated whether it should issue a formal apology for slavery, and a Republican assemblyman asked, “Who living today is guilty of slaveholding and thus capable of apologizing for the offense?” He obviously thought no one, saying “Today’s residents of New Jersey, even those who can trace their ancestry back to…slaveholder, bear no collective guilt or responsibility for unjust events in which they personally played no role.”
This, again, is the position of moral individualism, but it is problematic. The injustices which are the legacy of slavery continue. And the white population of this society continues to reap the benefits that 400 years of oppressing and plundering the black population of America have brought. It is not for the people of Thailand or Italy or Turkey to apologize for the slavery of African-Americans or to work out a program of reparations. It is not their history. It is not their narrative. But it is ours, and it feels irresponsible for Americans of today to detach themselves from that history and its tragic legacy.
In closing, I want to return to what is the guiding question of this exploration, which is put forward in its title, “Is it about me or is it about us.” Certainly, we need to look after ourselves and our own welfare, the realization of our potentials, our aspirations, and our dreams. There is no virtue in selling ourselves short or in self-denial. And we all have a right to defend our liberty and pursue our happiness.
But in some sense, the question is a false one. It is my view that we are for ourselves when we are for others. It is my view that we become our best selves by committing ourselves to higher dedications, to people and purposes beyond our immediate, individual self-interest.
Our society, I have long believed, has suffered from an excess of pursuits focused disproportionately on the magnification of the individual self, whether it be an obsession with materialism, wealth, consumerism, personal power, or public acclaim and aggrandizement, much of which has led us down the road to loneliness, and for too many, despair.
What is needed, I believe, is an uplifting ethic that will take to heart the humanity of the other and a vision that, on this small planet, we all share a common destiny and that we need to dedicate ourselves as best we can to the common good.
Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, delivered this platform address on June 2, 2019, during the Society’s Community Weekend.