Human Vulnerability and the Fiction of Individualism

The essays by my colleagues William Irwin, Aaron Ross Powell, Mark D. White, and Tom G. Palmer have stimulated my thinking greatly, and I’m grateful for this thoughtful forum. The issue for me that keeps emerging is the reality and the role of the individual. I am inclined increasingly to the unpopular and counterintuitive view that the individual is less real than we think he is, and this has implications for inner freedom as well as politics.

The independent individual is a hero to WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and it serves as the starting place for both pessimistic and idealistic theories of the social contract. Whether you’re a Hobbesian who thinks the selfish ego must be constrained by the community, or a Rousseauvian who laments such constraint (or even a Rawlsian), you still start from a metaphysics of individualism. But what if the “individual” is more aspirational than real?

Steven Pinker and other recent champions of the Enlightenment argue that the West is the best, and individualism is an important ingredient in that success. Individualism is thought to be essential for violence reduction, social advancement, and increased freedom and happiness. I’m not sure if William Irwin agrees entirely with Pinker on this, but I hear the echoes of it in Irwin’s Sartrean existential orientation. And I hear it in Mark White’s Kantian celebration of “autonomy” and his claim that “the more we cede our choices to others, the more we compromise our own autonomy, authenticity, and very sense of self.”

Something Tom Palmer hit upon seems like a contrast worth exploring. Palmer quotes philosopher T.H. Green: “When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them.” Palmer crystallizes this relational aspect of the self when he says, “Our acts, our interactions with the world around us, including other moral agents, to a substantial degree makes us the people we are.”

I think we should push the relational aspect of the self even more radically. As I suggested in my essay, a person who is strongly bonded with family members will find it nigh impossible to achieve anything like inner peace or freedom when troubles and sufferings are felt across the nuclear tribe or household.

Contrary to strong individualism, a healthy politics and ethics can be built on a group or tribal foundation – it is not all violence and vengeance. The Buddha argued, for example, that giving up the individual self renders you more compassionate because the other’s suffering is also your suffering. But even our homegrown western tradition has produced the feminist project of “care ethics” against the paradigm of individualism.

From Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) to Carol Gilligan (1936-), women have noticed that the ideal of rule-based western ethics has been the “autonomous man.” But what about the “communal woman?”[1] Feminists noticed that the typical model of the ethical man was an utterly detached, impartial self. This autonomous self was supposed to have pulled himself out of the subjective quagmire of emotions and biased attachments, in order to view the objective distribution of goods and duties with a disinterested eye. Women philosophers, who knew full well that this “autonomous self” was a fiction (or a pathology), found this kind of individualism to be dubious. Every autonomous individual is inextricably tied to his mother, at the very least, but he seems to forget it, as he peers outward toward his world of independence. And his values, education, tendencies, even his reason itself is a product of many deep family and social connections. Moreover, “care ethicists” point out that social praxis itself must be particular, not universal; concrete, not abstract; and emotionally weighted, not just mathematical.

Care is an alternative to individualism ethics because it acknowledges the inextricable intimacies of human social life, and it places emotions at the root of those intimacies. But the intimacies of care also create special obligations and duties that constrain us and act as quasi-laws (more particular than universal, but still binding). This is the kind of ethical framework that can acknowledge special cases of group, or filial, or even tribal preference.

In his book Dependent Rational Animals, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that, “It is most often to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing.” We are much more vulnerable and dependent than we think. The Existential-Stoic-Buddhist-Libertarian belief in the free individual doesn’t quite make sense if we try to apply it to children, the elderly, the ill, and the disabled. But we, MacIntyre reminds us, will probably be all those things at some point in our lives. Why should our philosophy privilege a mere chapter (of relative adult autonomy), and ignore the whole book of life – a life composed of dependent relationships? My ability to flourish needs enormous help from others. And, of course, some disabled people will spend their whole lives deeply dependent on others, not by choice but of necessity.

We will need to have external political forms of freedom to help us attain some inner freedom, but we also need to incorporate our radical vulnerability into our social institutions. I’m not exactly sure how to do that. MacIntyre thinks we need to create institutions of equal access decisionmaking (inclusion of the marginalized); we need to emphasize the virtue of generosity more; and we need political proxies for those disabled who cannot directly participate in decisionmaking (e.g., those who are mentally ill). We must always remember that we and our loved ones may become disabled at any time. So, our policies and our philosophies should reflect that inevitable lack of freedom.


[1] See Rosemarie Tong’s Feminine and Feminist Ethics (Wadsworth, 1993) for a good contrast of the autonomous man and communal woman paradigms. Carol Gilligan’s important work on care-based ethics arose out of her critique of masculine models of developmental moral psychology. See her In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard, 1982).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • William Irwin’s political libertarianism began with his appreciation for inner freedom. Existentialism, Stoicism, and Buddhism have all taught the importance of living a free inner life: Even utopia would be unbearable to someone who is ruled by their desires; to someone who has attained self-mastery, even dystopia could be relatively bearable. Irwin recommends mastery over the impulses as a key part of living a free life, in the broadest sense of that word.

Response Essays

  • Aaron Ross Powell argues that inner freedom is best pursued in a free society, and that these two aspects of the good life are mutually reinforcing. A regard for virtue in either one should lead reflective individuals to give some attention to the other as well. Although many forms of political action seem clearly to be bad for the soul, this need not be the case for all of them.

  • Mark D. White looks to Immanuel Kant’s account of freedom as a way of bridging the gap between inner and outer freedoms. Although our minds may be the only things we can control, there remain many things we can influence indirectly, including other people and the affairs of our society. And to the extent that we can exert a good influence, we should certainly do so.

  • Stephen Asma says we should maybe just give up on inner freedom. An authentic human life would certainly make room for parents, children, siblings, and even spouses, and for the attachments that loving them will entail. So while mastering the appetites is good, so too is family life. It is not always good for mankind to be alone, and family life is the origin of one’s ties to society.

  • Tom G. Palmer argues that inner freedom is a valuable thing, but that it is most reliably obtained when one is not politically oppressed. Precisely defining both inner and outer freedom becomes paramount, because there is a risk of defining either so broadly that it destroys its counterpart. Palmer closes with a defense of the engaged political life, one that understands liberty to be a helpful reinforcement in many different, though related, approaches to self-mastery.