Moral Politics: The Individual vs. the Group

Both sides have part of the truth

Not individual OR Group, but Individual AND Group

The false war between the Individual vs. the Group continues to rage, and since it is a false war, it will continue until a just peace is reached. No justice, no peace.

The Rugged Individual-Western View

In the West, we tend to emphasize the individual-individual rights, one man one vote, don’t tread on me. American libertarianism is a somewhat extreme ideological expression of this. Thus every man is free to do as he pleases as long as his actions don’t infringe on anyone else doing as they please. The Group does not exist as anything of significance at all. This position is appealing because it contains much truth. Individuals are important and as free moral agents are responsible for their own choices.


Certain extreme expressions of socialism take the opposite viewpoint. Man does not exist in isolation, he exists in groups. The health of the entire group must be equally assured and individuals are subordinate to this; it is fair, and therefore just. We are all human beings, part of a larger family, and we should help one another. Certain group members are suffering and it is the duty of the others to lift them up. This also has appeal because it contains much truth.

Moral Politics

Both of these are moral positions, and moral positions, deriving from core values, have tremendous motivating force, as well they should have. People from the Individualist faction accuse people from the Social faction not only of being wrong, but of being morally wrong, evil, and vice versa. It is evil to take from a hard-working individual to support a lazy minority-why should the virtuous be punished? It is evil to hoard everything for yourself, you should share.

Not Either/Or

In the movie A Beautiful Mind, John Nash makes a breakthrough discovery, for which he ultimately won a Nobel Prize. The best result, he said, comes not from doing what is best for the Individual OR the Group, but from doing what is best for the Individual AND the group. He then went on and proved this mathematically. Probably most of us cannot comprehend John Nash’s formulas, I certainly cannot. So instead I offer this true story as an illustration in real time:

Lords and Peasants

 I lived in a certain southern town afflicted with Plantation Hangover. This is a deep-seated assumption that the natural order consists of a benevolent ruling class which looks out for the child-like citizens who cannot understand the way the world works. The ruling class in this town met in private to decide community affairs. Public meetings were just to announce their decisions and preserve the illusion of democracy.

Elites vs. Poor

The citizens grumbled; they were discontented. They accused the rulers of financial corruption, of diverting public funds to their own pockets, of making decision based on self-interest and not in the best interest of the community. The citizens were correct; I was in a position to see this happening. The ruling class did not see anything at all morally wrong with this-maximizing their fortunes was the American way. They congratulated each other on every deal they pulled off. They lived in fine homes and donated to charities, especially around Christmas. They were the pillars of the community and leaders in their churches. They circled the wagons and covered each other’s backsides when challenged and they won every time. But did they?

Self-Destructive Selfishness

As the community sank into poverty, the ruling class moved to safe areas, sometimes into gated communities-modern fortresses for the feudal lords. But more and more, the community they had robbed began to fester and the stink reached even to the aquiline  aristocratic nostrils. Properties they had invested in lost value. Businesses that could not compete with their monopolies closed. The citizens could not buy their products. The sickness of the Group was beginning to affect their fiefdoms; their sins were following them stealthily, preparing to bite them on the arse.

Selfishness and Sick Societies

I moved away from there, but later heard of a string of robberies in the “good” part of town that were rather chilling for what they portended. An armed group of young men were robbing individual homes. They were surprisingly polite, the victims reported, and tried to reassure the terrified residents that they did not want to hurt them. They took the usual items, such as electronics, jewelry, and cash. They also took food-canned goods, food from the freezers, boxes of pasta.

History Repeats

Armed robbers stealing beans and pasta is a symptom of a deeply sick community. The robbers were desperate and they were hungry. There were few jobs in that community; just a mass of jobless, hopeless peasants watching the aristocrats driving their fine cars and sailing their fine sailboats, without a care. The lords no doubt called for a crackdown on crime, as they always do. The peasants continue to seethe and if nothing changes, one day they will grab their pitchforks and take the aristocrats out. History repeats.

Pragmatic Politics

The best result comes from doing what is best for the individual AND the group. Even leaving moral considerations aside, the best result for the aristocrats themselves would have come from considering what was best for the group. A community full of working, educated, law-abiding citizens is not only best for the group-it is also best for the individuals, including the relatively rich, which, like the relatively poor, will always be with us.

Peasants with Pitchforks

The operative word is relatively rich or poor. This has always been the case, even in tribal cultures, even in so-called Communist nations, has it not? When the poor lose hope, when they have no opportunity, when they are stuck in an oppressive, exploitative system in which they are valued only as human resources, history demonstrates that it only takes a spark to set the whole system ablaze. The truth is that individuals are important, including individuals who are what society labels as “the least of these.” Eventually, if treated as mere mud to be trampled underfoot, they will grab their pitchforks and bring that truth back home.


One response to “Moral Politics: The Individual vs. the Group

  1. The best result, he said, comes not from doing what is best for the Individual OR the Group, but from doing what is best for the Individual AND the group.

    I would wholeheartedly agree that there is no conflict of (long-term) interests among rational individuals. The reason I oppose collectivism is because good and bad, per collectivism, are measured against what serves the collective, and individuals have value only so far as they can contribute to the well-being of the collective. The only practical way of implementing such a belief on a large scale (among those who might disagree) is by force.

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