Psychological Individualism: Much Maligned but Little Understood
Does an individualist psychology yield misanthropy, alienation, and manipulative behavior? Quite the opposite.
Individualism is at the heart of libertarianism. But as libertarians know all too well, it is much maligned by leftists of various stripes. The common liberal/leftist myth portrays psychological individualism as encouraging behavior driven by selfish, dog-eat-dog egotism. The vices attributed to individualism by its critics include self-absorption, narcissism, alienation, atomism, unscrupulous competition, deviance, relativism, and nihilism.1 Psychologist Edward Sampson, for example, has written extensive criticisms of psychological individualism and its alleged destructive effects on society. In Sampson’s view, the extreme of individualism is wanting or needing no one. He even hints at even darker side—not that people will not cooperate, but in pursuit of their own interests, they will actively work against others in unscrupulous ways.
Sampson’s view echoes many other criticisms that have been made against individualism in the 20th century. Christopher Lasch, the author of The Culture of Narcissism, writes, for example, that a competitive individualism will be carried to the extreme of a Hobbesian war of all against all. In decrying the “evils of untrammeled individualism,” he ascribes to individualism nearly every one of the vices that have been attributed to narcissism.2 Alfie Kohn, author of the Brighter Side of Human Nature, goes further, not only attacking individualism but ethical egoism as well. “Ethical egoism in short begets psychological egoism—that is, the common belief that we should restrict ourselves to self-interest…”3 Even conservative psychologist Robert Hogan has a go at it, arguing that individualism undermines traditional social structures that are necessary for society.
Many feminist critics of individualism share Sampson’s, Lasch’s, and Kohn’s concerns about “unbridled” individualism. Lasch’s attacks on “competitive individualism” complement the criticisms made by Zillah Eisenstein, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Marxist feminist philosopher Fox-Genovese goes even further than the others. She disavows individualism altogether. “…Here I am arguing that individualism actually perverts the idea of the socially obligated and personally responsible freedom that constitutes the only freedom worthy of the name or indeed historically possible.”4
The meanings of “individualism” and “liberty” are often as murky and dark to feminist critics in the 21st century as they are to earlier critics. Seeing the concept of freedom as political, not philosophical, feminist theorist Nancy Hirschman asserts, for example, that negative freedom is “innately separate, individualistic, unconnected, right oriented, even antagonistic…” whereas it is positive liberty that is “communitarian, even selfless, and concerned with responsibility.”5 Her entire book, The Subject of Liberty, is largely a rejection of most of the individualist ideas of negative liberty, as she sees them to be.
Many other communitarian feminists criticize individualism. “Feminist critiques of individualism are two-fold,” writes sociologist Markella B. Rutherfold in her examination of historical individualism. She writes:
Cultural emphasis on individualism, say feminists, ignores the relational commitments important to women—sisterhood, family, and community. Furthermore, individualism, as advocated by liberal political theory with an emphasis on political and economic rights, both masks and reinforces patriarchal structures that work against women’s interests. According to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “the central problem in the feminist critique of individualism lies in the difficulty of reimagining the collectivity—society as a whole—in such a way as to take account of women’s legitimate needs.6
Many other feminists have also criticized what they see as individualism. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, decries the impact of individualizing tendencies on the structure of the American family; Cheryl Russell attributes many social problems to individualism; and Mary Ann Glendon contends that the overwhelming emphasis on individual rights in political discourse serves to undermine aspects of democracy. They are far from alone in this criticism. Even contemporary liberalism is criticized by some feminists for its individualist orientation.
However, not all feminist philosophers agree with the idea of rejecting individualism per se. Marilyn Friedman in her book Autonomy, Gender, Politics, for example, sees a place for individualism in her account of autonomy. “There may be good reasons to emphasize human individuality in an account of autonomy so long as it does not promote mutual indifference or ruthless selfishness.”7
On the contrary side, in his essay “Individualism: True and False,” Friedrich Hayek is among those who dismisses the idea that individualism is a scourge:
There is one point in these basic psychological assumptions which it is necessary to consider somewhat more fully. As the belief that individualism approves and encourages human selfishness is one of the main reasons why so many people dislike it, and as the confusion which exists in this respect is caused by a real intellectual difficulty, we must carefully examine the meaning of the assumptions it makes. There can be no doubt, of course, that in the language of the great writers of the eighteenth century it was man’s “self-love,” or even his “selfish interests,” which they represented as the “universal mover,” and that by these terms they were referring primarily to a moral attitude, which they thought to be widely prevalent. These terms, however, did not mean egotism in the narrow sense of concern with only the immediate needs of one’s proper person. The “self,” for which alone people were supposed to care, did as a matter of course include their family and friends; and it would have made no difference to the argument if it had included anything for which people in fact did care.8
[Read more: Libertarian Caring by Aaron Ross Powell ]
What Are Individualists Actually Like?
The proponents of ethical and psychological individualism, as Hayek contends, and contrary to what its critics say, believe individualism as they conceive it promotes both self-interest and the interest of the community. The critics, including many feminists, view individualism as socially destructive as well as psychologically unhealthy and alienating. Is individualism as psychologically unhealthy and socially destructive as the critics say? Does it lead to rampant egoism and monstrous selfishness? Libertarian historians and economists have a great deal to say about the question of its effects on society. But on the issue of the psychological effects on individualists, the two sets of clashing ideologies do not present factual evidence that is useful to answering that question, only claims and assertions. Left completely out of the picture is actual social science research on individualism.
This neglect of social science research has frequently been a problem for libertarian ideas. Psychology has often been dismissed as not important, as Murray Rothbard did so many years ago. Or it has been seen only as psychotherapy, rather than as I see it, a field with much relevance to libertarian concerns. In fact, psychology has much to offer a libertarian idea of freedom in general, philosophical individualism especially. [See my Facebook page “The Psychology of Freedom,” for some examples.] Though few are aware of it, the question of what are the psychological characteristics of individualists has actually been explored in depth by libertarian psychologist Alan Waterman.
In his book, The Psychology of Individualism, Waterman articulates the ideas of ethical individualism thus:
While the categorical imperative is a formal criteria for defining what is moral, it does not in itself specify what universal moral principles should guide behavior. One such principle embodied in ethical individualism is eudaimonism itself. It is universal in that every person has their own unique potentials which can (and should) give direction to their lives. Every daimon is worthy of realization. But not all actions are permissible in the striving for self-fulfillment. The philosophy of ethical individualism specifies three principles which serve as limits on behavior: (a) freedom of choice (liberty), (b) respect for the integrity of others, and (c) justice as equity.”9
Waterman argues that the research evidence supports the claims that not only are individualists psychologically healthy, their actions are socially beneficial rather than destructive. After researching the philosophical literature on individualism for the defining personal characteristics of individualists, Waterman then did a psychology literature search on the traits that had been well-researched. He identified them as sense of personal identity, self-actualization, internal locus of control, and principled moral reasoning.
Waterman found confirmation of almost all of his hypotheses. The hypothesis that was most strongly supported was that individualists are less likely to have debilitating affective states, including anxiety, depression, and alienation. Instead he found support for a relationship between self-acceptance/self-esteem and qualities of personal identity and internal locus of control. “Given the direction and strength of the observed findings,” Waterman wrote, “it would seem implausible to maintain that individualist personal qualities are psychologically damaging.”10
Waterman also found strong support for a relationship between tolerant social attitudes and nonmanipulative acceptance of others on the one hand and a sense of personal identity on the other. “The results obtained for this hypothesis run directly counter to the expressed concern of the critics that the individualist qualities would contribute to mistrust, manipulation of others, and unscrupulous competition,” asserts Waterman. “The observed findings are consistent with the theory that persons characterized by the four individualist qualities, having higher self-esteem and less defensiveness, will thereby have less tendency to perceive persons with differing viewpoints as a threat who must be rejected.”11
Waterman also found strong support for a relationship between cooperation and helping behavior and the four individualist characteristics. If individualists possessed the qualities ascribed to them by the critics—atomistic self-containment, narcissism, alienation—“they would be most unlikely to engage in cooperative behavior,” Waterman argues. “Yet it is just those persons with individualist qualities who are the ones willing to participate in mutually rewarding activities and be willing to help others.”12
Though critics such as Lasch have decried the individualists’ alleged lack of meaningful commitments and feminists such as Hirschmann have implied that they are “unconnected,” “innately separate” and “antagonistic,”13 Waterman found strong support for the idea that they have closer, more mutually rewarding social relationships than average. There is no apparent contradiction between self-realization and having friendships and love relationships. The two actually appear closely interconnected in individualists. “Individualists,” writes Waterman, “appear more capable of sharing their personal feelings, of being emotionally supportive, and of committing themselves to the people for whom they form relationships.”14
Individualist Practice and Social Ideology
Why are the critics so off the mark, so at variance with empirical research? The error, suggests Waterman, may stem from the mistaken belief that the values implicit in our psychological theories are the same as those embodied in our social institutions. Since American society nominally claims to be individualistic, it is perhaps understandable that these values would be blamed for contemporary problems. The problem is, asserts Waterman, the critics have taken the societal advocacy at face value and assume that individualist values are what these people are actually trying to implement. Yet in sharp contrast, the proponents of ethical individualism attribute society’s problems not to the practical consequences of implementing individual values but to the utter disregard of these values in everyday life. “For far too many people,” states Waterman, “the high sounding appeal to individual values is no more than a rationalization for actions that are in diametric opposition to the actual content of these values.”15 He also contends that the critics, who are mostly either liberal or socialist, are politically and ideologically opposed to individualism and its implicit libertarian political content and therefore their unsubstantiated assertions are biased and suspect.
“What the critics of individualism appear not to perceive,” argues Waterman, “is that the proponents of ethical individualism are not advocates of the societal status quo. Ethical individualism, he says, places a high value on the rigorous path that leads to the full development of one’s talents. In contrast, the message of the media today is one of short-run hedonism, material consumption, and success without hard work. Ethical individualism calls for the values of personal freedom and personal accountability through individual decision-making and individual accountability. In contrast, our present society is based on bureaucracies that actually limit both freedom and responsibility. Ethical individualism implies that each person is an end in herself or himself, a value inconsistent with manipulation of others. Yet the practices of our political system foster special interests, not individual rights.”16 Our society, maintains Waterman, is producing not individualists but narcissists. The psychological literature on narcissism, in contrast to that of individualists, does suggest that such people are indeed pathological.
Thus the individualism that is at the root of libertarianism and libertarian feminism is not, as the critics contend, an unhealthy and destructive blight but a healthy and socially beneficial quality. The critics are utterly wrong. Psychological individualism is not only healthy for the individual person, but at the very root of a world view based on an expansive space for freedom, choice, and social experimentation, freedom and choice rather than static social roles or coercive authoritarianism. Any liberating social transformation must widen, not constrict, the range of lives and choices that are available to the individual; it must be an expression of an ethic of loving emancipation, not an ethic of domination or social control. Thus, in this view, psychological individualism is compatible with, if not actually necessary for, both freedom and autonomy.
- Alan Waterman, The Psychology of Individualism. (New York:
- Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an
Age of Diminishing Expectations. (New York, W.W. Norton, 1978),
- Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and
Empathy in Everyday Life. (New York: Basic Books, 1990),196.
- Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of
Individualism. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
- Nancy Hirschmann, The Subject of Liberty, (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2002), 16.
- Markella B. Rutherford. “A Bibliographical Essay on
Individualism,” 125, accessed May 6, 2013, http://www.iasc-
- Marilyn Friedman, Autonomy, Gender, Politics, (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2003),16.
- Friedrich A. Hayek, “Individualism: True or False” in Individualism
and Economic Order. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 13.
- Alan Waterman, The Psychology of Individualism, (New York: Praeger, 1984), 23.
- Ibid., 154.
- Ibid., 156.
- Ibid., 156-157.
- Nancy Hirschmann. The Subject of Liberty. (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2002): 16.
- Alan Waterman, The Psychology of Individualism, 157.
- Ibid., 77.
- Ibid., 166.