The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Individualism, Political and Ethical

Individualism rests on the idea that the relevant units of political or ethical inquiry are the individual human beings in question, as opposed to a society, race, class, sex, or other group. Libertarianism is a quintessentially individualist political theory.

Ethical individualism holds that the primary concern of morality is the individual, rather than society as a whole, and that morality primarily concerns individual flourishing, rather than one’s interactions with others. Contemporary Neo-Aristotelian philosophers such as Ayn Rand, Douglas J. Den Uyl, and Douglas Rasmussen are among those who articulate this view. Rand contended not only that morality is primarily a matter of psychic health, but that service to a group is not a proper moral goal. However, not all individualists are egoists. Plato, for example, while teaching that individuals owe ethical obligations to serve the state even to the point of death—as Socrates does in the Crito—nevertheless holds that the proper beneficiary of one’s moral actions is oneself. Likewise, Jesus, while teaching a morality of self-sacrifice, nevertheless repeatedly states that each individual is precious in the eyes of God and that “the kingdom of God is within you.” Other altruist philosophers, however, including Kant and Auguste Comte, contended that each person should devote himself entirely to the service of others without thought of personal reward. Some forms of Protestantism placed a particularly heavy emphasis on the importance of the individual. Martin Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” held that the clergy was not a spiritually distinct category of human beings, but that each person bears a direct relationship with God through Jesus. Thus, all persons are equal before God. Other Protestant sects emphasized the importance of an individual’s religious duties and of his commitment to salvation. George Fox, the 17th-century founder of the Society of Friends, the Quakers, argued that each individual was guided by an “Inner Light” implanted by God; indeed, many Protestant persuasions taught the importance of individual devotion, including reading the Bible for himself. Many Renaissance thinkers also emphasized the centrality of the individual, and the combination of these trends in 17th-century England helped give rise to classical liberalism. Although religious individualism was one of many doctrinal issues that led to bloody clashes during this period, some figures—notably Sir Edward Coke and John Milton—gave voice to those political philosophies based largely on religious and secular individualism. Coke argued that Magna Carta’s guarantees for freemen applied to all subjects, not just to the feudal class to whom that word originally applied. Milton held that government was created by individuals who chose to enter into society for the protection of the freedom that God had granted to each of them. This early Whig doctrine would evolve into the classical liberalism articulated by the American Founding Fathers.

Thus, political individualism holds that each person, and not the group, possesses rights and that the purpose of the state is to protect the individuals that comprise it, rather than that individuals should serve the purposes of the state. As Jefferson wrote, “What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.” Thus, the government is analogous to an individual and may only act in ways that also would be open to an individual, such as acting in self-defense on behalf of its citizens. Political individualism, therefore, stresses individual freedom, choice, and self-direction while rejecting the notion of victimless “crimes against society.”

Anti-individualists, or “communitarians,” criticize individualism on the grounds that an individual’s identity is created by social forces and that one’s social roles should be given some additional consideration or even take precedence over one’s personal identity. John Dewey explained that the breaking point between classical and modern liberalism was the discovery “that an individual is nothing fixed, given ready-made[, but] is something achieved … with the aid and support of … cultural …economic, legal and political institutions,” which government should provide. Amitai Etzioni echoes this idea when he excoriates individualism as “intellectually defective and morally misguided” because it fails to recognize “that our selves are, to a significant extent, culturally and historically constituted. We are born into communities and cultures that initially form us, including our conceptions of the good and our ‘choosing’ selves.” However, individualists do not deny the powerful influences that communities have on people, nor do they dismiss the importance of social bonds or the benefits of group or family associations. Instead, they see these concepts as goods for the individual, and which the individual must choose to accept if they are to have any value as goods. Communitarians invert this structure and see society as the determining entity by which individuals should be judged as good or bad. Author Robert Putnam, for example, contends that networks of people create the social capital necessary for healthy democracy, and that a growing “disrespect for public life” has harmed American society. This notion assumes, however, that democracy or society are ends in themselves or agents capable of assigning value to things, which they are not. Only individuals can assign value to things, and it is for their sake that social interactions or democracy are goods, if they are goods at all.

Moreover, libertarians reject the notion that individuals are merely the creatures of their societies or that others can have a claim over the individual stronger than the individual’s claim over himself. The libertarian contends that each individual has the primary right to control his body and mind for three basic reasons. First, from the beginning of his existence, each individual is in constant and indefeasible possession of himself so that no action short of death can sever his connection to his body or his mind. In this sense, his possession of himself is inalienable. Second, no individual can wholly escape the responsibility for his actions, either to himself or to others. If he fails to gain the goods necessary for life, he will suffer the consequences. Nor can any other person control his actions without his choosing to comply with that person’s commands. He cannot, therefore, alienate the responsibility of choosing; if he injures others, they will (rightly) blame him even if he acts on the command of another. Ethical individualism and political individualism are thus connected in that no person can wholly alienate his own obligations or responsibilities. Finally, the first two obligations are equally true of each individual. Hence, no person is inherently entitled to rule another or, in other words, “all men are created equal.” These three observations apply to all people, regardless of their culture, and they support the conclusion that each person, as a person, has the highest claim over his own mind and life. Thus, if another wishes to govern him, that other person must obtain his consent.

Given the principle that each individual has an indefeasible right over himself, his ability to cooperate depends on finding a social system that respects each individual’s rights. Far from denying the importance of community, individualism lays the groundwork for creating communities that are truly responsive to the needs of the individuals who make them up, without intruding on that very individuality that makes society desirable. This groundwork is laid through the recognition of rights and respect for the principle of consent. The fact that a libertarian society permits, but does not compel, membership in social networks means that people who do join social networks are more motivated to make those networks excel. As David Conway has noted, a libertarian society “might still be capable of providing its members with greater scope for full-blooded community  than does any other societal form.” Collectivist systems, by contrast, treat individuals as interchangeable components of the social organism whose consent is irrelevant and whose rights are simply permissions created—and revocable—by “society as a whole.” As a result, voluntary social networks in collectivist societies tend not to be as strong as those in free nations.

Another common critique of individualism is that it weakens the foundations of virtue. Alisdair MacIntyre, for example, contends that individualism teaches people to place the satisfaction of their personal whims above the pursuit of moral excellence. Libertarians do not deny that individuals might indeed make self-indulgent and immoral choices, but offer two points in response: First, any virtue, to be a virtue, must be consciously chosen by the individual in question. An act that is not a matter of choice is not an ethical good because such goods must be regarded as goods by that person’s evaluation. Whatever a person is compelled to do, even if it accomplishes something that he should prefer, is not a value to that person without his belief that it is so. Second, all political systems are governed by fallible human beings who are just as likely to pursue irrational goals as other citizens. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?” Limiting the power of the state will not make the citizens good, but will protect those who choose to pursue virtue from those who do not and from political leaders who are at least equally likely to err with regard to excellence and who might choose self-dealing rather than the real good of the subjects.

Individualism is an important part of American culture, not only as the result of the nation’s Protestant heritage, but also because of its frontier experience. As H. W. Brands contended in The Age of Gold, the mid-19th century transformed the “American dream” from the vision that each person could enjoy a stable, agricultural community life to the vision that each person could set out on his own and strike it rich. “The new dream held out the hope that anyone could have what everyone wants: respite from toil, security in old age, a better life for one’s children.” In addition, as pioneers moved west, many anti-individualistic social taboos were gradually dropped, in large part because people confronting a hostile natural environment without the relative safety of established urban institutions found these traditions to be a waste of time and effort. Thus, perceptions of American women moved haltingly from fragile, Victorian figures of virtue to that of strong, self-sufficient frontier wives. During this era, individual initiative and critical thinking became magnified as American virtues, and to this day the cowboy remains a quintessential symbol of American individualism. Again, in the decades after World War II, individualism experienced a resurgence as the civil rights movement demanded that social stratification based on race and other immutable characteristics be abandoned and that, in Martin Luther King’s words, people should be “judged by the content of their character.” To this end, American popular culture tends to celebrate remarkable individuals, rather than classes or groups for their unique gifts and talents.


Further Readings

Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Bronowski, J., and Bruce Mazlish. The Western Intellectual Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

Conway, David. Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal. New York: Saint Martin’s, 1998.

Dewey, John. “The Future of Liberalism.” Journal of Philosophy 32 no. 9 (April 25, 1935): 225–230.

Etzioni, Amitai. “Individualism—within History.” The Hedgehog Review (Spring 2002): 49–56.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

MacIntyre, Alisdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. London: Duckworth, 1985.

Palmer, Tom G. “Myths of Individualism.” Cato Policy Report 28 (September/October 1996).

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Originally published .