Individualism Is An Illusion

By Graham Peterson

About ten years ago I was sitting in a sociology 101 course, and one of the women in the class pointed out that the counter culture kids all think they’re individuals — yet they all dressed, acted, talked, the same.  “Pfff” I thought, “that’s obvious.”  But the point goes much deeper than pointing out that punk kids all wear the same studs.

Theories of individualism remain a common explanans for a variety of social phenomena.  In particular, it’s considered an explanation of why people in modern societies have fewer children.  Larry Bumpass said in his 1990 presidential address to the Population Association of America: “I believe that the theoretical perspectives of a half century ago were essentially correct: . . . Lorimer’s description of increasing individualism at the expense of moral obligation.”

I don’t disagree.  It really does look like Western individualists have fewer kids.  But I want to attack the second part of that sentence, “at the expense of moral obligation.”

In one sense, that statement is correct, but it would be better stated as, “at the expense of moral obligation [to parental and community expectations to reproduce].”  Surely “what I owe Mom and Dad and the Church” has diminished in modern societies.  But that does not immediately imply that moral obligation in general has gone down.  I hate to sound trite, but humans are inherently social, which means they are inherently moral.

Every move people make to be more of an individual lands them right back in a little club wearing a new uniform.  Like hipsters.  But everyone.  Indy bands don’t produce what they do in hopes that nobody will listen.  And individualists more broadly haven’t broken off into the woods by themselves (though various mail bombers, and racist and feminist lunatic separatists have).  In fact we usually associate individualism with cities.  “Individualists” have gotten as close to other people as possible.  There is something profoundly contradictory about this word we’ve invented: “individualism.”

People nowadays do look more individualistic.  That is, there is a greater and increasing variation of the different types of people out there.  That means, like Simmel noticed, that the number of social circles anyone belongs to has expanded.  This is a good thing.  It means we are seeing more entry and exit from various little clubs.  It means less social control, more choice, and greater freedom of expression.

What appears as social atomism is actually the increase of the amount of socializing people in a modern society do.  The idea in the sociology of the family and the economy that people have become more separate and anonymous from one another is wrong.  In fact the opposite, we have increased the number of moral obligations we enter in to with other people.  We just do so on more favorable bargaining terms because there are more social alternatives, and hence we demand any particular social bond more elastically.

If fertility has declined some because a person feels a weaker moral obligation to a husband who was prearranged for her at age seven, that’s probably a good thing.  If a person instead feel a greater moral obligation to his coworker who jams Motorhead, that’s probably a good thing.

Individualism is an illusion.  Individualism has created more and better socializing.  The idea that people are becoming more narcissistic, egoistic, and less caring as time goes on . . . and that the way to buck that trend is to demand that everyone get married and have children immediately, is wrong.

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