Category Archives: Individualism
Posted by Eric MacDonald
This post is now available in Polish translation at Racjonalista. Thanks to Malgorzata yet again!
If I seem to have been very silent over the last couple of days, that’s because I haven’t been feeling very well, and while I’m not feeling a lot better, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss the question I ask in my title. I am thinking in particular of Margaret Somerville’s claim that the reason it is difficult to argue against assisted dying is what she calls an “intense individualism” that in her view pervades modern society. This raises a fairly important question, for it suggests that some sort of collectivism would be preferable to individualism, and this is something, I think, that we have reason to doubt.
I happen to be reading, just now, one of Elizabeth’s books, which we had discussed, but which I had not read before. The book is The First World War, by Sir Hew Strachan, who was a Brigadier in the British Army (Brigadier General in the US), and is now a Scottish military historian. The book has an interesting take on the First World War, and the reasons for fighting it, that is not often expressed. World War I is very often assumed to have been a pointless and avoidable conflict, which settled nothing of importance, when it might well be seen, instead, as the first round in a war to settle a very important question having to do with individualism and collectivism. Strachan says that
the Anglo-German antagonism became the pivot of the conflict. The polarity was best expressed in competing ideologies: liberalism and individualism against militarism and collectivism, the pursuit of mammon against the spirit of heroism. 
At the time the war broke out, Strachan suggests, this was much more clearly understood than it has been by later generations. But if it is seen in relation to the Second World War, the reasons for the outbreak of war in 1914 comes into sharper focus. For the Second World War may be seen (and has been long recognised by some historians to have been) an extension of the First. In fact, some historians have seen the two wars as the beginning and the end of a second Thirty Years War.
If we look at the great wars of the twentieth century in this way, we can see how the issues that were fought out on the battlefield largely underlie contemporary conflicts and competition amongst ideologies, though, this time, the antagonism is being played out between religion, on the one hand, standing for a kind of collectivism, and secularism, on the other, standing for liberalism and individualism. According to the pope, and many other religious leaders, the problem with modern society is that its focus is on the individual, and individual rights, and, according to Margaret Somerville, this makes it all but impossible to argue successfully for some of the fundamental religious values, such as the sanctity of life, because people simply cannot understand the alternative. However, what she does not seem to recognise is that, in order to argue successfully for these values, which are in essence religious and collective, she must also try to convince us that some sort of collectivism is in general more important than and preferable to liberalism and individualism. She makes no effort to do this.