Also posted on my personal blog, The Rational Animal.
Individualism is one of those words that gets thrown around like so much confetti and is so abused that it is easy to forget its true meaning and the origins of the concept it embodies. For example, let's briefly examine the Webster's definition of individualism:
1:a : (1) a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount; also : conduct guided by such a doctrine
(2) the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals
1:b : a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests; also : conduct or practice guided by such a theory
It is my opinion that the various definitions for individualism that Webster's provides us manage to skirt around the edges of what the concept embodies without ever, in full detail, explaining the core concept that underlies all of them.
It is my opinion that the core concept of individualism is this; that human beings are individual, autonomous entities with separate minds, wills, values, and needs. I believe that it is from this fact that most other definitions of individualism can be derived.
One can use human anatomy as a brief but effective way to demonstrate the validity of this concept. Can you imagine any single human organ that would be capable of behaving or even surviving autonomously from the rest of the human form? Certainly we don't look at a small portion of nerve tissue in a petri dish and conclude that it has feelings and aspirations and the ability to survive.
It is only when all of the human organs combine that they form an autonomous whole, an entity capable of providing for its own survival, having its own thoughts and values, and exercising its will.
Collectivists attempt to take this a step further. Man is a social animal, they say (and they are right), and needs others for his survival. From this they attempt to conclude that even a man himself is not an autonomous whole but instead consider him just another unit in a greater superorganism of "society".
The problem with this argument is that it lies on false premises; clearly a single human being can operate independently of other human beings. While we can all benefit greatly from social interaction, it is not a base requirement of survival. Our needs and desires and values all exist separately from the human beings around us.
While a single neuron in a petri dish does not have values and cannot behave as an autonomous whole, a single man clearly can. This is where the collectivist argument falls apart.
So I reiterate my basic concept of individualism; that human beings are individual, autonomous entities with separate minds, wills, values, and needs.
Let's examine each definition provided by Webster's, one by one, using the concept of individualism I just defined to demonstrate how it leads to the various permutations provided by Webster's.
1:a : (1) a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount
I would firstly point out that there is a false premise in this definition. By declaring that the "interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount" it is assumed that interests outside of individuals exist and can be ranked, in an ethical hierarchy, above or below the interests of individuals.
As I discussed above, only single men are autonomous wholes, not a collective of men, so in the end all interests are the interests of either individuals or nobody. The interests of a given group of men are nothing more than the shared interests of multiple individuals.
Now if we interpret "the individual" to mean "me, as opposed to other individuals" the definition becomes more clear. In this sense, this definition is roughly the definition of ethical egoism.
Let's look again at how I defined individualism; that human beings are individual, autonomous entities with separate minds, wills, values, and needs.
Once one recognizes that he is an individual human being with separate values from other human beings, it would follow that the values he should pursue are his own, derived from the application of reason to the sensory data he gathers from the world around him.
In fact, since an individual is autonomous and self-sufficient, reliance on others for one's survival rather than pursuing one's own values is an act of potential self-destruction. Once the men that such an individual is leeching off of withdraw their resources, such a man would quickly die.
Now let's look at the second definition.
1:a : (2) the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals
While is is extremely close to the definition I provided for individuals, it fails to include that this results from the existence of individuals as autonomous, self-sufficient entities. A collectivist might interpret "individual" to mean "autonomous entity" and, having already concluded that the society superorganism is the only such entity, use this as an argument in favor of his position.
This is why it is vital to explain up front why individual human beings are individuals and no group also qualifies as such (Corporate personhood anyone?).
1:b : a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests
This is almost a definition of libertarianism, but a bit too vague to really be able to say that it is libertarianism. In fact, most modern politicians would probably claim to embrace this, although none of them believe it.
Once again, though, we see how the recognition of individual human beings as autonomous entities naturally leads to the conclusion drawn in the definition. After all, if there are no such things as collectives and there are only individual needs and interests, who could logically propose any system other than one that maintains "the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests."
I think the definition of individualism is important because it is the metaphysical base from which we draw ideas like ethical egoism, voluntaryism, and libertarianism. One must recognize the individual human being, especially oneself, as an autonomous, self-sufficient entity, and if one does so consistently, the rest will follow.