Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Musings on Individuality --
Over at The Reality-Based Community Mark Kleiman and Steven M. Teles disagree over how to take recent words by Pope Benedict.


“In contemporary culture, we often see an excessive exaltation of the freedom of the individual as an autonomous subject, as if we were self-created and self-sufficient, apart from our relationship with others and our responsibilities in their regard. Attempts are being made to organize the life of society on the basis of subjective and ephemeral desires alone, with no reference to objective, prior truths such as the dignity of each human being and his inalienable rights and duties, which every social group is called to serve.


Kleiman (reacting to the first clause of the above, which was the only part of the quote in the newspaper article) dislikes it because Pope Benedict spoke while in Spain, where steps are being taken to legalize gay marriage. Sales thinks that it is pretty standard Catholic social teaching.

Being Catholic, I tend to agree with the statement I quoted, although I admit that it is debateable as to what are actual "prior, objective truths." Individual identity seems stressed more these days, and group identity less. People note that religious affiliation is going down. Well, union membership is also down. Party identification is down. Divorce is up. While all of these have other contributing causes, I believe that a common thread is a decline in interest or willingness to have shared group identities.

Libertarianism, especially the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, places too much emphasis on the individual. Other ideologies place too much emphasis on group identity. Communism, for example, subsumes the individual within the group identity of class. My political and religious outlook seeks to find a balance between the two extremes, with the notion that personhood involves both individual and group membership aspects.

The sociological pioneer Emile Durkheim used the term anomie to refer to the rootlessness and alienation that causes some suicides. I can't help but feel that there is some of that brought on by a culture that overstresses the individual. If you're a conservative, you see it in what you believe is wanton sexuality, among other things. If you're a liberal, you see it in what you believe is a selfish desire to drive gas guzzling SUVs that harm the environment, among other things.

But there is no clear solution to this problem. The American capitalist system encourages individualism and its extreme, excessive form in hedonism. You can't dismantle the system and you can't legislate cultural change, except perhaps in heavy-handed, counterproductive ways.

Does anyone else see this problem existing and do you have any thoughts on it?
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