Ethical individualism and moral collectivism in America.

Author:Stivers, Richard

From Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and Alan Wolfe, the many observers of the United States invariably call attention to its emphasis on individualism. In the popular culture of American television and movies, the autonomous individual stands out, whether as rebel against the system or as self-centered consumer of endless products, services, and other people. Then there are the advertisements that tell us how important we are as individuals, "you are worth it." Over against these seemingly positive images are those of individuals worried about their personal relationships--lonely, depressed, and forlorn. But everywhere we find individuals thinking about and acting for themselves.

The way ethics is taught in the public schools in the United States does little to dispel this idea that individualism is the hallmark of American culture. James Davison Hunter's recent study of moral education confirms this. (1) He identifies three approaches to moral education in American public schools: neo-classical, communitarian, and psychological.

The neo-classical position is similar to that of natural law theories in earlier centuries. It maintains the existence of universal moral values or virtues, whether that universality as ascertained by reason derives from nature or history. The communitarian approach emphasizes the consensus in the community about what is moral and what is immoral. This consensus should come from democratic participation rather than be imposed from above by an elite. The needs of the community should take precedence over those of the individual.

The psychological approach to moral education is dominant. It is loosely tied to the "self-esteem" movement, which stresses the therapeutic function of education. The purpose of education is as much to make the student feel good about himself as to educate him. In one version of the psychological approach, moral judgments become "value preferences" and values hardly more than individual emotions. The hope is that through self-expression and interaction with others the student will clarify what his values are. In a sense the values are already inside the student and simply need to be teased out. Another version of the approach emphasizes reason and turns morality into a means for individual success or happiness. (2)

In perhaps his most important finding, Hunter observes that despite their manifest differences all three approaches share the same "assumptions, concepts, and ideals." (3) The reason is that each of the approaches takes morality out of its cultural context and thus renders it abstract. Moreover, morality is presented to the students as subjective. With the triumph of the scientific worldview, objectivity became identified with scientific inquiry; religion and morality in turn became subjective. (4) As Louis Dumont (5) observes, the modern ideology turns morality and virtue into personal values that individuals are free to accept or reject. Emotivism as a moral philosophy is the academic recognition of morality having become a consumer choice. (6)

In the long run, however, moral education programs are not successful, not even those that occur in religious schools. They are not able to counter what Christina Sommers calls the basic assumptions of students entering college: psychological egoism (motivation is invariably selfish), moral relativism, radical tolerance, and moral responsibility centered in organizations not individuals. This final assumption is telling. As Sommers demonstrates, the main thrust of moral education beyond self expression is to become interested in the social policy of private and public organizations so that one chooses the right organization to solve the problem. (7) Students become at worst "moral spectators" and at best activists, but without a sense of personal moral responsibility. Morality is either emotional preference or political preference or both. The widespread idea that moral responsibility resides in society and society only is a sign that the individualistic approach to morality in the United States may not be what it first appears to be.

Psychological Weakness

The theory of the mass society is one of the great theories in the social sciences, I think, and unfortunately one that has been more or less abandoned. It was central to the work of C. Wright Mills, but much earlier in the nineteenth century it appeared in nascent form in the work of Kierkegaard (8) and Tocqueville. (9) A mass society is one that possesses simultaneously a high degree of collectivism and individualism. The medieval state and church exercised little direct control over local communities except in times of crisis, e.g., war and heresy. Even if they had wanted to, transportation and communication would have made it difficult. With the growth of power in the state, administration, and technology and the great increase in migration and social mobility in the eighteenth century, the local community began to decline as an agency of moral control, a development accompanied by the gradual dissolution of the institution of the family. The abstract power of the state, administration, and technology supplanted the moral authority of the community and family. In Dumont's terms, "hierarchy" had previously been set within "holism"; that is, the interests of the community took precedence over the interests of those who had higher status and power in the social hierarchy. With the rise of the values of equality and individualism in modern ideology, (10) hierarchy becomes unstable and difficult to justify except in terms of individual competition. Therefore centralized power that affords everyone equal treatment appears an attractive alternative to hierarchy.

But there is a price to pay for equality. That both citizen and government favor equality, Tocqueville noted, should alert us to the danger. (11) The state administratively applies the same regulations to everyone. The state, administration, and technology are considered efficient to the extent they can impose the same abstract rules on everyone.

The individual citizen reacts ambivalently to the decline of personal and cultural authority, Tocqueville tells us. It produces feelings of release, freedom, and power. No one can tell me what to do, for we are equal. At the same time, however, we cannot rely on others for assistance; they are not morally bound to us in a reciprocal relationship. Moreover, our relationships to others become more competitive, more dangerous. This leads to what Tocqueville terms "psychological weakness." We live in tacit fear of others, not so much of their potential for physical violence as of their ability to manipulate us. Trust presupposes a moral community, which in turn requires moral authority. Our relationships become vague because they are based on distrust. Individualism in this context involves psychological weakness; we look to the peer group and the state to protect us from exploitation. Psychological weakness, moreover, is the bridge between individualism and egoism (Tocqueville noted that the former eventually led to the latter. (12))

Fragmentation and Depersonalization

Tzvetan Todorov's masterful Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in Concentration Camps discusses the fragmentation and depersonalization of the individual in the context of totalitarianism of which concentration camps are its fullest expression. The state assumes control of all social goals and appropriates the individual's social existence. In effect, the individual is denied moral responsibility for her actions. Fragmentation and depersonalization make it difficult, if not impossible, for the individual to exercise moral judgment. Fragmentation and depersonalization, then, represent the internalization of totalitarianism. We will see later, however, that these twin psychological maladies occur today in less extreme contexts. (13)

Fragmentation involves the splitting of the self in a variety of ways, including that between the public and private spheres of life and between thought and action. Todorov provides the example of a Nazi guard who treats inmates in cruel ways at work but hours later is a kind and loving father to his children in the privacy of his home. Another is the inmate who retains his religious beliefs but informs on fellow inmates.

Manifestations of fragmentation in the modern world include technical and bureaucratic specialization and professionalization. Personal responsibility is narrowly limited to one's specialized function. No one person is responsible for a decision in the modern bureaucracy. Our responsibility is further diminished by our dependence upon specialized experts who have...

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