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We All Think We're Individuals. Here's Why That's Not True, And Why The Lie Is Told.

05/28/2015 03:32 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016
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The book from which the following two excerpts are taken was written in the belief that the world capitalist economic system has become so dysfunctional in the 21st Century that it cannot be defended rationally, but requires a particular moral/political ideology grounded in the assumption that human beings are fundamentally to be defined as free, autonomous and rational individuals, the only alternative being a faceless member of a collective, communist or fascist. But the idea of an individual self is almost certainly a fiction, and has become a pernicious one, and collectivism is not the only alternative to it - such are the dual theses of Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family and Religion.

The stark inequalities that are beginning to rend the social and moral fabric of the U.S. no less than the economic and political are not unprecedented. Poverty (among many) in the midst of plenty (for some) has afflicted the country for much of its history as capitalism developed and grew to its present juggernaut proportions.

In the past, however, when the fruits of nature were there for the plucking, moral calls for wealth redistribution in the name of social justice were usually countered by maintaining that poverty could be alleviated without curtailing individual freedom and property rights of the well-to-do by increasing productivity: as the economic pie grew, everyone would get a larger slice, and the wealthy producers could thus feel justified in averting their eyes now from the suffering of the poor they passed on the streets.

The ongoing history of the United States gave little reason for optimism on that score, as the state continued to enter the marketplace - but largely on behalf of the already well-to-do. It is no longer a credible argument under any circumstances today, however. Far too many of America's purple mountains are no longer majestic, too many of its fruited plains no longer bear any. Our weather grows more severe, our air more difficult to breathe, waves are beginning to lap at some of our seacoast cities. The earth in general, and the U.S. in particular, can no longer endure the level of exploitation it has experienced over the last hundred and fifty years. And it would be folly to imagine that technology will somehow help us escape continued economic and environmental degradation: you can do much with smart phones, but you can't eat them, wear them, use them to keep you warm or dispose of your plastic waste to keep it out of the ocean.

If this perspective is at all correct, then it seems that distributive (social) justice can only be realized by a number of wealth redistribution measures. In other words, if the economic pie cannot be increased any longer at the earth's expense, extant and future pies must be apportioned differently, and that cannot but be at the expense of the currently well-to-do. But this can only diminish their personal freedom: the more taxes they must pay to aid the plight of the less fortunate, and the more regulations they must endure in the search for increasing their wealth, the less free they really will be. Full stop.

And this seems questionable morally: how to justify curtailing what some people can do with their assets just because they have more assets than others? Thus libertarians (not alone the super-rich among them) can defend their position morally by making an appeal to individual freedom and autonomy -- and attendant procedural forms of justice -- as trumping matters of legislation aimed at the alleviation of poverty and the regulation of corporations in the name of distributive (social) justice. The political expression of this impulse is evident, in fact, in the very name the tea party chose for itself. Rooting itself not only in anti-tax revolutionary spirit, the first name of the contemporary group stands for Taxed Enough Already. We do more than our share.

It is possible to challenge the libertarian on moral and political grounds, but not, I believe, if one accepts a foundational individualism as grounding ethics.

To see this point more clearly, let's examine the libertarian's basic argument in a little more detail. If we believe, as individuals, that we do not need our brother's help (or our sister's, either) in getting on with our own lives, why should we believe we are their keeper? If we can take care of ourselves, why can't they? It is in this way that the very wealthy--and unfortunately, many others--justify their behavior morally and politically. They are not going to say they are greedy, selfish, avaricious, unfeeling or racist. Rather are they going to say they are acting on principle, especially the principle of the inherent freedom of individuals to freely pursue their own projects as they wish so long as they respect the similar freedom of all other individuals to do the same. These people are thus only insisting on the right to be left alone, and to dispose of their resources as they see fit. These are the most basic of social contracts.

Libertarians can then extend their moral argument with an economic one: most of them will also claim that in the long run, the overwhelming majority of people will be better off if individual (and corporate, usually) freedom is protected in all areas at all times for all persons not imprisoned, letting the free market reign for the maximally fair distribution of all goods. To achieve this noble end, no distinctly visible hands need apply, New Deal or otherwise.

Put another way, very few Wall Street brokers, bankers, oil, manufacturing and media magnates and others among the wealthy think of themselves or want to be thought of as moral monsters, we may suspect. Hence they advance moral, political and economic arguments to get themselves off the ethical hook.

On the libertarian account my major obligation to you is simply to leave you alone, and that is all I'll ever ask of you in return. I am not responsible for being born white, or male, or an American, or whatever, any more than I am responsible for your being born poor, a minority, or diabetic. I am now responsible for myself, and for those with whom I freely contract mutual benefits and obligations. I'll find my own job, obtain my own health insurance, develop my own pension plan, purchase a home when I can afford it, and see to the education of my children, thank you. On all these scores you should do the same. If misfortune on any or all of them should befall me, I'll suffer them in silence and not ask for a handout from you or anyone else, especially the government. Being consistent, I have no concern to prohibit abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, or any other private behavior that is a cause célèbre for some so long as it doesn't restrict the freedom of others. And I don't like conservative war mongers forcing me to pay taxes to prosecute senseless foreign invasions any more than I like bleeding heart liberals insisting that I must support the drug habits of welfare bums. I received no inheritance from my parents, but I certainly do not want to be told I cannot leave the wealth I legally accumulate over my lifetime to my children. And please note that for every one of these affirmations I can formulate an action-guiding principle that I can will to become a universal law; rest assured I have taken the moral philosophy of Kant seriously.

The great bulk of mainstream economic thinking for almost two centuries undergirds this view, namely, that the whole world will eventually be more prosperous for a great many people if the free market reigns, and those involved in those markets enjoy maximal freedom to invest and produce as they think best. Those who don't prosper will have only themselves to blame; that is what the concept of individual responsibility is all about. On this account, individual (and corporate) freedom and self-interest will bring about the greatest utility for the society, which, of course, shows that I have also taken the moral philosophy of Utilitarianism seriously.

And there the libertarian and tea partier alike rests his case. It is a very strong one, whether we like it or not. If we object that we all have some obligation to eliminate poverty, the libertarian will demur, saying he bears no responsibility for the plight of the poor, and consequently has no moral or political responsibility to relieve it. I give generously to charities, he will say, but it is my business and no one else's to decide how much of what I own I should give, and to whom, and when. And he will at all times respect fully our rights as adumbrated in the Bill of Rights, because he can do so by simply ignoring us; of course we have a right to speak, but not to have him listen.

We may raise other objections to the account, but should not count on any of them having much purchase, for the views are very well grounded in the concept of freedom and the unencumbered autonomous individual, rational self. It is possible to challenge the libertarian on moral and political grounds, but not, I believe, if one accepts a foundational individualism as grounding ethics.

Fortunately, that foundation can be swept away. Confucius would say that the tea party's emphasis on individual liberty is based on an almost certainly fictional and counterintuitive account of what it is to be a human being. So long as we, too, continue to accept the errant view of human beings as essentially free, rational autonomous individuals, and retain just as it is a constitution that enshrines that view we will never be able to denude the captains of industry, the bankers, brokers and the otherwise wealthy of their moral cloaks, nor rein in their dominance in the economic and political arenas.

* * * * *

Once the ingrained abstract idea of the free, rational, self-interested autonomous individual self begins to seem like the ghost in the machine it almost certainly is -- and consequently the perniciousness of the ideology it reinforces becomes more obvious -- different possibilities for envisioning the human condition and the good society can present themselves if we are willing to look for and think seriously about them.

Enter Confucius. By emphasizing not our individuality but our sociality, the Confucians simultaneously emphasize our relationality: an abstract individual I am not, but rather a particular son, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, student, colleague, neighbor, friend, and more. In all of these roles I am defined in large measure by the other(s) with whom I interact, highly specific personages related to me in one way or another; they are not abstract autonomous individuals either. Moreover, we do not "play" these roles, as we tend to speak of them, but rather live our roles, and when all of them have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then we have, for Confucius, been thoroughly individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an autonomous individual self. Being thus the aggregate sum of the roles I live, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I become quite literally a different person. Marriage changed me, as did becoming a father, and later, grandfather. I interacted differently with my daughters when they were children than when teen-agers, and differently again now that they are adult mothers themselves. Divorce or becoming a widower would change me yet again. In all of this I not only change, others with whom I relate perceive me in changed ways as well. And of course they, too, are always changing as we change each other. Now that they have children of their own, my daughters (and my wife) now see me as "grandpa" no less than "dad." A bachelor friend might invite me to a summer-long cruise if I became a widower, but would not invite me alone as a married man. While my role as student never disappears, it was overshadowed after my formal studies were completed as I became a professor. Former students become young friends, young friends become old friends, all of which have an effect on who I am and am defined. All the more so is this true when old and cherished friends and relatives die, making me yet again different, and diminished.

On the Confucian account, seeking that essential self must be like chasing a will-o'-the-wisp, for we are basically constituted by the roles we live in the midst of others. Even the tone of our voice tends to change when speaking to our parents and then to a friend.

But describing our interpersonal behavior from this perspective goes strongly against the grain of the essential self that we have been enculturated to think and feel we really are, something that remains constant and unchanging throughout the vicissitudes of our lives. The notion of "identity crisis" is a common one, especially on college campuses, usually striking early in the sophomore year. "Who am I?" Jane Spring asks, to which the shade of Confucius would probably reply, "Given that you are Jane Spring, you are obviously the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Spring. I see by the names on the door that you are the roommate of Susan Summer, and from the books on your desk, that you are taking classes from Professors Fall and Winter." "I don't mean those kinds of things," Jane interrupts, "I want to know the real me, apart from everyone else." To which the Master can only reply, "Small wonder these are called 'crises'; you have thrown away everything that could contribute to answering your question."

On the Confucian account, seeking that essential self must be like chasing a will-o'-the-wisp, for we are basically constituted by the roles we live in the midst of others. Even the tone of our voice tends to change when speaking to our parents and then to a friend. Is our demeanor the same with a lover as with a younger sibling? Is the visage we present to neighbors the same we present to strangers? For virtually all of us, I believe, the answer to these and similar questions is "No," and if so, then in an important sense, we might begin to understand that who we "really are" is a function of who we are with, when, and under what circumstances. And the same may be said of them; each of us has a unique, but always changing identity.

It follows from this dynamic perspective that if we are indeed consistently changing and thus have no essential self that remains constant through the changes -- our sense of continuity through memory notwithstanding -- then a goal of human perfectibility becomes an impossible one, for there is nothing of enduring substance to perfect. The ren dao of the early Confucians is not achieved, it is led, as I suggested briefly earlier, and we must strive to broaden the way with diligence throughout our lives. As one of the major students of Confucius commented in the Analects:

Master Zeng said: "Scholar-apprentices (shi) cannot but be strong and resolved, for they bear a heavy charge and their way (dao) is long. Where they take authoritative/benevolent conduct (ren) as their charge, is it not a heavy one? And where their way ends only in death, is it not indeed long?"

Although this early Confucian view of the human being is very different from the abstract autonomous individual, rational, free, and probably self-interested locus of moral analysis and political theory current in Western philosophical, legal, and political thinking today, it is, I hope, not seen as remote from ourselves. Rather does the Confucian view seem to be a fairly straightforward account of our actual lives. In order to be a friend, neighbor, or lover, for example, I must have a friend, neighbor, or lover. Other persons are not merely accidental or contingent to my goal of following the path of being as fully human as possible, they are fundamental to it. My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me. Indeed, they confer personhood on me, and do so continuously; to the extent I live the role of a teacher students are necessary to my life, not incidental to it. In this way role-bearing persons follow closely a cardinal insight of Kant's ethics, his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only." In this regard it should also be noted that while Confucianism should be seen as fundamentally religious, there are no solitary monks, nuns, anchorites, anchoresses or hermits to be found in the tradition. The way is made in the walking of it, but one never walks alone.

Before further elaborating this ethics of roles, a warning may be in order again to insure that I am not being read as simply describing a more fluid and interrelated individual than Western thinkers are accustomed to dealing with. Role-bearers are highly dynamic to be sure, you might say; and much more socially-embedded than even Aristotle would have it, but it seems from your descriptions of them that role-bearers are still recognizable as individual selves, are they not?

No. We have moved now from peaches to onions. Thus far I have indeed been describing persons, but trying to do so only in relation to their roles with other persons, and I have concentrated on the nature of those role-relations because they are what must be foregrounded if the Confucian vision is to be properly understood. At the same time I must emphasize that my descriptions of human interactions are based on the simple facts of daily life as lived by flesh and blood human beings. I must hope that they are not that radically different from the lives of my readers when not contemplating or attempting to find their individuality, for I cannot argue further with those who do not recognize themselves at all in these accounts. This, then, requires simultaneously placing the philosophical concept of the individual self as well as the psychological in the background. Moreover, the focus is not simply on the role, but equally on the interactions of the role-bearers, not the qualities they would be believed to have if we were talking about individuals. Individuals are said to be kind; role-bearing benefactors perform kindly acts toward and with beneficiaries; individuals are brave, role bearers perform brave acts; individuals may be in love, role-bearers behave lovingly. The only way we can know a role-bearing person has quality X is to see that person behave X-like in her role relation actions and interactions. In sum, when I say a role-bearing person is gentle, I am not ascribing a property/quality/attribute to her inner self; I am predicting in part the way in which she will perform her roles.

To elaborate, in the descriptions, analyses and evaluations of role interactions the accounts will differ from those given for moral actions of individuals, where we tend to concentrate on the agent, the action performed, and its overall consequences. Between role-bearers, however, we must give an account of what the benefactor did vis-à-vis the beneficiary, and what the beneficiary did reciprocally, and the quality of the interaction between them. We must ask whether one flourished, both, or neither; whether the beneficiary benefitted; whether the benefactor's part of the interaction was sufficiently appropriate for the beneficiary to reciprocate appropriately, and vice versa; what the aesthetic dimensions of the interaction were; and not irrelevantly for Confucians, were the interacting role-bearers proper models for others to emulate? Moreover, all the interactions of role-bearers can be subjected to this kind of scrutiny, from the way condolences are conveyed at a funeral to saving a drowning old man to seating a guest at dinner to helping parents with chores to chaining oneself to others in preparation for engaging in civil disobedience.

Awareness of the specific role one is currently engaged in provides the general direction normatively the interaction should take. The more experience one has in this role the easier it becomes to elect the most appropriate behavioral response in it, depending on the other(s) involved in the role reciprocally. We may note that in role ethics, nothing prevents the benefactor from asking the beneficiary what they think it would be most appropriate to do. We can know that what X and Y did together was highly appropriate because they both described the interaction as salutary for them both. This also helps respond to the question of a skeptic who asks how we know what it means to flourish in general: there is no flourishing "in general," only in particular cases, and we can know when it happens by asking the participants if it did.

If all of morality is bound up with the performance of roles it must follow that one's moral code cannot be a private affair, for all roles can only be defined for each person by other persons. Hence "private," to the extent it entails "personal" or "autonomous" must be a fiction no less than "individual." Herbert Fingarette put this point splendidly when he said that "For Confucius, unless there are at least two human beings, there are no human beings." We may note in passing from this point that if this account suffices for describing, analyzing and evaluating human conduct with others, we have no need either for the idea of morals as currently employed and studied, nor for the concept of an autonomous individual self which grounds contemporary morality and thus capitalism's continuance, with no real alternatives in view.

Thus I press the Confucian persuasion throughout this book, but it is not my intent to proselytize for it, nor to attempt to legislate how the world really is, or should be, but rather to employ the vision of Confucius as I see it against my own cultural background to help liberate our imaginations about what a better world beyond the ideology of individualistic competitive capitalism might be like.

Top photo: Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830 | Wikipedia