10/07/2013 03:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is Individualism Good or Bad?

As the American government partially shuts down, it is easy to blame excessive individualism for the impasse. Is individualism the root of our problems, or the answer to them?

If there is one defining quality of the West, it is individualism. Western individualism has no similar roots in any other civilization. Even cultures permeated by Western ideas and business, such as those of Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, have not become individualistic in the Western way.

All the enemies of American-European civilization in the last century - the communists, the Nazis, Imperial Japan, and extreme Islamic groups - have hated Western individualism with utter passion and conviction. But individualism has also been attacked by those within the West who have doubts about their own culture. Such critics single out individualism - with its attendant selfishness, alienation, and divisiveness - as the root cause of the problem.

Psychologist Martin Seligman highlights a different problem with individualism. "In the past quarter-century," he wrote in his excellent book, Learned Optimism, "events occurred that so weakened our commitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life ... Where can one now turn for identity, for purpose, and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed and all that's left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: the self."

The self, he argues, sets itself up for an epidemic of depression: "The growth of the individual means that failure is probably my fault - because who else is there but me?"

What are we to make of all this? I think there are three points.

The first is that whatever the downsides of individualism, there is vastly more to the credit side of its ledger than to the debit side. If you look at paintings before the Renaissance, only Jesus and perhaps the Virgin Mary and a few saints were painted as real people - everyone else was faceless or identical in appearance. From the Renaissance onward, paintings began to be populated by real people, masses of them. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example, in The Peasant Wedding, depicts individual, identifiable people having fun. Individualism actually derived from the Christian idea that God could live in individuals, and that each life was therefore precious. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says, "we naturally think that we have selves the way we have heads or arms, and inner depths the way we have hearts or livers", but pre-Christian humanity did not have this sense at all. The origin of individuality was religious, and although often ignored or glossed over, in time the idea of human dignity adhering even to the lowest of the low, transformed society from a place of brutality to one in which the relief of suffering has assumed high priority.

The enemies of individualism, such as the communists and the Nazis, had the same view of the mass of humanity as the Romans had - fodder fit only for slavery, sexual and economic exploitation, torture, and execution on the slightest whim or pretext. Whether it was the poor, the Jews, women, homosexuals, or those who lived in other countries, little was expected from the masses and little was given to them. The only bulwark against cruelty, indifference and callousness is individualism, the view that every person has a sacred soul and is in some vital sense the equal of everyone else. There is much wrong with Western society, but it is the most humane and most liberating that has ever existed - by a very wide margin.

The practical result of individualism has been the explosion of wealth that the world has seen since the eighteenth century. Before then, the great majority of people suffered malnutrition and disease, when they did not actually starve to death. Individualism has fuelled invention, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and all the enterprise that has led to cheap necessities and fairly cheap luxuries - decent clothes, affordable housing, abundant food, and the mobility brought by bicycles, cars, trains and planes. None of this was possible before there was a cadre of highly creative inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and knowledge-workers, before people were allowed and encouraged to create, and allowed to keep some of the wealth that they generated.

So - it is all well and good to criticize individualism, but a look at the alternatives - ancient and modern - should persuade us that we should be more temperate in our criticism.

My second contention is that individualism has been an enormous success in encouraging ordinary people to realize their potential and their inner depths. This is not self-help claptrap and has taken a long time to arrive, to be a reality for most ordinary people in the West. We can trace the unfolding of inner potential through writers such as Shakespeare - "to thine own self be true" and Michel de Montaigne. In an essay the latter wrote in 1580, he provides a remarkably modern justification of individualism:

The greatest thing on earth is to know how to belong to oneself. Everyone looks in front of them. But I look inside myself. I have no concerns but my own. I constantly reflect on myself; I control myself; I taste myself. We owe some things to society, but the greater part of ourselves.

Charles Taylor has traced how from this time "a new moral culture radiates outward and downward from the upper middle classes of England, America, and (for some facets) France - a culture which is individualistic in three senses: it prizes autonomy; it gives an important place to self-exploration, in particular of feeling; and its vision of the good life generally involves personal commitment" to causes and other people.

Taylor's comment segways nicely into my third point. Properly conceived, individualism is not at all selfish. Individualism and personalization are moral and social processes. They are nothing less than humanity's quest for personal freedom and responsible self-expression.
Individualism originated in personal responsibility before God and has evolved into the belief that ethical authority comes from within, from the sacred self. Historically, individualism has always led to higher demands on the person, culminating in the modern Western assumption that everyone has a unique destiny to fulfill.

The answer to individualism's critics - and to the personal dilemma that many of us feel, that individualism is fine but can feel barren and selfish - is to resolutely insist that individualism develops us in the service of something larger than ourselves. This is what individualism has always meant, and still means. Individualism is not the preserve of the Tea Party or Thatcherites. There is no point in developing ourselves, except to be useful to other people. We do not need to appeal to altruism, but to self-interest. It is no fun to be selfish and self-obsessed. True individuals get their kicks from using their talents in a cause in which they believe. We develop ourselves for a higher cause, because that is the route to happiness and meaning.

It doesn't matter much what the higher cause is, as long as it benefits other people or humanity as a whole. The cause can be art, ideas, a particular community, a club, the creation of products, the service of a team, family, nation, God, or a small group of friends. There is no shortage of causes. There is just a lack of understanding that to be authentic, to be worthwhile, and to be personally rewarding, individualism has to serve a higher cause than the self. So the next time that someone tells you that individualism has shut down the US government, tell them that true individualism would open it up, and make it work infinitely better. Let's have an end to this carping about individualism, which, properly understood, is the glory and beauty of the West. Instead, let us each reflect on what we can do, individually and personally, to realize our potential and make the world a better place.