Individualism and Absolute Values: the Fundamentals of a Free Society

Since antiquity, and particularly after Plato, philosophers have pondered on the question of the absolute values, of truth, beauty and goodness. Now, just as then, there have been advocates of their status as real, as well as sceptics. The twentieth century was mostly a sceptical period, although I predict a revival of interest presently, given the generally calamitous state of public discourse, awareness of human depredation of the natural environment, and rising international and societal tensions. The concerns of philosophy have never been, throughout its history, entirely devoid of influence by or relevance to the social world in which philosophers are embedded. Nevertheless, the foundational issue of their ontological status must be addressed. I propose that the problematic status of absolute values finds its resolution in social structures founded on an anthropological concept of transcendent individualism.

The concept of value as a distinct theoretical concern of philosophy has its roots somewhere between the Enlightenment and the late 19th century when the first writings on value theory as a distinct branch of philosophy appeared in the writings of Brentano, Lotze, Meinong and others, though it has precursors in the medieval scholastic concept of the ‘just price’ and the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, among other sources (Werkmeister, 1970). The modern idea of values (in the plural), the ordinary language usage we make of the word when we are not wearing our philosophical hats, however, emerged with the advent of the modern science of society, or sociology, in the writings of Max Weber, in which values are judged to play an important mediating role in social interaction and institutional viability. It is precisely the existence of a realm of shared values in any given society which, according to sociologists, enables the social discourse between proponents of even profoundly different experiences, beliefs and views.

Weber took the view that values were functional aspects of social structures, largely irrespective of the actual moral force of particular and specific values, skirting around the fact-value dichotomy identified by Hume, wherein it is impossible – according to Hume – to derive a value judgement from the accretion of any number of facts. No one has yet advanced a plausible argument that Hume is wrong. In reality, though, in all social contexts (apart from conventions of philosophers possibly) we indiscriminately mix facts and judgements, even if there is no logical transition between the two. Weber put values on a new footing, ontologically, by assigning them a function while being mute about their fundamental nature. The influential mid-twentieth century American sociologist Talcott Parsons, put it thus: ‘An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation can be considered a value’ (Parsons, 1951, p.112).

While I am in general agreement with Parsons’ description of values as ‘an element of a…. system’, this describes their place from an ‘outside’ perspective only; their essential nature as conceptually specific, experiential and immanent in the emotions is ignored in sociology. Perhaps the best exponent of this view of the interiority of values is the Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade, who links the root of value even in the modern secular world to an experience of the sacred and for whom ‘even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world’ (Eliade, 1957, p.24). For Eliade, to hold firmly a value or set of values involves a hierophany, a ‘manifestation of the sacred [that] ontologically founds the world’ (ibid, p.21). While this may seem to imbue values excessively with meaning, they have the quality of remaining invisible and mysteriously opaque to inspection (Hechter, 1993) while inspiring and regulating social action (Kluckhohn, 1951, p.399).

A philosophical analysis of values can demonstrate that they can manifest as both conceptualisations of broadly agreed standards and an intense inner experience, though they do so under different conditions. Within normal societal discourse in open social circumstances we have frequent recourse to value terminology, which commits us to nothing more than a general assertion that we have a preference for one thing or perspective over another (Rokeach, 1973, p.5) or an interest in a specific thing (Perry, 1926). But there is another kind of discourse, which takes place within closed social groupings, in which a strong sense in in-group and out-group consciousness is maintained (Tajfel, 1974), in which value concepts take on a highly symbolic invocatory function and in which the experiential nature and sacred manifestation of the value is shared, or, at least, held to be shared. We can speak, therefore, of values as a conceptualised shared experience, conceptualisation or shared experience being uppermost depending whether the social context is open or closed.

The objection could be raised that the very disparate social conditions under which this dual nature of values manifest itself, as information with an ethical subtext in open society and highly symbolised medium of shared experience in closed community, undermines the coherence of the philosophical concept, that is, of value as a single entity with a dual nature. I would argue, though, that the modern idea of value has co-evolved with the form of society in the post-Enlightenment period characterised by individualism, in which an individual can freely move between multiple belongings, each form of life having the nature of a closed group built around a core of shared values, but in which the hard distinction of in-group and out-group is mitigated by a tentative membership and complex, self-assumed identities. Such societies – the liberal democracies – are, in theory at least, committed to maximising the freedom of the individual, while leaving the pursuit of meaning and happiness to the individual.

Individualism is one of the most misunderstood socio-political and philosophical concepts. This is partly because it does not feature or not feature highly in most non-western cultures, which favour some form of collective identity and almost certainly privilege the collective over the individual. Dumont (1973, p.34) makes a distinction between the ‘empirical subject of speech thought and will’ which is common to all cultures and ‘the independent, autonomous and (essentially) non-social moral being’ who is the inhabitant of modern societies. Thus, Dumont distinguishes between the facticity of individuality – as singular body and capacities – and the belief that one is free and the essential equal of all other human beings. It is this latter concept, which has evolved in the crucible of European history and its Hellenistic and Judeo-Christian inheritance, that has enabled the forms of society that we characterise as open to exist. Individualism, though, is not a peculiarity of Western culture; it is a periodic human discovery that has been made a number of times in history, notably by the Greek city states, but also in ancient Zoroastrian Persia and in medieval Islam. However, in the West individualism has probably had its most sustained form, allied as it has been to the rise of science and modern market economies, which have improved human life considerably over the past few centuries. Thus, although individualism is not peculiar to western thought and western ways of life, a case can be made that it is fundamental to modernity. If so, this entails that as collective cultures modernise, they will have to grasp the issue of individualism, otherwise progress will stall.

In my estimation, the major world religions have a relatively sophisticated and enlightened concept of the individual, which has enabled humanist outlooks to emerge in religious cultures as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Indeed, the typical view of the individual found in the sacred texts of the great religions mirror a contemporary humanist view, attributed to a 19th century scholar Lysenkus-Popper, that with the death of a single person, a whole universe disappears. Moreover, the sacred texts contain significant statements of existential value, in which each individual man and woman is accorded the opportunity to stand as a figure of moral significance, by taking up a significant historical role. This accords with the contemporary views of many social psychologists that we find meaning in life through assuming our burden of responsibility (Peterson, 2018). Thus, religions’ views of the individual accords unique value both ontologically and as a social actor.

Nonetheless, a view of society is not complete by just its anthropology. One criticism I have of religions as a basis for social theory is that they have an underdeveloped notion of freedom. This can be accounted for somewhat by their origins in strongly hierarchical cultures. For example, in its hermeneutics of the origin of evil, the standard Christian analysis of the story of Eden in Genesis 3 emphasises the Fall from God’s grace and alienation from God’s presence, without sufficiently, in my opinion, contextualising that within the creation narrative of the autonomy of the original ancestors, most obviously represented by the retrograde Catholic concept of felix culpa, the predetermination of sin in order that salvation be granted.1 In the moral narratives of religions, freedom is frequently minimised and bounded by conditions, particularly the idea of responsibility, which again is found to be bound up with the ideas of duty and obligation prevalent in closed communities and hierarchical societies. I believe this cultural loading perhaps prevents a more enlightened understanding of the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Rightly understood, responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its complementarity and its guarantor.

First, the responsible person must accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, rather than duty-bound, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to the burden of excessive societal expectation and to other forms of oppression, especially when we have experienced them.

Secondly, the responsible person must accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good.

Thirdly, the responsible person should work for the common good, which is another way of saying social justice. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom, rather than absolute freedom. Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free.

From the perspective of a social theorist, absolute values can only be broached in a society which is committed to freedom based on individualism, partly because there is a strong case that the concepts have co-evolved. As the twin forces of religion and monarchy have been weakened in the modern period, individuals have become empowered, science, art and humanism have flourished, and the concepts of the true, beautiful and good have become dissociated from religious doctrine. Religions are, and will continue to be, though, an important mythic narrative source of local and universal values and an important agent in community structure and civil society. However, they can never be the model of a free, individualist and humanistic society, such is their penchant for otherworldliness (at worst apocalyptic nihilism), schism, persecution of supposed heretics and dogmatic control of thought. Their social utility, if that is the right word, lies in the deconstruction of their myths into moral narratives that pose existential challenges for individuals in secular societies, not in forming the authorised template for individual behaviour.

Nevertheless, individualism is clearly declining in the West. It is now routinely ignored in educational establishments, being replaced by postmodern values of equality, diversity and inclusivity, for which groupthink and commitment to collective political activism are required. Additionally, its foundations and the fundamentals of modernity such as evidence-based knowledge and logic, are being undermined, accused of being merely expressions of Western hegemony. But individualism is also declining because over time it has drifted from its roots in the spiritual iconoclasm of such figures as Francis, Luther, Kierkegaard and King and become all too often a justification for selfishness, indifference to suffering and greed. It has the appearance of a spent force whose ideals no longer inspire a civilisation. As Arthur Miller more cynically put it, ‘an era is over when its basic illusions have been exhausted’. The survival and reinvigoration of modernity will depend on the transformation of individualism into what I call transcendent individualism, which draws on the religious and secular heritage of the world’s cultures for the highest values that sustain the human conscience, lust for discovery and the instinct to altruism. These values will in all likelihood turn out to be universal and culminate in the absolute values of truth, beauty and goodness.

One can argue about the ontological status of absolute values, depending on whether one is inclined to Platonism or some form of instrumentalism. Work by Russell, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Quine and others laid bare the logical basis of mathematical and linguistic truth, fundamental science has added enormously to our knowledge of the universe, work on chaos theory has added to our knowledge of the constituents of beauty – such as symmetry, proportion and depth – that of creative instability, and the research of psychologists is building a slowly growing picture of what constitutes the good personality. There is little doubt about the existential force of these values in the lives of individuals and cultures for betterment, prosperity and peace, nor the minatory power afforded by awareness of the proximity of the disvalues of falsity, ignorance, ugliness and evil.

I believe I have made a case based on societal development and social expectations that absolute values and transcendent individualism are mutually supporting concepts. There is still a requirement, though, for some philosophical justification and underpinning for this argument. I believe this can be found in Munsterberg’s concept of the actualisation of absolute values through stages, culminating in the ‘self-assertion of the world’ (Munsterberg, 1909, p.74). I take this to mean that the only world that can be asserted by individuals in a world of individuals as constituting an identical experience of the world is a world of absolute values. However, it can additionally be interpreted as the assertion by the individual that they as an individual constitute a world-in-potential determined by absolute values, which is exactly what transcendent individualism implies. Absolute values provide the metaphysical space for the concept of transcendent individualism, which in turn embeds them in realistic societal conditions.

Because they are absolute, truth, beauty and goodness are, in principle, unattainable. Yet, the human condition is such that, under favourable conditions, it strives against its limitations spurred on by the prospect of the absolute – despite suspecting that it is unattainable – because glimpses of the ineffable are had from time to time. A society of freedom liberates individuals’ creative capacity to pursue truth, beauty and goodness and in pursuing these the individual ensures that the society remains free. The transcendent individual is moving outwards from themselves. Being in themselves, consciously and bodily, they nonetheless attempt to dissolve the boundary of self and other to achieve social solidarity and justice. They challenge themselves to transcend themselves in every dimension of their being: physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially to ensure their social attributes – such as compassion, hospitality, empathy and altruism – are continually being extended outwards. Above all there should be respect for the unique value of the individual and a recognition that everyone has a unique contribution; at the same time, the society of such individuals should be attuned to empowering those who are less able – as a result of natural or social disadvantage – through the progress of knowledge and technology.

The world today is a confusing mixture of optimism and pessimism, potentialities and threats of great magnitude. The idea of transcendent individualism grounded in the aspiration to absolute values could provide the vital nudge the world needs at this time. Our institutions – such as the press, the judiciary, the arts, the sciences, and politics – pay lip service to truth, beauty and goodness, though they frequently fail, both institutionally as well as in the actions of their constituent members, to uphold them. It is high time they were awoken from their constitutional slumbers.

 

NOTE

  1. The lesson of the myth of the Garden of Eden, to my understanding, was that the first ancestors did not protect their freedom and did not accept responsibility for their lives and their actions, but sought to play the victim, just as today (as throughout history) many seek to blame others or ‘society’ for their personal misfortunes. The victim mentality which seems to be sweeping so much of the West today is not the result of individualism, but the result of the decline of individualism and the retreat into polarised collectives characterised by philosophical incoherence, hysteria and addiction to blame and conflict.

 

REFERENCES

Dumont, L. (1970). Homo Hierarchicus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Hechter, M. (1993). Values research in the social and behavioural sciences. In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 1–28.

Kluckhohn, C. (1951). Values and value-orientations in the theory of action: An exploration in definition and classification. In T. Parsons and E. Shils (Eds.), Toward a general theory of action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 388-439.

Munsterberg, H. (1909). The eternal values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Perry, R. B. (1926). General theory of value. New York.

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. London: Penguin Random House.

Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: The Free Press.

Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, vol. 13, pp. 65-93.

Werkmeister, W. H. (1970). Historical spectrum of value theories. Lincoln, Nebraska: Johnsen Publishing Company.

 

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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