A person does not need to be a sociologist to recognize that we live in a society of self-focused individuals. I am not saying that everyone is selfish in a mean sort of way, although there is plenty of that. It is just that most people’s lives revolve around their personal needs, desires and dreams. This insulates them from one another.
As a result, a current of separateness and loneliness runs deep in our culture. From time to time, we lament this. We sing songs and make speeches about how we all need to pull together like we did back in the old days. From presidents, to pulpits, we hear the challenge to get involved in one another’s lives, to work for common goals, and enjoy the fruits of human unity.
It is an increasingly pervasive call, and that is because the ill these pleas seek to combat, the spirit of self-concerned, self-absorbed individuality, is rampant. For several hundred years, Western society has been on a course that has paved the way for the arrival of its ultimate dictator—me.
Of course, I am not talking about me, Mathew Gallatin. I am referring to the self-directed ego that rules most of our lives. It convinces us that rugged individualism is our true nature. Each of us must construct a personal agenda and forge a meaningful life. The hard part is that we must convince, or coerce, everything and everyone in the world to cooperate with our plan, and that causes problems between us.
This me-ism affects everyone, from children to the elderly. Its symptoms, to name just a few, are coldness, rudeness, mistrust, divorce, family dysfunction, generational conflict, political unrest, economic greed, environmental irresponsibility, and religious divisiveness.
These are the outward signs of lives lived to placate the persistent voice of personal desire. We heed it, we grasp at whatever it suggests will make us happy, and we hold tightly to our prizes—right up to the moment when we no longer find them satisfying.
Then, we feel perfectly justified in walking away from them—our spouses, our kids, our jobs, our communities, our churches, and so on. We are the sovereign rulers of our lives. Our personal judgments are the supreme standard of goodness and rightness. We become our own touchstone of truth.
There are many examples to which I could appeal to show how comfortable we are in making ourselves the measure of all things. I could just ask everyone to listen to talk radio for a few hours. That would amply prove my point.
But let us look at a broader issue. In our individualistic world, we find it perfectly reasonable to speak of our personal moral values. It is a common idea that ethical codes are subjective and self-determined. Each of us develops our own. And while mine may be different from yours, no one has a right to judge my moral standards to be any less valid than the next person’s.
Logically, however, this is a very odd notion. Why? Well, consider any moral maxim. One should not kill, one should not steal, one should not be jealous, one should not gossip, etc. A most obvious aspect of such principles is that they all imply the involvement of at least two people—the person acting, and the person being acted upon.
But what if my personal moral code tells me that some action toward you is right, while your personal moral code holds my action to be wrong? In a world of personal moral systems, who gets to decide whether my act should be allowed, or not? Simply to assume that my moral standard trumps yours violates the essential premise of personal morality—that is, that each individual’s moral code is equally valid.
So what determines right and wrong in such a case? What determines whether the action will be done or not? It is simply a question of which of us has the greater skill or power for working his will upon the other.
But this is not moral life. This is conflict and coercion. Morality, if it is to be such, must assume some standard to which we all are equally obliged, one by which our actions toward each other can be objectively weighed and measured.
In reality, then, personal morality dances dangerously close amorality. It describes a world where people do as they please, to whatever extent they can manage, without negative repercussions. This is normal life in modern western culture. We function as lonely atoms, rushing about, frequently erratically, on our self-directed journeys.
Our only concern is that we are not hindered too much by all the other atoms with whom we compete for the resources of our happiness. Sometimes we just overpower them and take what we want. If we are feeling nobler than that, or too weak to do that, we enter into compromises.
This cult of the individual in which we find ourselves entrenched has a history, of course. It begins in the Renaissance, extends through the Enlightenment, and culminates in today’s philosophical liberalism.
But as I suggested at the outset, even though we are rooted in it, there are increasing numbers of us who mourn the alienation and aloneness of our society. Something about it feels entirely unnatural. It does not feel like human life.
Indeed, there are voices in the world which decry this preoccupation with the powers and rights of the individual as a strained, and philosophically concocted, image of what it means to be human. Those contemporary philosophers collectively known as communitarians, for example, Alistair McIntyre and Michael Walzer, argue that human existence is fundamentally communal, not individual. What makes us human is our inescapable, relational interconnectedness.
Humanness is defined by the very specific roles we play in each other’s lives, roles that we often find ourselves thrown into, regardless of whether or not we want to play them. Typically, fulfilling those roles requires us to sacrifice individual desires in order to achieve the good of the whole—the family, the community, or even the world.
To extend my analogy, human life is not the life of self-directed atoms. It is essentially, entirely, and always, molecular.
At some level, I think that we are all aware of this. I mean, a newborn human cannot survive without the care, concern and sacrifice of human community. One will never get the chance to have any sort of individual life, if one is not first joined to the lives of others, by the well defined and very natural roles of human coexistence.
Like it or not, none of us is formed in a hermetically sealed and unattended individual incubator. We are shaped by people with certain personalities, living under particular social circumstances, within uniquely defined eras. Even if at some point we attempt to abandon that heritage, it is still that heritage that we are turning our backs against. Even in our rebellion, the forces that make us, define us. Pure individuality is a fiction.
I think this satisfaction over this failed love affair with fictitious individualism has contributed to the growing popularity of Eastern religions in the West. The growing disillusionment has opened the door for a spirituality which emphasizes the banishment of selfish ego in order to achieve and maintain harmony within human kind.
Oneness—human life experienced as a collective whole, a song we sing together in sublime unison. People are searching for that.
Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, I believe this to be the very reason why Christianity, the West’s own religion, is at the same time waning as a force in modern Western culture.
Certainly, Christianity has raised a stalwart voice for moral absolutism against the moral relativism that thrives in our individualistic society. But when it comes to individualism itself, to the exaltation of the individual as the final judge and ultimate decider of truth, Christianity, at least as it is practiced in the West, may well be its greatest proponent.
We will continue with that thought next time.