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Individuals Are Social, but Are We Social Enough?

We can reconcile our individuality with sociality—we do it naturally.

Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

This is the first in a series of posts adapted from chapter 4 of my book, The Decline of the Individual: Reconciling Autonomy with Community.

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It is commonplace these days to hear that we are inherently social beings. This is nothing new; in the Politics, Aristotle wrote that “man is by nature a political animal,” and attributed our power of speech, seen as unique among the animals (at least in advanced form), as endowed by nature so we could communicate, cooperate, and judge right from wrong. In his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent,” Immanuel Kant spoke of human beings’ unsocial sociability, "their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society.” Our drive to be with others and to be accepted as part of society conflicts with our own wants and desires and, more essentially, our need to be ourselves at the same time. And of course, describing the existentialist dilemma of defining one’s own essence in the face of others doing the same—another inescapable aspect of interpersonal conflict—the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in his play No Exit that “hell is other people.”

More recently, science has reinforced the social nature of the individual. Evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists agree that we evolved together, surviving best in (small) groups and thereby developing natural propensities for altruism and reciprocity.1 However, this social coexistence is not always smooth or easy, as the human race’s experiences with violence, war, and slavery show all too tragically. Furthermore, because we evolved in small communities, we developed a deep mistrust of “the other,” which today reveals itself in inherent racism, if not explicit hostility and conflict.2 Similar to the morally benign cognitive biases we surveyed earlier, these are evolved antisocial dispositions that we need to acknowledge and resist, especially if we hope to treat each other with respect and empathy.3

In general, as philosophy, science, and our history as a species all demonstrate, human beings have always found it difficult to reconcile our sociality with our individuality. This plays out on a very personal level, as small numbers of us bond in family, friendships, and romantic ties, and on a broader societal level, in which large numbers of us interact in the context of community, church, and politics. However much (or little) we want to be with other people, though, we do so as individuals, always separate even when we want—or need—to be together. In the words of the Buddhist writer and author Stephen Bachelor, from his book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, we are always “alone with others.”

According to prevailing opinion, the uncomfortable struggle behind the individual and society is being won by the former, as a “radical individualism” threatens the social fabric. It is common to read narratives, anecdotes, and statistics bemoaning how, on the average, people spend more time alone and less time with others; have more Facebook friends but fewer close friends in real life, leading, in the worst cases, to chronic and life-threatening loneliness; and are less active in social institutions such as community groups and church activities. These trends are blamed for various social ills, such as a decrease in personal happiness or well-being, a decline in trust in government, and even the growth of neo-fascist movements and terrorism. The pendulum has swung too far, critics say, turning from a fidelity to God, community, and country to a self-focused individualism that threatens the close bonds that we need as a species to survive and prosper.

Palgrave Macmillan
Source: Palgrave Macmillan

The problems listed above are real and serious, and the social (and not-so-social) trends identified by scholars and commentators are worrisome. But I dispute that a strong sense of the individual is to blame; rather, a distorted picture of the individual often lurks beneath the scenes of such critiques, one that denies each individual’s ability to be inherently sociality and, at the time, autonomous.

This signals what is perhaps the most significant barrier to appreciating the nature and value of the individual: the false dichotomy between the individual and society that is so prevalent in our thinking today. When we cast the individual against society as if in a winner-takes-all cage match, naturally the better choice would seem to be society. But it isn’t one or the other; they’re both crucial and need to be combined in a way that acknowledges the unique ways in which each is important. Presenting a false dichotomy between them helps no one and makes it more difficult to appreciate how they work together.

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In the following two posts, I suggest a way to think of the individual that avoids this false dichotomy, arguing that each of us is best thought of as being individual in essence and social in orientation.


1. For instance, see Robert Wright, Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (New York: Vintage, 1994), especially parts 2 and 3; Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); and Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (New York: Broadway Books, 2014).

2. For popular overviews, see Laura Geggel, “How Racism Persists: Unconscious Bias May Play a Role,” Live Science, July 8, 2016, and Princess Ojiaku, “Is everybody a racist?”, Aeon, March 21, 2016. A particularly influential paper is Elizabeth A. Phelps et al, “Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(2000): 729-738; see also the exchange involving Troy Duster, Lincoln Quillian, and Philip E. Tetlock and Gregory Mitchell in the March 2008 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

3. For an argument that this problem merits more direct intervention, see Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, “Moral Hard-Wiring and Bioenhancement,” Bioethics 31(2017): 286-295.

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