Steven Pinker expresses a well-worn normative suggestion when he says that the world should move away from tribal or group thinking and feeling, and embrace the “rights tradition” of individualism. He argues, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence recedes as individualism rises. The rest of the world could profit from the recognition, Pinker argues, that we are individuals, and individuals are the ones that “really count” (they actually feel the pleasure and pain). “Groups,” he says, “are a kind of abstraction.”
I’m going to disagree here and argue, somewhat counter-intuitively, that Pinker is the abstraction. I am the abstraction. You, gentle reader, are the abstraction.
The independent individual is a hero to WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and it serves as the starting place for both pessimistic and romantic theories of the social contract. Whether you’re a Hobbesian who thinks the selfish ego must be constrained by the community, or a Rousseauian who laments such constraint (or even a Rawlsian), you still start from a metaphysic of individualism. But what if the individual is actually an ecological, developmental, and political construct?
The argument will be familiar to all those who grew up watching the Saturday morning philosophy roundtables, where Bugs and Daffy enquired into the “true” nature of the famous rabbit/duck illusion (only to have Elmer aggressively advance his Marxist viewpoint that philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it, and that the power to do so grows from the double-barrels of his shotgun; thus always can the rarefied life of the mind be brought low by thuggish violence). There was also the pop star Spinoza who famously encapsulated his theory of modal metaphysics in the whimsical lyric, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
Me, I’m just a simple farmer, a person of the land, common clay, a fellow who merely knows what he likes, and what I likes is the sort of social arrangement that leaves me be, unmolested and undetained. Like air conditioning, Western individualism may be a highly particular and modern creation which may be unsustainable in the long run, but damned if I’m not going to exult in it regardless.