The Cost of Individualism

Prior to the Industrial Revolution “the family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police” (Harari, 356). The state and markets have subsumed these roles with authority and efficiency. Because of this, families and communities are no longer the foundations of societies- rather, it is the individual who is foundational, and the state and markets that provide for the individual’s needs. Nationalism and consumer habits combine to create and foster imagined communities of shared interests. There have been pros and cons to this transformation. We have essentially traded the benefits of strong familial and communal ties for enhanced individualism. This transition has left us lonely and alienated to say the least, but it has also allowed us the freedom to pursue our own vision of the good life. The state is also much more capable of offering physical security than family units. One of the fundamental splits between Eastern and Western philosophies is the emphasis on the well-being of the individual vs. the well-being of society. It is reasonable then to wonder if the well-being of society as a whole comes at the expense of individual liberties, or if they are somehow compatible. This conundrum presents a challenge for political philosophers.

Historians are particularly positioned to address Harari’s question “What should we want to want?” (Harari, 414) because of their insights to the pursuits of the past- the forces and interests guiding them- and the implications and consequences of those pursuits. Historians have an appreciation for the experiences of generations past that many of us lack because we are so preoccupied with planning for the future and making ends meet in the present. They have a unique vantage point from which to gauge our ‘progress’. As technology advances in ways that will undoubtedly drastically alter the social, political, and moral fabric of our world, we would do well to recognize the special interests that are directing these technologies, and how those interests may determine the nature of the consequences. Historians may be better suited to recognize how special interests, similar to unbridled individualism, hinder collective well-being, in order to avoid such situations or find ways to make them all compatible objectives.

2 thoughts on “The Cost of Individualism”

  1. Hilary, I enjoyed your discussion of the progression of individualism that coincides with the growth of market and state. Some would argue that the formation of states should result in tighter communities, but all to often they create boundaries between groups, leaving mainly to feel alienated by those around. Markets are often the ones that benefit most from the individualistic attitude, providing goods to make each of us feel apart of something while still remaining unique. Additionally, your discussion of the roles of historians is an enlightened viewpoint. Historians are able to provide a complete analysis, beyond the arguments of the sciences due to their inclusion of humanity and our unpredictable, but often repetitive, decisions.

  2. Hello Hilary, I really enjoyed your blog on the Cost of Individualism! I like how you started off the blog by inserting a direct quote from Harari himself. It’s a great quote, that I enjoyed very much. I completely agree when you said that the state and the markets have subsumed many roles with authority and efficiency. I also think it’s a great point that you made when you explained that Nationalism and consumer habits combine to make imagines communities. In the second paragraph I think it was smart to include one of Harari’s quotes at the beginning. What should we want to want? Historians study the past so we know what to expect in the future.

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