Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Individual vs The Community

I am writing a series of posts on my basic moral foundations, in response to a series of questions that I received from an interested reader. That list of questions included the following:

Richard Chappell, referring to you, says the perspective of moral values is the “us” - This strikes me as collectivism, so, how can it not be? . . . Maybe you feel that individualism and collectivism can be merged or compatibilized, like with what you did to the objective/subjective dichotomy?

One of the concerns that some people have is over the question of whether (and to what degree) an individual may be sacrificed for the good of the community. It concerns a line of thinking that says that the community is some type of “superperson”, more important than any individual and worthy of the individual’s sacrifice.

An important counter to this is that we are all individuals. The sacrifice of an individual for the sake of “the community” is really just the sacrifice of an individual for the sake of other individuals.

I have argued that value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. As far as we know so far, only individuals have desires. Communities do not have desires independent of the desires of any individual.

So, this model would conform to the view that the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the community is accurately described as the thwarting of one person’s desires for the sake of fulfilling the desires of other people. Perhaps it is to fulfill particularly strong desires for a lot of other people, but it is a of one person for the benefit of other people nonetheless.

It is, at least, conceivable that a community can have beliefs and desires that are independent of those of any person within that community.

A bunch of atoms can be organized into a form called a brain, where the brain has beliefs and desires that are independent of the beliefs and desires of any atom that makes up the brain. So, it may be possible that a group of people can be organized into a form of society where the society has beliefs and desires that are independent of any person within that society.

If such an entity were to come into existence, then certain values would also come into existence. Those values would take the form of relationships between states of affairs in the world and the entity’s desires.

However, there is no reason to believe that the desires of this entity are any more or less important than the desires of any individual who made up that entity. This entity would still only be one “person”, whose interests are to be weighed against the interests of the hundreds of millions or billions of people who made up this entity.

We can sacrifice an appendix for the sake of the person who needs it removed because the appendix has no beliefs or desires of its own. As an entity without desires, it is an entity without interests, which means that it cannot be harmed in any morally relevant sense.

However, sacrificing a clump of people for the sake of the community does involve the sacrifice of beings with interests. If we consider the community to be an entity with desires independent of those of the individuals who make it up, then sacrificing a group of people in that society for the sake of the society still counts as sacrificing the interests of a lot of entities for the sake of the interests of one entity.

Furthermore, if a community is an entity with desires independent of the desires of the individuals within it, then it is still the case that we can evaluate the desires of that entity. That entity has good desires to the degree that it has desires that tend to fulfill other desires (the desires of the people who make up that community). That entity has bad desires to the degree that it has desires that tend to thwart the desires of others (the desires of the people who make up that community).

The idea that the community represents some sort of super-entity with its own desires is highly speculative at best. A person can reasonably hold that even if such an entity were possible, no such entity exists at this time.

Yet, even if it did exist . . . even if communities formed entities with their own beliefs and desires . . . it is still one entity among many. Any claim that this entity’s interests have value above and beyond the interests of the people who make up this entity is a claim that some sort of desire-independent reason exists. That’s a false claim.

This does not imply that it is always wrong to sacrifice the interests of some individuals for the sake of other people. In fact, we do it all the time. We have a prison and court system that every honest person knows does harm to the interests of a lot of innocent people.

However, we know that it would be foolish for us to abolish it, and to accept only a prison and court system that guarantees without the possibility of error that no innocent person will be punished. We know that we are doing harm to innocent people for the sake of the community, but we do so anyway.

We sacrifice the interests of rapists for the sake of the community, and we do not offer them a smidgen of compensation for their loss. Why should we? The rapist has bad desires – desires that we have reason to inhibit – because the community will be better off if no member of the community had a desire to rape.

Ultimately, this is an example of sacrificing the interests of one group of people to protect the interests of others. However, we are sacrificing the interests of those who have interests they should not have, and that we have reason to discourage rather than promote.

So, while it is sometimes legitimate to sacrifice the interests of some subset of people for the sake of the community, it is not legitimate in the sense that the community represents a super-community with its own super-interests that outweigh those of any individual.

Even if it did exist, it would be one entity among many, and its interests would be the equal of those of any one person within the community. It would not be an entity with interests inherently worth the sacrifice of millions (or even tens) of people.

For the moment, so far as we can tell, only individuals have desires. Consequently, all real-world value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and the desires of individuals.

3 comments:

Eneasz said...

I'm not sure this entirely answers the question. A lot of people I meet with aversions to sacrafice wouldn't disagree with any of what you said, but...

It is my understanding that some level of desire to sacrafice yourself for the good of others is a good thing. We have reasons to promote in others a desire to sacrafice themselves for the good of the community (a collection of interdependant individuals). We want someone to have the desire to give their own life if it means saving the lives of a thousand of his friends & neighbors. Likewise, others also have reasons for instilling that same desire in us.

Most people who loudly trumpt the importance of the individual over the community not only lack this desire, they have an aversion to anyone else having such a desire either.

Personally I believe thier arguements are incoherent, because if they are willing to sacrafice themselves for even two people (which I'm assuming most of them would) then their argument is hypocritical. I think it's supposed to be some sort of bulwark to argue against taxes. Some of the points are legitimate, but they tend to cling to this anti-helping-others stance so extremely that they often become people you really wouldn't want to know.

SMcK said...

"This does not imply that it is always wrong to sacrifice the interests of some individuals for the sake of other people. In fact, we do it all the time. We have a prison and court system that every honest person knows does harm to the interests of a lot of innocent people.

"However, we know that it would be foolish for us to abolish it, and to accept only a prison and court system that guarantees without the possibility of error that no innocent person will be punished. We know that we are doing harm to innocent people for the sake of the community, but we do so anyway."

Are you arguing for a "lesser evil" approach to individual right-deprivation, then?

Eneasz said...

Are you arguing for a "lesser evil" approach to individual right-deprivation, then?

Is the alternative greater evil? If your choices are between less evil or more evil, the ultimate answer seems obvious, as hard as it may be to accept any evil.