Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Individualist vs Collectivist Systems

I am writing a series answering some basic questions about the philosophy that serves as the foundation for this blog. So far I have presented the idea that there are moral facts. Moral facts concern relationships between malleable desires and other desires (not some sort of intrinsic moral property). This implies that moral facts can change over time as relationships between real-world objects change over time. However, you cannot change a moral fact merely by changing your mind, any more than you can change your height by merely believing you are taller.

These posts came from a set of questions sent to me by somebody who included the following.

I come from Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand). I consider myself an individualistic anarchist, (free market anarchist). Does Objective Moral Relativism equate to a collectivist worldview or is it proper for an individualist (take someone who comes from Randian premises)?

I came from an Objectivist camp as well – and stayed there through most of high school and until the early years of college. I gave it up when I realized that my Objectivist friends, even though they claimed to have a great deal of respect for reason and reality, held a system that asserted the existence of things that do not exist, and defended them with twists of logic that rival those of any religion.

When we are talking about value, only one type of value has been shown to exist - has been shown to be real. This is the value that exists as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Different types of value reflect different types of relationships.

So, for example, the term "useful" is applied to things in virtue of their ability to bring about other things in which desires are fulfilled.

The term "healthy" is a desire-laden term that applies to physical and mental functioning. It states whether the object of evaluation is functioning in a way that tends to fulfill the desires of the agent.

The term "beautiful" refers to things seen and heard and concerns wither the speaker has a desire to look at or to listen to that object of evaluation.

Whether a system that is "individualist" has more value than something that is "collective" (or visa versa) depends on the relationship that individualist systems have in fulfilling good desires, compared to the relationship that a collectivist system has. If individualistic systems tend to fulfill good desires better than collective systems, then people have more and stronger reason to promote individualistic systems than they do for promoting collective systems. Or visa versa, depending on the relevant moral facts.

Good desires are relevant here because good desires are those that tend to fulfill other desires, so are desires that people have reason to promote. Bad desires tend to thwart other desires, and are desires people have reason to inhibit. A system that fulfills desires that tend to fulfill other desires is one that people have reason to prefer over one that fulfills desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. We do not just look at whether each system fulfills desires, but at the quality of the desires they fulfill.

If somebody wants to argue that individualistic systems are intrinsically more valuable than collective systems, they are going to provide me with some sort of evidence that this intrinsic value exists. As I see it, "intrinsic value" is at least as mysterious as God, and I have never seen a shred of evidence of its existence. Accordingly, I see that a person who worships at the altar of "intrinsic value" to be little different than a person who worships a God. They are both devoting time and energy to the service of something that does not exist.

So, desire utilitarianism is not inherently individualist or collectivist. Desire utilitarianism calls for looking at each system and judging which best fulfills good desires. Capitalists have arguments that free-market systems do a better job of fulfilling desires. Communists disagree.

Keep in mind, this requires more than saying, "I like individualistic systems more than collective systems." Like does not matter much. A person may taste the contents of two glasses that are sitting in front of him on the table. He may discover that he likes the taste of glass A more than that of glass B. Yet, it may still be the case that glass A contains a poison that will cause the person who drinks it a slow and agonizing death. We cannot trust to our likes and dislikes alone to tell us what has value.

There are facts of the matter here, regarding whether individualist or collectivist systems help or poison those who use them. There are questions here that cannot be answered by appeal to personal preference or taste. There are questions that are as much a matter of what is real and what is not as any question that scientists seek to answer.


Anonymous said...

Based on the facts gathered over the past couple centuries of economic history, would it not be fair to say that it appears that capitalist systems are, in general, more conducive to fulfilling more desires than communist ones? (I'm not talking pure capitalist anarchy, but the reigned-in semi-regulated capitalism of most western countries)

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I would generally agree with that statement. I have argued that decision making should be put in the hands of those who know best what will fulfill a particular set of desires and who is least likely to be corrupted by other interests.

This means putting each person in charge of his or her own desire fulfillment. Trusting it to external agents means that those agents are going to use their power to fulfill their own desires, not the desires of those who trusted them.

And even if the agents are well-meaning, they simply do not have the knowledge that they need, the way each person knows his or her own desires.

With some exceptions, of course.

This is John Mills' argument for liberty, and it still makes sense.

mojo.rhythm said...

Capitalism tends to fulfill many desires because it is a system that creates alot of unnecessary desires. I think that some form of left-libertarianism or council communism would be alot more efficient at meeting our fundamental needs.