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Liberal Individualism & Cultural Decay

Raymond D. Boisvert considers how the first leads to the second.

It goes by various names: ‘liberal individualism’ is as good as any. The theory’s quite straightforward: the basic fact of existence is ‘I am’, so the ‘I’ is the basic unit of ethics, superceding any claims of society. The ‘I’ seeks, above all else, to attain pleasure and avoid pain. Cultural and ethical guidelines which set aspirational standards beyond simple pleasure and pain are viewed as nothing but constraints on the freedom of this ‘I’.

However, because they take on various meanings, labels can be misleading. In the United States, the people most living out ‘liberal individualism’ tend to self-identify as ‘conservatives’. What they conserve is nineteenth century liberalism. Their priestess is Ayn Rand, whose overturning of traditional moral systems is well identified by her appropriately-titled The Virtue of Selfishness (1964).

Are there signs that liberal individualism has taken center stage, displacing older moralities? The answer is ‘yes’. I will give three prominent indicators. (These come from the States, but hopefully they will resonate with people in other parts of the globe.)

Exemplar 1: In A View from Above (1991), basketball star Wilt Chamberlain’s book of recollections and observations, he famously asserted that he had had sex with over 20,000 women. Even if the number is an exaggeration, why would someone wish to highlight such activity? What, in other words, justifies the sort of moral prioritization that (1) encourages this behavior, and (2) makes one want to celebrate it? Answer: liberal individualism, and its chipping away at an ethical attitude which recognizes other people as persons, not as means to one’s own pleasure. Thinking of others as persons valorizes quality over quantity of relationships as a benchmark of what’s good. With Chamberlain, we find a full embrace of the quantitative ethics fostered by liberal individualism: “I was just doing what was natural – chasing good-looking ladies, whoever they were and wherever they were.”

Exemplar 2: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Lip service might repeat ‘it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’, but in practice the newer priority has taken hold. Rules be damned; customs, traditional practices, be damned; all that counts is the end result. It’s a self-serving perspective which sets no limits to what means are used for accomplishing the end. It eliminates all values except freedom defined as the license to ‘do whatever it takes’. It transforms thinking into mere instrumental strategizing. Some remnants of more comprehensive cultural precepts might remain, but the decay, the rending of the old fabric, is proceeding apace. Often, this is done surreptitiously, with plenty of two-faced self-deception. Here Ayn Rand offers a better model. She was cognizant of the implications of her ethical position, and consistent in articulating them, openly proclaiming the upending of traditional morality and the religious worldviews supporting it. Her honest message: Don’t fool yourself, don’t preach one way and live another. Be consistent: embrace selfishness as a virtue.

Exemplar 3: Black Friday crush. We’ve all seen the media coverage: huge throngs of people rushing into stores for the pre-Christmas sales. So stampede-like is the crowd that, at times, individuals are trampled, hurt, even killed. The Gospel of Matthew is clear here: ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’ (6:24). That was written a long time ago, but still ‘Mammon’ – the idol associated with wealth – remains enticing. Why? Its worship is self-serving. It offers an easy, egocentric understanding of the good life as one surrounded by possessions. Its ethical priorities are clear. The sign of success is easy. Add marketing to the mix, and the Black Friday frenzy is predictable.

‘Decay’ is a term of judgment. It indicates that, not just behavior, but ethical frames of reference have moved from better to worse. One underlying marker of decay, evident in all three exemplars, is the elimination of balance. Excess, as Aristotle well understood, is a virtue-destroying attitude. Humans evince a multiplicity of inclinations and dispositions. The move from the initial cluster of inclinations to endorsed modes of actions can take several forms. Two prominent modes are the path of the ‘imperialist’ and the path of the ‘artist’. The ‘imperialist’ attitude unjustifiably assumes a single disposition, excluding the rest. The artist, accepting multiplicity, seeks the best arrangement – the best balance – of elements.

My three exemplars all fall within the imperialist, single-minded, camp. For Chamberlain, sexual gratification is the main aim. Love, concern for others, commitment, fall to the wayside. For the ‘winning is everything’ crowd, the exclusive focus is victory. This focus ignores fair play, honor, integrity, and respect. For the Black Friday throng, the multiple markers of a good life – kindness, compassion, gratitude, and justice, not to mention the virtues associated with the Christ whose birth Christmas celebrates – get marginalized as the imperialism of possession takes center stage. In other words, my examples indicate that a particular ethical paradigm has become dominant, even all-encompassing.

Some philosophical retrieval and counterbalancing remain possible. First, the originating liberal individualist claim, ‘I am’, is only part of the truth. Following the adage that ‘a half-truth is a whole lie’, partial truths should raise suspicions. The fuller truth is ‘we are’; and in an age of ecological awareness, this ‘we’ encompasses more than other people: it includes also the ecosystems in which, with which, and by which we survive. Second, we humans show many proclivities, not just seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Attending to the entire cluster of desiderata, and recognizing that some inclinations are better, some worse, allows selfishness to be balanced with other dispositions. Without such counterbalancing, the prefix ‘self’ gets hyperinflated: self-interest, self-indulgence, self-centeredness then take, not just center stage, but the whole stage.

That’s what cultural decay looks like. It’s all around us, if we will only pay attention.

© Prof. Raymond D. Boisvert 2021

Raymond Boisvert is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Siena College, Loudonville, NY.

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