Pennsylvania State University
There is a profound paradigm shift occurring in society today. It originated in the west, but it is slowly spreading throughout the globe. It is the contemporary primacy of the individualist mentality.
Technological and economic progress has privileged the primacy of the individual over the community. The trend is for the individual to be alienated from the product of his labour as predicted by Marx. Yet the phenomena goes deeper still in that the individual is also alienated from the construction of his shelter, the provision of his food and water and alienation from his community as his part to play in the modern economy (be he a labourer, manager, capitalist or entrepreneur) takes much of what is left of the time saved by not having to provide for his necessities directly.
It is little wonder that in such an environment an individual will be predominantly consumed with thoughts of his individual well-being, accomplishment and fulfillment over the more communally-based aspects of life which he has little direct input or control.
Along with this shift toward a more individualist mentality comes a disturbance in ethical norms for the individual and society as a whole. As the influence of community sanctions, family connections, social taboos and religious institutions decline and they are less influential in maintaining ethical norms. Many find themselves struggling to orient their personal moral compass in the environment of rampant individualism. Amongst many this leads to behaviour that can best be described as decadent. One can see the conflict in many western societies like the United States where political questions often are defined by competing notions of self-interest versus communal obligation. Individuals seek their comfort through the pursuit of money, conspicuous consumption, sex, drugs or other superficially “fulfilling” activities to mask the lack of an ethical mooring in individualist society.
"It is little wonder that in such an environment an individual will be predominantly consumed with thoughts of his individual well-being, accomplishment and fulfillment over the more communally-based aspects of life which he has little direct input or control"
The rise of religious fundamentalism and ethnic division in the political realm can be traced to this paradigm shift. In the face of the aforementioned decadence brought on by the individualist and consumerist paradigm. Many pursue a course of entrenching themselves in religion, tradition or ethnic separatism. This is a pragmatic response. Peirce and the philosophical pragmatists were among those who recognised the value of fixing belief in tradition if such a belief was useful in navigating the circumstances of life. The problem with the current retreat into tradition, is that it is reactionary. The reconnection to tradition and communal values can only be reactionary in the face of the primacy of contemporary individualism. Therefore, its pragmatic usefulness is unlikely to survive the continued onslaught of the individualist paradigm.
How can the individual in today’s society cope without retreating into reactionary thinking or embracing a life of consumerist decadence? That is the question facing many today. The answers cannot be found in many of the traditional systems of ethics today. Religious principle in the establishment of an individual moral compass, while extremely useful to a religious individual, is by its very nature exclusionary in larger society. The utilitarianism of the west is far too easily turned into a system of inhuman calculations that treat the individual as an economic and / or political commodity. The deontologist in the mold of Kant will focus on the purity of motives and means instead of ends in his calculations, but the purest of intentions pave the road to Hell. These schools of thought will always try to find an idealised and abstract “solution” to hypothetical or real problems through the mechanistic working of a formula or imperative. Looking at problems through these abstract lenses is often enlightening and informative but it is impractical for use in navigating real world problems. In fact, the emphasis on means and ends and the morality of action or inaction simply reinforces the dominant paradigm of viewing human beings as mechanical actors and commodities.
When faced with the triumph of the individualism and the futility of trying to combat it through reactionary means, it becomes clear that our questioning must bring us to a system of ethics that can be applied by the individual and confront the choices faced by the individual from a stable moral position. For a system like this to work, an individual must have a purpose. This is why, out of the aforementioned theories, religion is the most pragmatic method to maintain a stable moral compass. Whether it be salvation, enlightenment or the attainment of justice, religion has been the most useful method of providing moral clarity and incentive to virtuous behaviour to an individual. It’s effectiveness beyond the individual is checked in a pluralist society so religion or even a civic religion like nationalism cannot be the answer for society today.
However, in looking at the reasons why religion has historically been the preferred method for individuals of all backgrounds to make ethical decisions, we can better come to a way to constructively approach ethics in an individualistic society. The biggest difference between the abstract theorising of consequentialist western ethics like deontology and utilitarianism and the applied ethical reasoning of global religious tradition is that religion provides a purpose and a meaning to the life of an individual. Buddhist or Hindu, Muslim or Christian, slave or king, the religious traditions have provided a transcendent means to live life in spite of the vicissitudes of life. This is the strength of religion as an institution.
It becomes clear that an individualist ethic in contemporary society must also bring us a purpose and meaning in our lives. Yet, how many frustrated idealists with stars in their eyes become crushed by the overwhelming social currents? How many become frustrated by their inability to bring change to the larger world and give up? How many crushed souls litter the beaches fighting the inescapable oppression of a system that strips them of their humanity bit by bit?
The answer to these questions is embodied in a school of thought called virtue ethics. It turns the question of an action or inaction being right or wrong on its head. It asks if the man performing the action or refraining from action is virtuous or not. It frames the question of ethics as becoming a better person, rather than a futile attempt at invariably choosing the “right action” as ethics was reframed by western rationalists in the European tradition. It is an ancient and noble tradition tracing it’s lineage from the Greeks and embodies the best of religious tradition with the universal applicability necessary in a pluralist society. Its emphasis on becoming a virtuous person means that it can be applied by the individual. It fortifies an individual as an ethical being without the need of social sanction, taboo or reactionary thinking. It is the means of liberating the individual from the decadence prevailing in the most individualistic societies while not necessitating a retreat into reactionary thought.
Now while virtue ethics does not necessitate a retreat into a reactionary or conservative position, it is not immune from becoming a cover for such thought. The virtues of religion or the thoughts of Plato or Aristotle were often developed in a time when institutions like slavery and wars of conquest were commonplace. These would be, and should be, considered abhorrent today. Admitted advances like equality of women, democratic governance, the creation of human rights and respect for the conscience of the individual are things that cannot, and in my opinion should not be rolled back. However, these ideas and institutions should not be construed as doing away with things like nobility or virtue. It is a reactionary element within democratic and egalitarian thought that in doing away with archaic institutions like hereditary landed nobility, that sought also to do away with the virtues of many of those noblemen and noblewomen. In doing away with their ability to indulge in horrible excess, we also did away with the noble virtues they possessed. By debasing the idea of nobility, we brought about a more egalitarian society. Yet when coupled with the dominance of capitalist economics that equality was often paid for at the expense of an equal commoditisation of mankind. Instead of creating an environment where every man can become a king, we instead created an environment where it’s every man for himself.
Yet in providing an opportunity for every man to become a king, we must remember that not every man is born to be a king. That they should be treated as equal before the law is obvious, but it is equally obvious that each individual is born with different gifts, talents and experience. One of the reasons individualism has triumphed in contemporary society is the fact that while all men are created equal, all men are also created with different natures.