Is individualism bad for society?

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Sunday 30 October, Royal College of Art, London


“…individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine” Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism

Everything from social fragmentation to the economic crisis, and the riots that broke out across English cities in the summer, has been blamed on a modern ‘cult of individualism’, epitomised by Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Labour leader Ed Miliband denounces ‘a “take what you can” culture’ that began in the 1980s, which he concedes New Labour did little to challenge. But Tory Prime Minister David Cameron also seeks to distance himself from his infamous predecessor, championing the ‘Big Society’. It has become routine to despair of individuals’ greed for consumer goods. More broadly, strong-willed individuals who know their own minds are accused of arrogance, egotism, even bullying. But isn’t there something to be said for individualism? After all, the individual has historically been asssociated with independence of mind, self-determination and self-reliance. Strong individuals have been admired for their courage and imagination, even valued for the unique contributions they can make to society rather than regarded as necessarily undermining social solidarity. So are we wrong to focus on the negatives, or is it time we recognised the damaging effects of individualism? Critics remind us that the individual smoker’s choice can imperil public health; one person’s free speech can cause offence and sow discord for countless others; motorists who insist on their individual freedom to drive petrol-guzzling SUVs clutter the roads and pollute the air.

Meanwhile, developments in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and genetics cast doubt on the very idea of individual autonomy: some suggest free will is an illusion. Individuals are seen as hapless and hopeless if left to their own devices, too easily influenced by the malign advertisers or populist demagogues. Paternalist policy-makers and ‘choice architects’ regard the idea of moral autonomy as little more than an inconvenience, preferring to nudge individuals into making the right choices. But don’t diminished views of the individual also undermine the possibility of a strong society? If the ‘we’ in any collective comprises such feeble individuals, what is the content of society or solidarity?

Arguably, even seemingly self-sacrificing acts of public service – from volunteering to help others to laying down one’s life for a greater cause – require a strong sense of personal autonomy. By contrast, if we value conformity to social norms above individuality, is our ‘free will’ reduced to what JS Mill called ‘ape-like imitation’? And anyway, does self-interest necessarily preclude generosity, empathy and solidarity? Was selfish individualism really to blame for the summer’s riots? Or was it a breakdown of any sense of individual responsibility that caused so many to join the frenzy of looting? Can ‘individualism’ be good for society?

Dr Maurice Glasman

architect, ‘Blue Labour’; director, faith and citizenship programme, London Metropolitan University; Labour life peer (Baron Glasman); author, Unnecessary Suffering: managing market utopia

Clifford Longley
author, broadcaster and journalist; leader writer and columnist, Tablet; pannellist; BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze

John Sutherland
Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Literature, University College London; author, The Lives of the Novelists

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive