On Individualism, Collectivism and Selfishness

by James Petts

Essay originally from Counterweight.


As discussed elsewhere, ethical deceit is a common method used to manipulate people into harming themselves to advance the interests of the promoters of the deceitful ideas. One technique of ethical deceit is to claim, falsely, that an idea, concept or principle entails or consists of some other, undesirable, idea, concept or principle, in order to attempt to manipulate people into rejecting the former even though in truth there is no reason to do so.

Individualism is an idea that is frequently victim to being conflated with superficially similar but fundamentally distinct ideas such as selfishness, and it is likely that in many cases this is deliberate – a form of ethical deceit intended to aid in subordinating the interests of a large number of people to the interests of a much smaller number of people.

The clearer the idea that people have about individualism and collectivism and what they really do and do not mean, the better that they will be able to make decisions unclouded by deceit or confusion and accept or reject ideas about how individuals should interact with societies based only on reason.

People, reason and goals

To understand individualism, it is necessary to understand at a fundamental level what it means for something to be a reason.

A reason is a type of cause. It is a special type of cause in that it is a cause in pursuit of a goal. If a person does something because doing that thing will help to achieve that person’s goal, the existence of the goal has caused the action which helps to achieve the goal.

Things that pursue goals are called optimisers (or sometimes “optimising algorithms” in AI research). An optimiser is a singular system or process that optimises for a particular goal: in other words, it tends to do, within any applicable constraints, whatever will best achieve that goal.

The ultimate (as in original) optimiser is evolution by natural selection. That is a process in which individual genes, by a process of inheritance and mutation over multiple generations, optimise for characteristics that tend to cause those genes to survive and multiply. This occurs simply because any self-replicating entity which can pass on instructions as to its characteristics and which instructions are occasionally randomly modified (a mutation) will, by definition, tend to create a greater number of subsequent generations that tend more to survive and multiply than those that do not.

Genes can code for a great variety of things that optimise for survival and reproduction in many ways, but one of the things that genetic evolution has created is a variety of systems that are not themselves genetic evolution but are optimisers. Genes that code for an animal brain that will choose what to do so as to feel good combined with other genes that code for (for example) eating and breeding. Feeling good will tend to produce behaviour that helps to achieve the genes’ goals of survival and replication. In doing so, the genes have optimised for another optimiser: the brain that does whatever it can to feel good. That optimiser has a goal (the feeling of pleasure) that is distinct from the goal of the genes that created it (survival and replication), but its existence better serves the goal of the original optimiser. This sort of sub-optimiser is called a “mesa optimiser” in AI research.

There are two fundamental types of goals: terminal and instrumental goals. Terminal goals are the ultimate goals of the optimiser: the goals the existence of which make the optimiser an optimiser in the first place. The terminal goal of each gene is to survive and replicate as much as possible. The terminal goal of the conscious and cognitive part of animal brains is to maximise their own pleasure or sense of happiness.

Although terminal goals can be complex, they must amount to a single coherent function. AI researchers call this a “utility function”. Thus, whilst it is possible to have multiple differing instrumental goals, and even to have multiple conflicting instrumental goals (albeit not pursue them simultaneously if they conflict), it is not possible to have multiple separate terminal goals. This is because a set of terminal goals that does not reduce to a single, coherent utility function is incomputable and it is therefore fundamentally impossible to optimise for it, so anything that does not have a single coherent terminal goal cannot be an optimiser. A single, coherent utility function can be something that takes into account a variety of different factors, but it must be able to rank any given state of the world as better than, worse than, or no better or worse than any other given state, and that ranking must be transitive: in other words, if A is ranked as preferable to B and B is ranked as preferable to C, then A must also be ranked as preferable to C. Anything that does not do these two things is not an optimiser at all and will not in fact optimise for anything.

Instrumental goals are different. They are goals that help to achieve other goals: they are instrumental to achieving those goals. Ultimately, all instrumental goals are instrumental to a terminal goal, but instrumental goals might also immediately be instrumental to other instrumental goals. For example, an animal that feels pleasure in eating and displeasure in being hungry will have an instrumental goal to eat (and an animal that is self-aware might also realise that not eating will cause it to die and thus to be incapable of experiencing pleasure in the future); but in order to eat, it might have to find a source of food, so finding food would be an instrumental goal to the instrumental goal of eating, which would serve the terminal goal of the animal’s pleasure. There is no theoretical limit to the number of links in the chain from any given instrumental goal to the terminal goal provided that the number be finite.

Instrumental goals can be convergent. A convergent instrumental goal is one that will tend to serve a very large variety of other instrumental goals. Having plentiful money is a good example of a convergent instrumental goal for human minds: many things that a person would find pleasurable are easier to achieve if a person has plentiful money. Having accurate knowledge about the world is another convergent instrumental goal: a person will strongly tend to be better able to serve any other instrumental goal if he or she knows which things are true and which false. Likewise, the ability to think critically – to have what Daniel Dennett calls “thinking tools” better to be able to understand the world and distinguish truth from falsehood – is a convergent instrumental goal; anyone who has the cognitive tools better to be able to understand the world will tend to be more successful at fulfilling a wide range of goals that anyone who does not.

Unlike terminal goals, instrumental goals can be chosen; and, unlike terminal goals, instrumental goals can be good or bad instrumental goals as they better or worse serve the goal to which they are instrumental. If the goal is to drink, for example, an instrumental goal of heading in the direction of a mirage is probably a bad instrumental goal.

Although terminal goals cannot be chosen, they can be understood, and better understanding of an optimiser’s terminal goal is likely to be a good instrumental goal for any optimiser with the cognitive capacity to realise this.

There has been at the date of writing sadly little scientific research into the precise nature of animal, and particularly human, terminal goals. The best estimate – and the only thing that really makes any sense on current understanding – is that the terminal goal of the conscious mind of humans and other animals is to maximise their pleasure. Pleasure in this sense refers not to any specific sensation (for the same sensation can feel desirable at one time and undesirable at another), but rather to any experiential state which tends to cause the agent having that experience to seek to continue to have it more, when compared with non-pleasurable or less pleasurable states, and displeasure the opposite.. Unlike any instrumental goal, pleasure, thus understood, is the only feature of human consciousness that is desirable in and of itself: it does not make sense to think of having an extrinsic reason to want to feel pleasure. One does not desire pleasure only because and only insofar as it serves some other end. Indeed, that some experiences of reality feel more pleasurable than others is the only intelligible explanation for conscious motivation at all.

To many, this explanation seems unsatisfying; but if it feels to humans as if we exist in order to serve a goal greater than our own pleasure, it is because we do: we exist in order to serve the goals of our genes in their replication of themselves. That does not mean, however, that a rational human would subordinate her or his own goals to those of her or his genes, no matter how much that human minds have, of necessity, evolved in order to ensure that they do, at least in most cases.

Thus, for a human, a reason is only intelligible insofar as it ultimately refers to a human terminal goal. If eating cake serves my terminal goal because it is pleasurable, and I have an instrumental goal to eat cake, I have a reason to bake a cake because baking a cake will tend to serve the instrumental goal of eating that cake, which will in turn serve the terminal goal of feeling pleasure.

If anyone who claims that there is a reason to do something but cannot ultimately trace that reason back to a terminal goal, then that person is probably engaging in ethical deceit, and the claim should not be taken seriously and the person making it treated with great suspicion. Tracing the reason to a purported instrumental goal is not enough for it to be able to amount to a genuine reason if there is no sufficient reason to believe that the purported instrumental goal is really instrumental to the terminal goal. This principle is fundamental to reason based ethics.

Goals, individuals and groups

An important consequence of the understanding that the terminal goal for conscious human minds is pleasure is that pleasure or displeasure is only meaningfully a state of individual, specific human minds. A group of people does not experience pleasure and displeasure except as a function of the pleasure and displeasure of the individual members of that group. It is not possible for a group of people to be happy despite each individual member of that group being unhappy: the idea that this might be so does not even make sense. Groups of people thus do not have terminal goals that are distinct from the terminal goals of the individuals who make up those groups.

The consequence of this, in turn, is that all things that are capable of counting as reasons for human minds must ultimately be referable to the goals of specific individuals, i.e., to the pleasure or displeasure of specific individuals. Nothing can be good or bad for people except insofar as it is good or bad for specific individuals.

Likewise, individual conscious human minds are optimisers, but groups, as such, are not: it is not possible for a group to make a decision when no individual member of that group has made a decision. Individual people in a society are not akin to individual cells in a body: individual cells may be created by the ultimate optimiser that is natural selection, but they are not themselves optimisers. Unlike people, individual cells do not have their own goals, and are entirely expendable.

In evolution by natural selection, the optimising unit is the individual gene, as explained by Richard Dawkins in, “The Selfish Gene”. Similarly, in human societies, the optimising unit is the individual mind.

This fundamental idea – that only individual people, and not groups of people, can have terminal goals – is individualism, and every aspect of a true understanding of what individualism is and is not and what it does and does not entail ultimately flows from this.

Collectivism, by contrast, is the opposite idea: that groups of people can be thought of as having terminal goals of their own and that it is the duty of individual members of those groups to serve those group goals above their own. It is often asserted that collectivism is required for co-operation and that individualism is inherently selfish, but both of those claims are fundamentally false as explained below.

Co-operation, non-co-operation and co-operation about co-operation

The fact that a thing can only be a reason for a particular person insofar as it is ultimately likely to increase that person’s pleasure does not mean that people have no reason to co-operate with other people. For any given individual, being part of a society of mutually co-operating people is likely to allow that person to live a much longer, more pleasant life than either living in total isolation or in perpetual conflict with others. For humans, co-operation is a convergent instrumental goal: a very great many different things can be achieved only by many people co-operating among themselves.

An individual co-operating with others often requires that individual to make compromises. If multiple people are involved jointly in a project, that project is likely to have to be designed to serve the divergent needs of all those who work on it, which may well serve less well any individual member of the group working on the project than it would if it were designed solely to meet that person’s goals; but co-operating may enable something that better serves each individual co-operator’s goals more than working alone could achieve, so the compromise is often worth the trade-off for each individual person working on the project. The altruism involved in making compromises and faithfully co-operating with an enterprise in spite of those compromises actually best serves the goal of the individual co-operator compared to the alternatives.

A naïve analysis may suggest that the optimum strategy for a person in cases where co-operation is beneficial is in fact to pretend to co-operate but actually deceive, manipulate or intimidate others into serving one’s own goals in preference to theirs, thus securing the benefits of co-operation without the compromises inherent in it. In reality, people frequently attempt to do this because of the local maximum problem explained below. However, this strategy is unsustainable in two distinct respects. First of all, if it were in fact the optimum strategy for anyone, then it would in fact be the optimum strategy for everyone all the time, otherwise known as the dominant strategy. However, the result of this strategy would be perpetual conflict, not the benefit of genuine co-operation, so it is not in fact optimum. Secondly, the possibility of this being considered an optimum strategy in some cases, even if falsely, means that the truly dominant strategy is to be genuinely co-operative, but reliably to detect and severely to punish instances of deceit, manipulation, intimidation, violence, theft and other cynical behaviour (and co-operate in setting up and maintaining systems that do this rigorously and effectively) so that, instead of the person who engages in that behaviour (“defecting” as it is known in game theory) benefiting from this behaviour, the defector actually suffers an extremely severe detriment, so severe that even a small chance of being apprehended makes defecting too risky to be worthwhile, and also publicly marks the defector as untrustworthy so that others can avoid the risk of trusting such a person, reducing that person’s chances of harming others in the future. This strategy leaves the benefit of co-operation intact whilst minimising the risk of cynical behaviour to the co-operators.

However, co-operation and the compromises that co-operation entails is not the optimum strategy in all cases. Many instrumental goals can be served just as well by individuals acting alone as in co-operation with others, and avoiding the need to co-operate also avoids the compromises inherent in co-operation. There is usually no benefit, for example, to an individual co-operating with others in choosing what flavour ice-cream to order or which of several familiar pieces of music to listen to when alone. The optimum strategy in such cases is for each individual to do whatever most serves her or his own goals without any particular consideration of anyone else’s goals and to allow others to do likewise in similar situations. Even in cases where an individual’s choice might affect others, there are still many cases when the optimum strategy for any individual is for that person to follow her or his own preferences without particular consideration of others and to permit others to do likewise. This is the case where the adverse effect on constraining individual choice on the individual would be much greater than the most adverse effect of that choice on others, as, for example, in an individual’s choice of clothing: some people may find it more pleasant to see others wearing some sorts of clothing rather than others, but the detriment of having one’s own clothing choices constrained by others’ preferences would far exceed the benefit of others’ clothing conforming to one’s own choices.

In cases where co-operation is not the optimum strategy even where there is some scope to co-operate (as in the clothing example), there is a real sense in which the toleration of non-co-operative behaviour is itself a form of co-operation: by not seeking to control others’ clothing choices or similar, one is co-operating in the creation of social conditions which allow a net optimum result, even if some of those conditions themselves are not a form of co-operation. This, latter, sort of co-operation might be termed meta co-operation: in other words, co-operation in deciding what to co-operate on and on what terms to co-operate.

There are likely to be many cases where co-operation of a particular kind would benefit some people and harm others. Some of these cases do not involve conflict: in these cases, those who benefit from the co-operation do not need the co-operation of those who do not benefit from it in order to obtain the benefit, and those who are harmed by the co-operation are only harmed by their own co-operation and not others’, and thus the dominant strategy for everyone in such cases is for those who would benefit from co-operation to co-operate in the particular activity, from those who would not benefit from that co-operation not to co-operate in that activity, and for everyone to co-operate in tolerating free choice among each individual as to whether to co-operate or not. In such cases, free individual choice is the dominant meta co-operation strategy. A good example of this is a membership club, where people pay money to belong to a club that pursues a particular activity that some people enjoy and some people do not. Those who enjoy the activity are likely to benefit from paying their money and lending their time to support the membership club, and those who do not are likely to be harmed by losing their money and getting nothing valuable to them in exchange; but the sensible thing for everyone, whether they enjoy the activity in question or not, is to let people have free choice about to which membership clubs, if any, to belong and to found.

However, a significant subset of cases where co-operation of a particular kind would benefit some and harm others do involve conflict. In these cases, non-co-operation of anyone can prevent the goals of the people in whose interests it is to co-operate being achieved (i.e., harm them), and/or co-operation by those in whose interest it is to co-operate can harm those in whose interests it is not to co-operate. For example, a business cartel is a form of co-operation that harms non-co-operators, and pollution by those who benefit more from the ability to pollute than suffer from the consequences of that pollution is a form of non-co-operation that harms those who would co-operate to abate pollution.

In conflict cases, free choice is not the dominant meta-co-operation strategy that it is in non-conflict cases. For any given individual, there is likely to be a wide range of cases where that person would be harmed by others’ co-operation and also a wide range of cases where that person would be harmed by others’ failure to co-operate. For each individual, the dominant meta co-operation strategy is to co-operate in choosing individual meta co-operation strategies for the individual conflict cases on the basis of a meta meta co-operation strategy (i.e., a strategy about how to co-operate in choosing a strategy about how to co-operate in deciding whether and how to co-operate in individual cases) which maximises the net average benefit to all for any given pattern of meta co-operation or non-co-operation. Such a meta meta co-operation strategy would involve determining whether co-operating in tolerating business cartels or co-operating in not tolerating them would be likely best to fulfil the terminal goals of the most people overall, and then co-operating either in tolerating or proscribing business cartels as the case may be.

Just like as with any individual instance of co-operation, such meta and meta meta co-operation entails compromises for each individual, but, providing that the dominant strategies of such meta co-operations be followed, by so co-operating, each individual’s goals are better served overall by such co-operation than by not engaging in meta and meta meta co-operation.

Selfishness and unethical behaviour

Selfishness is unjustified failure or refusal to co-operate. In other words, selfishness is non-co-operation in circumstances which justify others in co-operating to censure the non-co-operator, whether by criticism alone or whether by coercive punishment, i.e. where the failure to co-operate is of a type which ultimately causes more harm to all than is caused by intolerance of that type of non-co-operation. Properly understood, selfishness is no more or less than unethical behaviour intended for the immediate benefit of the person perpetrating it.

Because co-operation can consist in co-operating to prevent harmful co-operation (e.g. business cartels), a person can be selfish by co-operating in some instances (e.g. in creating and maintaining a particular cartel). Likewise, a person can be selfish in failing to co-operate in tolerance of non-co-operation in cases where imposing co-operation is more harmful overall than tolerating non-co-operation. For example, the members of a group of people who institute and maintain a social or legal rule compelling co-operation from others which gives rise to some immediate, short-term benefit for that group, but which is harmful overall, are all being selfish and therefore unethical.

Just as with acts of unethical behaviour that do not involve any form of co-operation, unethical co-operation is ultimately a local maximum problem. A local maximum is a state in which a person’s position cannot be improved without first making it worse. A paradigm example of a local maximum problem is an addiction: an addict would (normally) ultimately lead a happier and longer life being free of addiction, but cannot get to that state without first enduring a significant period of extreme suffering brought about by withdrawal from whatever it is that the person is addicted to. Similarly, transitioning from benefiting from unethical behaviour to benefiting from the fruits of co-operating to eliminate unethical behaviour and acquiring a reputation of trust that only behaving consistently ethically over a long period of time allows takes time and effort, during which time the individual’s position is worsened. Many (but by no means all) people irrationally fail to overcome local maxima and trap themselves in addiction and/or unethical behaviour, harming themselves and often others in the process.

Ultimately, the dominant strategy for any person who lives in a society is to be rigorously ethical, but stringently punish those who are unethical; an important benefit of behaving ethically is thus that it is safe to co-operate in a system that reliably detects and punishes those who behave unethically severely enough effectively to deter the unethical behaviour, and that a world in which such a system exists, and therefore where the disincentives to cynical behaviour are overwhelming, is ultimately a better one for each of its inhabitants, including those who might derive some immediate benefit from cynical behaviour, than one in which cynical behaviour is tolerated and therefore likely to be commonplace. To overcome others’ failure to remove themselves from the local maximum of unethical behaviour, therefore, it is necessary to maximise the chance of unethical behaviour being much, much worse for those people, even in the short-term, than ethical behaviour by imposing on those people a punishment for their wrongdoing severe enough to be sure of outweighing any gain made by the unethical conduct, taking into account the probability of the person behaving unethically evading detection. This will, if implemented successfully, prevent unethical behaviour from being even a local maximum. To do this safely, it is necessary to develop and maintain reliable systems of telling ethical from unethical behaviour: a justice system is the paradigm example of such a system.

Individualism, co-operation and selfishness

As will be apparent from a true understanding of the nature of individualism, co-operation and selfishness, there is nothing inherently selfish about individualism. Indeed, it does not even make sense to think of individualism as being the kind of thing that can be selfish: only unethical behaviour can be selfish, and individualism is no more or less than an understanding about what kinds of things can have terminal goals and therefore what can count as being ethical or unethical in the first place. It is perfectly possible – and, indeed, commonplace – to identify behaviour as selfish precisely because of its adverse effect on individual people. If individualism were false, then it would be unethical to act on the basis of it: but it is not false, as explained above.

As is also apparent, nothing about co-operation is in any way incompatible with individualism. There is no need to entertain the (false) belief that groups as such can have terminal goals for individuals to co-operate among themselves for the greater good.

Indeed, a proper analysis of co-operation, as set out above, makes clear that there is no basis in reason for any categorical bias in favour of or against co-operation in any kind of case as is often assumed to inherent to the concepts in superficial analyses of and comparisons between individualism and collectivism. It is simply not true that collectivism favours co-operation whilst individualism favours competition as is sometimes claimed; individualism entails co-operation where it is for the greater good, whereas collectivism often entails bitter sectarian conflict between rival groups.

Individualism is fully compatible with a high level of co-operation and even interdependence among people, including co-operation in restraining others’ freedom and imposing punishment. It is not necessary to hold that groups of people can or do have terminal goals of their own, nor that the interests of individuals should always be subordinated to the achievement of those supposed goals in order to hold that there are compelling reasons for a high level of continuing co-operation, including in many cases compulsory co-operation, among large groups of people for the greater good.

What individualism is not compatible with, however, is unthinking deference to the demands of others to co-operate in achieving some supposed group goal. As with anything else, co-operation requires a reason that is ultimately referable to the terminal goal of the individual person making the decision as to whether or not to do it in order for it to be the optimum choice.

Collectivism, ethical deceit and sectarianism

Since, as explained above, collectivism, being the idea that groups in and of themselves can have terminal goals, is fundamentally false, promoting collectivism or acting on the basis of collectivist ideas is harmful. In particular, collectivism harms people by subordinating their genuine interests to the non-existent supposed interests of the collective as such, thus preventing people from achieving their goals as well as they might otherwise achieve them without the compensating advantages that make those sacrifices worthwhile where co-operation is genuinely optimum.

Being harmful, imposing collectivism on others is itself an act of selfishness which it is in everybody’s interests to co-operate to eradicate as effectively and permanently as possible wherever it might arise.

It is inherently implausible to imagine that all or even most instances of collectivist ideas are mistakes made in good faith arising at random, however. They are almost invariably directly linked to sectarian agendas that seek, harmfully, to promote the interests of an arbitrary subset of humanity over the interests of humanity as a whole. As such, they are almost universally a form of ethical deceit, intended dishonestly to advance the immediate interests of those who promote the ideas by deceiving people into believing that acting on basis of collectivist ideas is for the greater good, when the people promoting the ideas are fully aware that it is not and is likely to harm most of the people who do act on those ideas.

How to recognise collectivism

It is one thing to state what collectivism is in the abstract: it is another to recognise it in practice. Those who seek to deceive people into confusing collectivist ideas with genuine reasons to co-operate are able to succeed in their harmful behaviour only insofar as people cannot tell the difference between the two. Thus, it is in everyone’s ultimate interests to learn (and to encourage others to learn) what marks out collectivist ideas and claims from ideas and claims about co-operation that have a genuine basis in reason.

The starting point is that collectivist ideas cannot ultimately be justified by reference to how they benefit individuals. In most cases, they are in fact intended to benefit individuals (in the short-term, at least), but those individuals are the people who perpetrate the dishonesty and are usually a tiny fraction of the people to whom the ideas are intended to appeal, so this benefit is not usually presented as an ultimate justification for the claim, even if it might in fact be the ultimate motivation for it.

Because collectivist ideas are usually promoted in order to benefit a small group of people by concentrating power in their hands, collectivist claims are often marked by claims that, if accepted, will in fact serve to concentrate power. Thus, a claim that a large group of people is “represented” by those seeking power (whether overtly or covertly), in circumstances where not every member of that group has explicitly consented to being represented by those specific individuals, is a collectivist claim. Anyone who, for example, claims to represent the interests of the whole of “the ordinary people”, or a (perceived) social class, or all of the people living in a particular area is making a collectivist claim. The confusion between this concept of representation and democratic government systems in which people are elected to “represent” certain people (in reality, this is delegation, not representation – no politician can in good faith claim to represent the ideas of people who vehemently oppose that politician) is often used dishonestly to suppress scrutiny of these claims.

Another hallmark of collectivist ideas is a claim justified by reference to benefit to a group as such, without any explanation of (1) how it ultimately benefits humanity as a whole; or (2) the differences between individual members of that group and how the claim is justified in light of those differences. Any claim which demands co-operation or conformity and claims some group benefit from doing so but cannot give a coherent, from first principles explanation as to how it most benefits the greatest number individual people compared to competing claims is a collectivist claim.

Collectivism also entails deliberately suppressing the distinction between individual members of groups. Thus, a claim that a person who is a member of a particular group is, by reason of that membership alone (rather than by reason of that person actually having chosen to co-operate in those specific activities), responsible in some way for the actions of other members of that group is a collectivist claim. So, for example, claim that all German people are, by reason alone of being German, responsible for the horrors of the Nazi regime is a fundamentally collectivist claim. This sort of claim is often used purportedly to justify collective punishment – deliberately punishing a whole group of people for the wrongs of only some members of that group, thus wilfully imposing gratuitous harm, sometimes extreme gratuitous harm, on all of the non-wrongdoing members of that group.

Likewise, collectivism entails treating all members of a group as if they had attributes that in reality only some of them possess. For example, treating all people who live in an area in which crime is prevalent as if they were criminals even when there is no reason at all to believe that each individual person who lives in that area is in fact a criminal, is collectivism. In more extreme cases, collectivism can include ascribing to whole groups of people entirely fictitious characteristics, sometimes supported by pseudoscience, as was the case for colonial era racism, where large swathes of the earth’s population, based on the incidence of localised superficial characteristics, were deemed to be inherently inferior by those who wished for an excuse to ignore their interests when colonising the places where they lived for their own immediate gain.

Similarly, a claim that a group itself has a characteristic that only an individual can possess is an inherently collectivist claim. A claim, for example, that a group itself (as opposed to its individual members) has a belief, attitude or a feeling, or can be responsible for something is an inherently collectivist claim. “The British people believe X” is very different to “many people who live in Britain believe X”; the former is collectivist (unless the person making the claim has a genuine basis for believing that literally every last person in the UK has that exact belief); the latter is not.

By contrast, it is also useful to recognise when a claim is not collectivist in nature. A claim is not collectivist merely because it is a claim that a person ought to, or ought to be compelled to, make any given personal sacrifice for the greater good. Whether such a claim is true or not can be analysed by reference to individual benefit and harm as described above. Likewise, a claim that a person might benefit from close co-operation with others or even a degree of mutual interdependence is not inherently collectivist, and nor is the idea that self-reliance is inherently preferable to interdependence entailed by individualism; the truth or falsity of the extent to which it is beneficial to be self-reliant or mutually interdependent can be analysed entirely by reference to individual harms and benefits, and, depending on the circumstances, any degree of self-reliance or mutual interdependence can be fully compatible with individualism.

Empirical claims

It is sometimes said that individualist or collectivist beliefs entail certain empirical claims, for example, that people’s success or otherwise in life is mostly caused by their own choices or by circumstances beyond their control. As will be apparent from the above, there is no necessary connexion between the two. Neither individualism nor collectivism entail any particular claims about what actually causes specific social phenomena, and neither require any such claims to be true or false themselves.

Thus, individualism cannot be shown to be false by showing it to be false that people’s success in life does not principally depend on their own choices nor true by showing that it does, and the same applies to any other given claim about social causation or similar. This is an example of a false claim that one idea (individualism) entails another when in reality it does not that is often used deceitfully to manipulate people into rejecting a true understanding of the world and thereby harming themselves.


It is ultimately in everyone’s interests to have a true understanding of when and in what ways it is optimal to co-operate with other people. False ideas about what individualism and collectivism are and entail interfere with the achievement of that goal, and are often promulgated deliberately in order to harm.

That collectivism is not required for co-operation, that individualism neither entails nor justifies selfishness, that rejecting collectivism does not justify rejecting the necessity in many cases of making individual sacrifices for the greater good, that pursuing the greater good does not entail unthinkingly subordinating individual interests to the supposed interests of a group as such and that groups of people cannot be treated as if they were people in their own right are all things a greater appreciation of which would have the potential to bring immense benefit to humanity.

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