“There is no such things as society, only a collection of individuals.”—Attributed to Margaret Thatcher
During the May 29, 2014 second pm hour Steve called at 24:05 minutes into the program offering some counter arguments against Ayn Rand’s form of radical individualism.
“We need to come up with a meme to push back on the Ayn Rand thought virus and I have two ideas. One is to point out that you cannot separate the good of the individual from the good of society. They are both legitimate ethical values. And to do so is to commit what is know in logic as a false dichotomy, or false dilemma. And the second is related to something David Hume, the philosopher, referred to as the “Is, Ought Gap”. And it is simply you cannot do any rational argument that will get you from the way things are to the way things ought to be. In other words, ethics and politics are purely humanistic that serve the good of we the people. And that is the only rational basis for ethics and values. “
Hartmann: “Let me break this down into common English language. Maggie Thatcher started this whole thing in 1978 when she got elected as Prime Minister. Her Party won Parliament and made her Prime Minister of England. And she said famously, “There is no such thing as society, there is only a collection of individuals.” And this was a reflection of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Theory that there is no such thing as society, that we don’t exist as society, that we are all individuals: every individual strives for there own best interest, self-interest, their most selfish interests, that somehow will magically produce the most good. Turns out that no country in the world ever successfully tried—this is called Libertarianism—it has never worked. And every time it has been tried it has failed miserably. Alan Greenspan tried it with our banking system back in 1993 to 2007. It didn’t work out so well…what you are saying is not only is it absurd, but that there is such a thing as society. And society is made up of individuals. And individuals and society are interdependent with each other. And we need to acknowledge that interdependence, and nourish it with things like good public education, a reasonable safety net, and social security.
Steve: “Yes, society is a legitimate category. To deny it is like denying the category of music and saying it is just a bunch of individual notes, or there is no such thing as cities, it is just a bunch of individual buildings. It is absurd.”
It is the concept of the atomistic individual that is the abstraction, not society. If there is no such thing as society, then there is no such thing as a market since there are only buyers and sellers according to this skeptical nominalistic reasoning. Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and the philosophies of existentialism all use the concepts of “individual” and “individualism,” so that it is a highly ideological term that ranges from philosophies of atheistic enlightened egoism to theistic existentialism.
I cannot find the source of Thatcher’s exact words as given and is mostly likely a paraphrase of other documented quotes. Regardless, it is Thatcher’s meaning that is important and there are a number of quotes that express this emphasis on the atomic individual as primary in society. The ideological elevation of the individual, and nominalistic skepticism is characteristic of Libertarianism, Free-Market Ideology, and Neo-Liberalism. We can find this egocentric doctrine stated by both Thatcher and Ayn Rand.
“They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Margaret Thatcher
“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”-- Margaret Thatcher
“Since there is no such entity as 'the public,' since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that 'the public interest' supersedes private interests and rights can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.”— Ayn Rand
“If a life can have a 'theme song' -- and I believe every worthwhile one has -- mine is a religion, an obsession or a mania -- or all of these -- expressed in one word: Individualism.”— Ayn Rand
A systematic analysis of the atomistic egocentric individual can be found in Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) book, Leviathan, wherein he describes the self-interested economic man and a theory of the State. Hobbes’ philosophical anthropology of human behavior has a familiar ring with today’s popular version of Libertarian philosophy represented by Ayn Rand. The Leviathan’s theory of state is linked to a belief in the intrinsic competitive nature of human beings. For Hobbes the natural condition of men is “war of all against all” for without the nation-state each person has a right to everything, but a world with such self-interested human beings seeking advantage would be chaotic in which commerce is impossible since no one would secure against violence from another. In order to avoid this natural state of war for advantage the self-interested rational human being accepts a social contract by which all persons give up some freedom for state protection from another. This state could have the form of a Monarchy, Aristocracy, or a Democracy.
In Hobbes’ Leviathan the state is not founded on universalistic morality, nor on political human rights, but on non-traditionalist human economic self-interest. Norms are not completely arbitrary because there are some unchanging laws of nature on which norms can be based. In this case normative laws are derived from the biological competitive nature of human self-interest according to Hobbes. This view is called "biological naturalism" by Popper. Man is only an accumulating machine seeking power over others. Arendt writes of this Hobbesian accumulator,
“A being without reason, without the capacity for truth, and without free will—that is, without the capacity for responsibility—man is essentially a function of society and judged therefore according to his "value or worth ... his price; that is to say so much as would be given for the use of his power." This price is constantly evaluated and re-evaluated by society, the "esteem of others," depending upon the law of supply and demand. Power, according to Hobbes, is the accumulated control that permits the individual to fix prices and regulate supply and demand in such a way that they contribute to his own advantage. (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harvest Book, Hb244, Kindle Loc. 3330-3343.).
The Hobbesian economic man is intrinsically anti-social who forms the basis of an inherently unstable community that is only designed to assist in exploiting other members and accumulating power over others for there is nothing else to connect private individuals in society except competition and human convention. He has no ethical responsibility for his beaten competitor- the poor. Both the unfortunate poor and the shameful criminal are indistinguishable and expelled from society as undesirable. Hobbesian power philosophy has been adapted to popular Libertarian sects in America. Libertarianism and Neoliberalism embrace this anthropological view of the self-interested human as a capital-accumulating machine. Libertarian anti-society doesn’t exist on any other foundation than self-interested advantage, possessive individualism, competition, individualist economic contractualism, and ethical egoism if not crude materialistic nihilism. Hobbes does not deny the existence of society, only that in its natural state society is disorganized war.
For Hobbes there are no absolute values. Where there is no social covenant, no act can be called unjust. Hobbes writes in the Leviathan, “…the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.” And there is “…no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s, that he can get: and for so long as he can keep it."
David Hume (1711-1776) views society as primary since the individual first exists as a member of a group for “Man, born in a family, is compelled to maintain society from necessity, from natural inclinations and from habit.” (Of the Origin of Government, Hume, 1777). The family is “the first and original principle of human society” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume, 1888). The concept of government is based on the family-society model of social relations.
Agreeing with Hobbes, Hume understands society as having great utility for humanity, and justice is artificial in the sense it is based on self-interest and public utility. “Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employment, our ability increases: And by mutual succour we are less exposed to fortune and accidents. It is by this additional force, ability, and security that society becomes advantageous.”(An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume, 1751).
Hume believes government is an invention, not a social compact as John Locke claims. As a hard empiricist, Hume denied Lockean ethics that claim Natural Law is base on universal categorical moral law derived from Reason. Hume believed government arose from war and human utility. Hume rejected the Lockean state of nature thesis that the original social contract is an actual historical event by which humans voluntarily agreed to form an organized society to protect freedom and political rights. There is no empirical evidence of any such natural state. Hume wrote,
“it is utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition which precedes society, but that his very first state and situation many justly be esteemed social. This however, hinders not but that philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the supposed state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never could have any reality. …This state of nature, therefore, is to be regarded as a mere fiction.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume, 1888).
To be consistent with this quote Hume would also have to reject Hobbes’ theory of the state of nature as war a historical fiction, or philosophical parable. David Hume’s close friend Adam Smith postulated a similar primordial state of nature by postulating a Smithian “Economic Man” as a bartering savage. One wonders if Hume would also criticize the bartering savage as a fiction along with Hobbes’ state of war and Locke’s claim historical social compact. (See footnote in post # 2 below explaining the rejection of Adam Smith’s bartering society as a state of nature.)
All of these theories of society and government discussed view the individual as an isolated economic unit of activity driven by self-interest, competition, distrust, and greed. The view of the individual driven by utilitarian and hedonistic principles is a gross oversimplification of human motivation and ethical behavior. William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) professor of mathematics at University College, London, was critical of this scientific conception of the individual. Historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston, wrote in summary of Clifford’s views,
“…the concept of the human atom, the completely solitary and self-contained individual, is an abstraction. In actual fact every individual is by nature, in virtue of the tribal self, a member of the social organism, the tribe. And moral progress consists in subordinating the egoistic impulses to the interests or good of the tribe, to that which, in Darwinian language, makes the tribe most fit for survival. Conscience is the voice of the tribal self; and the ethical ideal is to become a public-spirited and efficient citizen. (Fredrick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy, Bentham to Russell, Vol. 8, Part I, Doubleday, 1967, page 135.)
Philosophy has treated the human being as an individual instead of a person. The French Philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) was an important leader of the French Personalist Existentialist movement that attempted to rescue the person in “a reaction of the philosophy of man against the excesses of the philosophy of ideas and the philosophy of things.” Philosophy has joined natural science in dehumanizing the human as objects in a physical world. Mounier blames rationalism, materialism, behaviorism and positivism for treating human beings as mere things.
Mounier does not present Personalism as a system and avoids systematization. What makes personalism very difficult for some to understand is that they are trying to find a system, whereas personalism is perspective, method, exigency (Be Not Afraid, p. 193). Human existence is characterized by the principle of unpredictability, and creative freedom. A Person is not merely a material object, nor pure spirit, but rather wholly body and spirit. Personalism resists reductionist materialism that only recognizes human ability as labor to be exploited in a narcissistic society of competitive nihilistic drones. The person only exists as a member of community, as a ‘we’, and only in this social context morality is meaningful. Remove community and one also removed morality: this view of ethics is similar to Hobbes’ and Hume’s conceptions of justice and duty dependent on society, and social contract.
Mounier said the 1929 Economic Depression inspired his journal, Esprit. In October 1936 Esprit published the Personalist Manifesto, which offered a definition of the concept of the person:
“A person is a spiritual being constituted as such by a manner of subsistence and of independence in being; it maintains this subsistence by its adhesion to a hierarchy of values, freely adopted, assimilated and lived, by a responsible self-commitment and by a constant conversion; it thus unifies all its activity in liberty and develops, moreover, by means of creative acts, its own unique vocation.”
“We shall apply the term personalist to any doctrine or any civilization that affirms the primacy of the human person over material necessities and over the whole complex of implements man needs for the development of his person.” (Manifesto, p. 1) Mounier described Personalism as a “philosophy of engagement,” a “fighting science” in a call to action against tyranny. Mounier lived his philosophy causing the Vichy Nazis to arrest him and shutdown his journal, Esprit, for his Resistance activity in 1942.