Appendix II. Individualism and collectivism; personalism and community

Individualism and collectivism; personalism and community

Over the last centuries the dominant philosophy of self has been individualistic, according to which each is basically "out for" himself, and so "self-interest" becomes the motive power of each one. Since the interests of a single person could seldom prevail alone, people tended to group for certain purposes according to what were felt to be shared interests. So, on the positive side, individualism favored the growth of democratic systems, especially along party lines, by which the power of government is entrusted to majority groups. But individualism has also led to a concept of social life as a struggle among rivals, with progress to be governed by a law of the survival of the fittest.

Individualism originated many abuses and evident injustices especially in the socioeconomic field. This led to the development of collectivism: an economic or political-social philosophy where the life of the individual is seen in subordination to the interests of "the people" or the social whole. If the failures of individualism were so evident that they led to collectivist experiments and regimes, the deficiencies and abuses of collectivism, especially over the last part of the twentieth century, became in turn so clear that the pendulum seemed set to swing back again.

Does this necessarily mean a return to individualism? Does a third alternative not exist? Many think that one does, and that the antisocial elements of individualism - its unlimited selfishness, its lack of solidarity, its exploitation of the less powerful - can find their remedy in this other vision of man and his life, which is called personalism.

In itself, "personalism" simply suggests a philosophy centered on the human person. What, then, is there in this philosophy that distinguishes it from individualism and makes it less an enemy of the common good? Doesn't any tendency to center life on the person, taken as individual, find itself in logical opposition to collective or community interests? To my mind, the answer is No; for between the true interests of the person and those of the community or society there is no logical opposition. There is - there ought to be - a natural harmony. This, however, will be evident only to whoever understands the true nature of personalism, and the radical way in which it is to be distinguished from individualism.


Personalism represents a view of man in which his dignity - prior to every social grouping - is underlined. In the dynamism that characterizes the human person, it perceives a call to self-fulfillment through the free espousing of transcendent and lasting values. Personalism takes particular account of freedom: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of others, and therefore it takes no less account of personal responsibility.

Personalism maintains a keen awareness of the dignity and rights of the person, and invites everyone to defend them against any type of violation perpetrated against himself or against others. At the same time it proposes that whoever is conscious of his rights must also be aware of his duties. Personalism therefore does not see any degradation of the person or any loss of status in the duty for instance to obey truth or legitimate authority. Such obedience marks a particular expression of man's dignity; his ability to discern what is worthwhile and to give it a free and active answer.

Personalism insists in a particular way on duties towards others, also seeing the fulfillment of these duties as a means of personal development and self-fulfillment. The person grows as he enriches himself through relations with others: open and generously receptive relationships. The alternative is social isolation and human alienation.

Awareness of the values present in others obviously offers a firm basis and no little help for building the social community. In true personalism there is a natural covenant or alliance between the person - the individual human being - and the community. Personalist participation in the community implies an adaptation not of interest to interest, but rather of person to person, founded upon the consciousness of the dignity and the rights that all have in common. A community not founded on respect for the dignity of the person ends up as a mass without a soul, such as is to be found in a concentration camp, or a totalitarian state, or perhaps a corporate conglomerate [1].

"The person is a whole; not, however, in a closed sense, since he must be open. The person is not a small god without doors or windows, like Leibniz's monad, or an idol that does not see, nor hear, nor speak. The person tends by nature to social life and communion" [2].

At times it is said that the personalist point of view simply proposes the "centrality of the human subject". Such a phrase does not seem adequate. It could quite aptly express the individualistic view. Moreover, it might suggest an immanentist concept of man, while true personalism always leads to transcendence [3]. Personalism does not and cannot consist in an answer simply to one's self. My own inner resources are not adequate to fulfill me. It is the capacity of self-transcendence which can lead one on to a new and higher level of existence. One comes out of self, rises or is drawn above self, and thus constantly realizes one's self in an enriched and more intense way.

"Personalist" is not to be confused with "subjective"; and less still does it suggest a type of individualist autonomy. The need to distinguish personalism and individualism is all the more important in that the latter might easily be regarded as close to the former, and even be mistaken for it (especially since certain forms of individualism use terminology that seems personalist), and yet individualism is entirely different from, and in fact totally opposed to, true personalism.


Some further observations can be made regarding that secular individualism which before (and perhaps after) collectivism has dominated such a large part of modern thought and existence. Seeing the individual as the fundamental and highest good, individualism holds that the interests of the community and of society ought to be subordinated to the individual. Where the individual's interests do not correspond with those of others or of the community, the individualist will prefer his own interests. Individualism not seldom emphasizes the autonomy of the individual, to the point of transforming this autonomy (often without even being aware of the process) into an absolute value, into a sort of god.

In a certain sense one can say that individualism appears as a type of personalism gone awry. It also underlines rights, but not duties [4]. It demands freedom, but does not accept the responsibility of having to answer for one's own actions. Its judgments tend to be subjective. It promotes arbitrariness in behavior, without being worried about the demands of social life. It is concerned for itself, but not for others - unless the interests of the latter coincide with its own. It tends to make of the individual an autonomous source and judge of right and wrong, leading to a wholly subjective morality that undermines the human community. If it is permissible to me always to follow what seems unobjectionable in my eyes (even if it is absolutely offensive to others), the basis of social solidarity quickly collapses.

Precisely because "what I am", for the individualist, is often very far from "what I want to be", individualism is by no means devoid of ambition. But it can easily be deficient in moral outlook - because one can want (to do or to be) many things one ought not to want. The individualist, just like the existentialist, limits any true personal fulfillment if he or she bypasses its moral dimension. The ethical issue begins once one realizes that "I am" does not always satisfy the innermost conviction: "I ought to be". "I am a liar, and I ought to be truthful"; "I am a cheat, and I ought to be honest". That deep interior conviction, "I ought to be", is not a mere "moral imperative", but rather the voice of conscience stirring us to an ambition for truer fulfillment. Moreover, it has a universal aspect to it: I ought to be honest, and so ought others. All of us should be so; and then society would be more human. To be indifferent to these issues is to be indifferent to the primary human quality of personal and social life.

Jean-Paul Sartre would say that we are what we are or what we choose to be, and that no ethical evaluation can be made of these simple facts. Modern popular psychologism, imbued with the same outlook, vigorously rejects the very notion of applying value judgments to personal conduct. But this freeing of the individual from all accountability leaves social life with nothing to hold it together. In effect, to deny the difference between "I am" and "I ought to be" means not only to abandon every ideal of personal fulfillment, but also to renounce any and every claim to judge or contest the behavior of others; it is therefore to propose a society where, each one being a law to himself, all interpersonal "rights" are lost. Just as no one has any right in my regard, so I have no right with regard to others ...

The philosophy of individualistic self-centeredness keeps recurring in new and not-so-new forms. It was the philosophy of the "me generation" which, in the vernacular of the 1960s, wanted to "do its own thing". It was put forward by, among many others, Charles Reich in his 1970 (and long since dated) best-seller, The Greening of America. Reich proposed a "new" freedom based on a "recovery of self"; a freedom in which "the individual is free to build his own philosophy and values, his own life-style, and his own culture from a new beginning. ... The individual self is the only true reality. Thus it returns to the earlier America: [Walt Whitman's] "Myself I sing". The first commandment is: thou shalt not do violence to thyself ... The commandment is: be true to oneself ... No one judges anyone else. This is a second commandment ... Each person has his own individuality, not to be compared to that of anyone else ... Being true to oneself is the best and only way to relate to others ... To observe duties toward others, after the feelings are gone, is no virtue and may even be a crime ... Thus the new generation looks with suspicion on "obligations" and contractual relations between people ... To most people, there is something frightening about the notion that no oath, no law, no promise, no indebtedness holds people together when the feeling is gone. But for the new generation that is merely recognition of the truth about human beings" [5].

Yes, there may be something frightening in much of this. One wonders if the final mood of Anna Karenina, and the predictable temper of the "me generation" as the years caught up with it, are all that different: looking back on a life where one has always been misunderstood, and so growing in destructive anger born of the blending of self-righteousness with self-pity. Strip away the veneers of culture and not much separates Anna's mood from that of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, except perhaps that Jimmy, at the end of John Osborne's play, has not yet discovered the bankruptcy of his utter lack of values.

As we saw in chapter eight, trust - and hence closeness to others - tends to evaporate in social life in the absence of common values. If each individual is to build his own unique and personalized "values", he will become in the end incapable of living the true democratic experience of values shared - held and upheld in common - which he, in fellowship with others, can rejoice in and be proud of. The result is total aloneness, the ultimate dead end of individualism. Today's "Lonely Crowd" is a crowd made up of "lonely selves" [6]. It is doubtful that the lonely self can survive the contemporary loss of any consciousness of universal human values. To have no sense of belonging, of shared goals and responsibilities, of common loyalties and duties, is to turn one's back on the world and on others and to totter over the abyss of one's own emptiness.

"There is no way of my pursuing my good which is necessarily antagonistic to you pursuing yours because the good is neither mine peculiarly nor yours peculiarly - goods are not private property. Hence Aristotle's definition of friendship, the fundamental form of human relationship, is in terms of shared goods. The egoist is thus, in the ancient and medieval world, always someone who has made a fundamental mistake about where his own good lies and someone who has thus and to that extent excluded himself from human relationships" [7].

E. M. Forster's attraction to modern secular humanism (or to Eastern Nirvana?), where life no longer needs to be seen as a rat race because there is nowhere to go and therefore no one to outdistance or to get the better of, is well brought out in his story, "The Other Side of the Hedge". If only we could discover an "other side" to the hemmed-in road which modern man walks: that dusty, urgent highway where everyone travels fast, thinks just of himself, edges others aside to get ahead ... Forster's protagonist pierces through the hedge and finds himself in a new land, among strange people who are not interested in getting anywhere, for they hold that there is nowhere to get to. Somebody invites him to walk along with him. "I found it difficult walking", he says, "for I was always trying to outdistance my companion, and there was no advantage in doing this if the place led nowhere. I had never kept step with anyone since I left my brother" - whom he had abandoned earlier on the civilized side of the hedge because he "wasted his breath on singing and his strength on helping others ...", and so got bogged down on the highway.

Yet if there is somewhere to get to, and everyone can get there, then individualistic outdistancing of others is even less to the point.

The philosophy of self-definition is the ultimate expression of individualism. It is impossible for "self-defined" individuals to meet in a common humanity. Individualism divides and fragments people, just as personalism links them in bonds of unity. "An individual is someone who defines himself or herself away from a crowd, or the more universal mass of humanity in general. A person, on the other hand, actively creates the self through relationship with other persons in social and communal bonds" [8]. It is not good that man be alone, or that he think and behave as if he were self-sufficient. He can fulfill himself only through relationships of openness, respect and communication towards others, not of isolation, self-sufficient indifference or exploitation.

Individualism is no friend to the community; it lacks respect towards others (in a particular way towards their freedom), and lacks pride in service. The only bonds it creates with others are those of self-interest (hence the concept it has of society: a series of individuals associated together in virtue of pragmatic interest or simple necessity) [9]. Where the individualist does not see his own interest clearly, he will not harmonize with others. The inability to connect one's own fulfillment with that of others is characteristic of the individualist. That again is why it is so difficult for the individualist to have or maintain any deep or genuine self-respect, since self-respect stands little scrutiny unless it is grounded in the sense that one's life is also of benefit to others.

The common good, for the individualist, is a concept to be ignored or at most to be understood in materialistic terms, reduced to standards of living, public services, etc., and valued purely according to economic or ideological parameters, not those which are really human, such as sincerity, loyalty, fidelity, justice and mutual respect. The tendency in an individualistic society is for persons increasingly to regard each other not only as strangers [10], but as rivals. Everyone is held to be fundamentally selfish and an atmosphere of mutual distrust becomes generalized. To be "only concerned with me" - there is no other safe philosophy for the individualist. John Grisham's clever satire The Partner reflects this, and pushes it to its ultimate conclusion: even whoever is intelligent and unscrupulous enough to win out against the whole unscrupulous world will in the end be left hurt and alone if he makes the elementary mistake of trusting any one person.

The individualist ethos tends to reduce life to a rat race of competing egos; and any truly human society disappears. A merciless portrayal of this, in the setting of New York City, is presented in Tom Wolfe's novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Power, money, pleasure, and especially esteem - however externally given - , have become the universal goals. And yet, what begins in self-adulation and continues in need of constant reaffirmation, ends in self-contempt and ultimate self-hatred.

No; individualism and personalism, rather than being variations on closely related philosophical concepts, are in direct contrast and produce opposed consequences for social as well as personal life. From the social point of view, one can be a personalist and for that very reason be fully centered and integrated into the community. One cannot be an individualist and maintain an authentic spirit of solidarity or of society.

More importantly: fulfillment, for the personalist, is to be sought outside or above the person. The dignity of each one lies in the power to respond, to come out, to grow: not around self, but around what is different from self (with a difference that complements self), and higher than self. The principle of personalism is self-giving response, whereas that of individualism is protective self-interest. The paradox is that the personalist, in giving himself, realizes his own real interest and fulfillment, whereas the individualist, by not giving himself, frustrates it.

A look at the present world reveals many things to be scared of. The most real danger, and the most personal to each of us, is loneliness - the prospect of finding ourselves utterly alone, not only physically but in spirit: appreciating no one, appreciated by no one, loving no one and loved by no one. We cannot escape this fate by retreating into ourselves; that would be to walk further into the danger rather than to avoid or overcome it. We have to come out of self: towards others, towards values, towards all that is of true worth. That has been the theme of this book.

[1] How different the spirit, course and outcome of the French Revolution might have been if, instead of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", its slogan had been "Liberty, Dignity, Fraternity". It would thus have sidestepped the unresolved and unresolvable problem: the fact that the exercise of freedom, on the part of people naturally possessed of different talents, inevitably leads to real but not necessarily unjust "inequalities". Moreover, instead of vague agendas for making the weak "equal" to the strong, it might have inspired political and social philosophies more seriously designed to protect the fundamental rights and dignity of each person against economic individualism or state collectivism.
[2] J. Maritain: Les droits de l'homme et la loi naturelle, p. 11.
[3] "In philosophical anthropology, transcendence - in keeping with its etymology transcendere - signifies a surpassing (a going-out-beyond or a rising-above), to the extent that this is verifiable in the comprehensive experience of the human being ... Transcendence is the spirituality of the human being revealing itself": K. Wojtyla: Person and Community: Selected Essays, op. cit., p. 233.
[4] A well-known historian of the 1789 French Revolution, noting that the "Declaration of Rights", one of its founding acts, was a list of rights without a corresponding list of duties, comments that perhaps the National Assembly preferred to pass over this aspect of the civil problem because "rights coupled with duties look suspiciously like wrongs" (J. M. Thompson, The French Revolution, p. 88). Liberal movements which sprung from the Revolution did little to allay this suspicion or to overcome the individualism underlying it. Yet it is evident that, rights and duties being correlative, no genuine philosophy of rights can fail to be at the same time a philosophy of duties.
[5] The Greening of America, pp. 241-245.
[6] cf. David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 1950.
[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1984, p. 229.
[8] P. Allen: "Integral sex complementarity": Communio, 17 (1990), p. 537.
[9] Within the individualist perspective, "the good of the individual is treated as if it were opposed or in contradiction to other individuals and their good; at best, this good, in essence, may be considered as involving self-preservation and self-defense ... For the individual the "others" are a source of limitation, they may even appear to represent the opposite pole in a variety of conflicting interests. If a community is formed, its purpose is to protect the good of the individual from the "others". This is, in broad outline, the essence of individualism": K. Wojtyla: The Acting Person. op. cit., p. 274.
[10] "Modern society is indeed often ... nothing but a collection of strangers, each pursuing his or her own interests under minimal constraints": A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 250-252.