DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Individualism

Let us begin with some basic ethical premises. The deepest commitment of liberal political philosophy is to individualism, as a fundamental proposition about value. Liberal individualism has four parts to it.

First, liberals believe that the individual person is what matters for the purposes of social and political evaluation. We may be interested in the fate of a culture, a language, a community or a nation, but for a liberal such interest is always secondary or derivative. Ultimate value has to do with how things are for ordinary men and women, considered one by one: their pains and pleasures, their preferences and aspirations, their survival, development and flourishing. Of course, people do care about each other: individualism is not the same as egoism. But individualism excludes social and collective entities from the realm of ultimate goods.

There is less agreement about the grounds for this individualization of value. John Locke, writing in the seventeenth century, based it on each person being the workmanship and property of God, which meant that we were ‘made to last during His, not one anothers Pleasure’ (1690). This relation to God was direct, unmediated and unconditional in the case of each individual. It therefore established a basis for our rights with respect to one another that did not presuppose validation by larger social structures.

Modern liberalism, however, is a secular tradition, and its history since Locke’s time is largely a history of the attempt to establish this individualism without appealing to the idea of God. Utilitarian thinkers linked the notion of value analytically to desire or preference, and they inferred, from the fact that desiring and preferring were attributes of individuals, that the fundamentals of value must be individualistic too (see Utilitarianism). Those following in the tradition of Kant, on the other hand, linked value analytically to the lonely individualism of will, conscience and the sense of duty, and drew the conclusion that each person, qua moral agent, was entitled to be regarded as an end in themselves, not just a means to broader social ends. The Kantian view has perhaps fared better in modern political philosophy, although its underlying argument – that because moral thinking takes place at the level of individual minds and wills, individual minds and wills must also be the fundamental objects of moral concern – has yet to be rendered in a compelling form.

Second, liberals believe that there is something particularly important in the capacity of individuals to direct their actions and live their lives, each on their own terms. They believe in the importance of freedom – although what that belief amounts to is one of the controversies referred to earlier. Some define freedom in negative terms: their libertarianism amounts simply to a condemnation of force, coercion and interference in human life. Freedom, they say, is what flourishes when these constraints are taken away, and there is nothing apart from the removal of constraints that needs to be done politically in order for freedom to flourish. Positive conceptions of liberty allow the state a much greater role than this: they may see freedom or autonomy as something to be achieved, rather than taken for granted, in the life of an unrestrained individual, something that requires educated individual capacities and favourable social conditions (see Freedom and liberty).

Some conceptions of positive liberty go well beyond this, moving out of the liberal realm altogether. If freedom is identified with the performance of social duty, or attributed to individuals only by virtue of their participation in some social whole, then the resulting theory can hardly be described as liberal.

Also, if freedom is presented as the achievement of a happy few, something of which the ordinary mass of humanity is incapable, then again we are not dealing with a liberal conception. Although liberal freedom is sometimes a developmental concept, it is not an aristocratic or utopian one. The free direction of a human life is seen as something which ordinary people are capable of, under decent social and political circumstances. When Colonel Rainsborough exclaimed in the Putney Debates of 1647, ‘Really, I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he’, he gave voice to an egalitarianism that lies at the foundations of the liberal tradition (Wootton 1986: 286).

The third aspect of liberal individualism, then, is a commitment to equality. We have to be careful how we formulate this. Liberal philosophers are not necessarily egalitarians in the economic sense. But they are committed as a matter of the basic logic of their position to a principle of underlying equality of basic worth. People are entitled to equal concern for their interests in the design and operation of their society’s institutions; and they have the right to be equally respected in their desire to lead their lives on their own terms (see Equality).

Feminists have sometimes questioned whether this liberal commitment to equality extends across boundaries of gender. In the writings of Locke, Rousseau and Kant it is easy to find throwaway lines that would be described today as sexist or misogynistic. No writer in the liberal canon committed himself explicitly and at length to the emancipation of women much before J.S. Mill’s essay The Subjection of Women in 1868. Nevertheless, the legacy of liberal carelessness on this issue does not pose any major theoretical difficulties for the position that men and women are equal in their moral and political capacities and in the respect to be accorded those capacities. Indeed, the more challenging feminist critique is that liberals exaggerate (rather than deny) the similarities between men and women – that they fail to either acknowledge or accommodate crucial elements of ‘difference’ in moral reasoning and ethical demeanour (see Feminist political philosophy).

A fourth element of liberal individualism involves an insistence on the rights of individual reason. This involves not just freedom of thought, conscience or discussion, but a deeper demand about justification in politics: the demand that rules and institutions of social life must be justified at the tribunal of each individual’s reason.

We see here an important connection between liberal thought and the philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was characterized by a burgeoning confidence in the human ability to make sense of the world, to grasp its regularities and fundamental principles and to manipulate its powers for the benefit of mankind. That drive to understand nature is matched in Enlightenment thought by an optimism at least as strong about the possibility of understanding society and human nature. In one aspect, this optimism is the basis of modern sociology, history and economics. But it is also the source of certain normative attitudes towards social and political justification – an impatience with tradition, mystery, awe and superstition as the basis of order, and a determination to make authority answer at the tribunal of reason and convince us that it is entitled to respect. The social world, even more than the natural world, must be thought of as a world for us (for each of us) – a world whose workings are to be understood by the active enquiries of the individual mind, not by religious dogma, mindless tradition or the hysterics of communal solidarity.

Citing this article:
Waldron, Jeremy. Individualism. Liberalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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