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Individuality and Civil Society

Member Views is a series of opinion pieces written by Blue Beyond members.

A key critique of the classical strand of liberalism is that it is a selfish ideology. The classical liberal (and conservative), it is said, is an egoist and self-serving being. Such a state, inevitably, draws connotations of malice and greed. If the individual is paramount then, surely, they have the sole objective of self-improvement. This therefore comes exclusively at the expense of others. It is the purpose of this article to counter this claim. Human beings, despite being individualist, are also social creatures. It is the juxtaposition of these two relations which allows the citizen to engage emphatically in a civil society and to better both the condition of themselves and their fellow man.

The social contract, put forth by the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke in various forms, suggests that society is the product of a mutual escape from the dangerous state of nature. Association with fellow citizens may see the reduction of one’s own natural liberty but in return one gains a new atmosphere within which their freedom is, relatively, greatly expanded. For instance, one loses the ability to kill another though in return will not be killed. Secure in a new haven of association, the citizen is bestowed with the dividends of civil society such as justice, knowledge, art and peace.

Engagement in civil society is built upon two pillars which produces an amicable environment. The first is social and psychological. According to Adam Smith, in Theory of Moral Sentiments, humans have a sympathy towards each other that is immediate, genuine and natural. One could interpret it as a biological matter-of-fact, or more plainly a reflection of the human condition. Indeed, if another is about to be hurt, we sympathise and wince; as another walks a cliff edge, we fear for their balance; and as another demonstrably is happy or sad, so too do we find ourselves feeling happy or sad. The natural response to these situations is for, as a human towards another human just as a citizen towards another citizen, is biased towards kindness and cooperation.

This innate sense of duty to each other explains why at the onset of every possible, conceivable social interaction we possess a pre-determined moral compass of how to act; and it rarely is maliciously. It creates a situation where humans lean towards justice, honesty and politeness. These assertions suggest inevitably that there must exist knowledge sites out-with purely the rational and empirical. Scientific knowledge, if one is to call it that, can be supplemented by moral knowledge in the domain of a posteriori reason and emotionally acquired knowledge through music, art and literature.

Institutions that are erected from these knowledge sites, reflective of the human condition of sociality, help form civil society. As Georg Hegel noted in Philosophy of Right, the civil society is the domain that exists between the social units of family and the state. Relations between each citizen is, by nature of being singular entities, are guided by means towards one’s own ends. Far from being selfish though, this creates a system of interdependence, “wherein the livelihood, welfare, and rightful existence of one individual are interwoven with the livelihood, welfare, and rights of all”. One should never forget, after all, that the individual can only ever satisfy their own want. Values for each person are scaled, and the individual can only pursue their own preferences rather than those of another. Within one’s own value-sphere, one’s want is |supreme and not subject to any dictation by others”.

The second pillar by which the citizen exercises individual autonomy is economic, yet even here there still persists a mutual, beneficial transaction. Exchanges in societies that value individuality, as opposed to collectivist, totalitarian societies, are free and entirely voluntary. The existence of alternative suppliers provides the citizen with protection from supplier coercion. Indeed, the supplier’s prices can never be too high for two reasons. Firstly, the consumer may exercise their individual right to engage with another individual for custom. Secondly, the supplier cannot feasibly entertain high prices since a secondary supplier will vie for the consumer’s attention.

The institution of individuality produces the conditions for a civil society. It is this civil society which, through sociality, custom, tradition and culture self-replicates itself to produce the conditions required for liberty. As Cato was remarked stating by Cicero: the Roman constitution was so great because it was not the product of the thinking of a single man from a single generation. Rather, it was the product of many generations and many ages of men. Such things as individuality are one of the many institutions that the observer might remark as hard to create yet easy to destroy. Far from being accused as selfish, the conservative and classical liberal (despite their differences) can be under no illusion of the benefits of individuality. Humans hold an innate tendency to better both themselves and their fellow man; this materalises both as a reflection on the human spirit and its manifestation through economic exchange.

Toby Irwin