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More confusion about individualism in The New York Times

Humans—A Social Species

By Jonathan B. Wight

John Terrell, an anthropologist, takes on the myth of the individual John-edward-terrellas the defining feature of human life.  It’s basically bunk:

The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. 

He also makes a claim that Enlightenment philosophers who argued from the perspective of the individual (like Rousseau) did so essentially for political, not scientific, reasons.  In other words, his political agenda clouded his judgment as a scientist:

Even if some of us may choose sooner or later to disappear into the woods or sit on a mountaintop in deep meditation, we humans are able to do so only if before such individualistic anti-social resolve we have first been socially nurtured and socially taught survival arts by others. The distinction Rousseau and others tried to draw between “natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual” and “civil liberty, which is limited by the general will” is fanciful, not factual.

One might add that the learning we receive at the hands of parents and mentors is only partially self-serving. Many mentors help us with no expectation of reward. Like diners who tip at highway restaurants, at times helping others just feels like the right thing to do. 

Moral sentiment, not material calculation, drives much social interaction.  And that is a good thing if moderated by appropriate institutions.

Comments

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You beat me to it, Jonathan! My take, however, was a bit different (but not necessarily in disagreement): http://www.economicsandethics.org/2014/12/more-confusion-about-individualism-in-the-new-york-times.html

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