Mark D. White
In this morning's installment of The Stone in The New York Times, anthropologist John Edward Terrell invokes against the individualist strain in modern politics, especially on behalf of "Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe." But, as regular New York Times columnist David Brooks often does, Professor Terrell conflates individualism with self-interest, ultimately attacking a straw man.
Most of Terrell's piece is uncontroversial. He surveys ancient philosophers who emphasized the social nature of persons and the modern science that supports them. (He finds this ironic, implying that some woud disagree; who, exactly, remains to be seen.) He discusses religious traditions that emphasize community and responsibility, and contrasts this with Enlightment thinkers that emphasized the individual (each in his own nuanced way).
Near the end of the piece, though, he stakes a bold claim: "the sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals." This is a false dichotomy, for there is no contrast at all. Rights and liberties are necessary (if not sufficient) for a functioning civil society. Rights and liberties enable individuals to pursue their own interests broadly defined, which may and often do include their own well-being, the well-being of others, and ideals such as justice and equality. Libertarians and "Tea Party Conservatives" may place more emphasis on rights and liberties because they see support for them declining, but this does not imply that it is their only concern and that they think it is the sole metric of human progress and well-being.
Terrell also writes, "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." I agree, it is a fabrication, but in the sense of a straw man fabricated by Terrell himself, not any prominent conservative or libertarian thinker.
I'll end where Terrell began: politics. He writes that part of the divide between left and right in the US is over the "role of the individual," with the left "more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives" while the right (and libertarians) favoring rapacious self-interest. (I paraphrased a bit there.)
Let me offer an alternative, although it doesn't strike such a stark tone. Both left and right appreciate and value the social nature of the individual and their responsibilities to each other. Where they differ is in the role of the state in executing those responsibilities. The left believes the state should take care of the needy, through social programs and redistribution, while the right (and libertarians) believe individuals, acting alone or through voluntary organizations, should help each other. (And they do, as numerous studies have shown.) In other words, those who Terrell accuses of worshipping at the altar of self-interest are actually expressing their responsibility toward other individuals as an exercise of the rights and liberties they value so highly.
In short, rights and liberties are not always used to further self-interest, and the institutions of government often are. Individualism is not self-interest—on the contrary, the most noble and admirable acts of charity are those that result from the free actions of individuals acting in their sense of social responsibility.
There is no contrast here—let's not fabricate one.