Don’t tread on . . .

Is an individual more important than a group, why or why not?

…as answered on Quora

I think the question frames the problem of the individual vis-à-vis the collective in a somewhat skewed way. We do not, in a theory of justice, weigh individuals against groups. Not really. Sure, it is a kind of short-hand heuristic to prevent tyranny and mob chaos, but the pertinent issue is this: by focusing on individuals’ specific actions rather than group membership we become able to regulate in-group/out-group antagonisms. And thus keep barbarism at bay.

That is, by applying the same standard to all individuals, up and down and in and out the institutional matrix, we prevent the worst abuses of collectivist thinking and behavior.

And what is collectivist thinking? Not just communism and socialism. It is far more common than that; it is ubiquitous.

Groups tend to form because they are extremely useful and because we are a social species, requiring others’ company just to retain our humanity. But once a group is formed, our biases take over and we tend to favor our in-groups over out-groups and independents (unaffiliated persons). To prevent war, witch hunts, railroading, mass exploitation, persecution, and so much more, we focus the standard provided by the rule of law on individuals, not organizations.

Of course, our current civilization has many exceptions to this liberal idea. But we are no longer a liberal society. Progressives today seem to be turning their back on individual liberty, in the cause of their “intersectionalist” rubric of group identification and positioning; conservatives . . . well, conservatives hate “liberals,” and when they discover themselves thinking liberally, they too often just slow down and question themselves. Both groups hate each other in a grand example of in-group/out-group antagonism.

So, to repeat, I do not think it is a matter of “individuals” being more or less “important” than “groups,” but that group behavior must be regulated along the same lines as independent individual behavior: applying a standard of justice evenly, regardless of group membership, and holding individuals within groups accountable — as much as possible — as individuals rather than as subjects to group privilege, given cover under the umbrella of some anointed collective.

What I have sketched, above, is standard liberalism, of course. It should seem familiar to both conservatives and progressives. But it is, in our time, something that libertarians apply the most rigorously.

Of course, libertarians do usually conceive of the problem as The Individual vs. the State and The Individual vs. the Group. But that is — I hazard — distracting. Because, though individuals are regularly ground down by groups, the greatest crimes of humanity go out of whack group by group. Individualism — the standard I discuss above — protects groups as well as individuals, and it does so by not making any single group’s values a standard, but applying, instead, a set of formal rules to individuals. It’s a way out of the collectivist trap.

And this trap is not a question of the Universal Humanity against other groups and against individuals. For there is no organizable “Univeral Humanity.” That’s an illusion. The universality of humanity may be conceived of as a category, but it cannot be organized. Any attempt to make an umbrella group and its values as the standard to regulate human behavior devolves quickly into smaller groups, and their conflicts.

Thus the need for individualism.

It’s not a question of which is more “important” — for, in a sense, groups are “more important,” for it is in groups that most work gets done. To repeat, by focusing on individual action — and transactions — we can make sure group antagonisms do not spin out of control. Individualism is not “against society” in any meaningful sense. Indeed, it is a theory of — and best practice for — sociality.


Herbert Spencer, leading individualist philosopher of the 19th century.