Wed | Nov 14, 2018

Individualism and the common good

Published:Friday | January 22, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Everyone has an ethical system by which they live and act. Not everyone, when making a moral evaluation, or taking a decision, consciously brings to bear on the situation a set of moral principles or yardsticks. But whether aware of it or not, that is exactly what everyone does.

That is not to say that everyone's personal ethical system is internally consistent and free of contradictions. We want an end to corruption, but we also want a 'bly'. We want a clean, healthy environment, but we also litter the place. We want our children to be free from abuse, but then we beat them and shout at them. We want more respect for women, but then we lionise 'gyallis' behaviour.

There are many who have not thought through their moral values but operate on expediency - on the demands and feelings of the moment. What is right is what I feel like doing at the time. Some ethicists argue that this is really the absence of ethics, the absence of moral principles, and a version of the pleasure-pain principle that operates among lower animals: you do it if it feels good, and you avoid it if it hurts. Dogs and donkeys operate on this principle, but humans have more highly developed cognitive skills and are moral beings in their nature.

A moral principle urges you to take a course of action you may not enjoy at all, but because you believe it is right. Self-preservation is an instinct deeply rooted in the human psyche; were we to act on it all the time, we would run away from all physical conflict. Some people put themselves in harm's way because they believe it is their duty to do so - for the greater good, or for the benefit of others. Such a person is not behaving like an animal, but like a human being. That's human morality at work.

Real humans have the ability to deny themselves pleasure, to override the pleasure-pain principle of our lower selves. This is called self-control or self-discipline. Developing it is part of the process of human growth and maturity. It has to be learnt, and it has to be nurtured and strengthened. Sadly, many never learn it, and most never master it.

Overweight people cannot control their appetites for food, and drunkards don't know

when to stop; the incidence of rape and child sex abuse in Jamaica indicates that many cannot control their sexual urges; the high incidence of teenage pregnancy - particularly among schoolgirls - suggests that sexual self-discipline is not taught well, or highly valued.




Or maybe the opposite is being taught. Our boys are taught that 'real man have nuff gyal' and that manhood is evaluated in bedroom conquests and performance. Girls are taught that they do not become real women unless they have a child and that they have to develop bedroom skills early. These animal, rather than human, values are reinforced by the dancehall, cable television and the easy availability of pornography.

In the early stages of human development, young children are focused on themselves. Good parenting encourages children to see that there are other people in the world who have needs, too, and who have to be accommodated. Some children never learn this and grow up selfish and self-centred. A healthy personality balances pursuit of what is good for me with pursuit of the common good.

And this is the delicate balance to which the State has to aim: allowing freedom for individuals to achieve their full potential, while ensuring that the common good is also attained. Some political philosophies overemphasise the latter, totally subjugating the individual to the common good, while others so promote individualism that the common good is lost.

The phase of human history of which we are now part is dominated by individualism. The cry today is for everyone to fulfil themselves, to be true to themselves, to become what they want to be, rather than to build a better world even at great personal sacrifice, which was the cry of an earlier age. I am not sure that today we are in a better place.

The pursuit of individualism locally and globally has led to growing inequality, unemployment, deprivation, corruption, insecurity and crime. Sex without responsibility has led to a breakdown in the family. The State seems unwilling to encourage genuine sexual self-control - which will promote the common good - for fear of losing votes.

Let each of us examine ourselves and seek to develop a consistent personal morality that supports the common good.

- Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to