Tue | Oct 23, 2018

Peter Espeut | Individualism vs the common good

Published:Friday | July 29, 2016 | 12:00 AM

As times change, the dominant values that guide society change, and not always for the better. In recent times, we see a slow shift away from values that promote the common good towards those which centre on individualism.

Those who seek the common good work for the good of all people (especially the powerless) and of the whole person (body, mind and spirit). This is underpinned by a belief that the human person is a social being, unable to find fulfilment in himself, apart from the fact that he exists 'with' others and 'for' others.

The function of law, in this context, is to improve life in society, especially for those at the margin. Laws are directed at promoting the good order of society, and encouraging those institutions that build up society (like the church and the family), and discouraging those that break down good order in society.

Individualism begins from the assertion of the absolute right of the individual to do whatever he feels is right for him or her. All other rights are subjugated to this one absolute right. In this context, the function of law is to promote the freedom of each individual to do whatever they wish to do, as long as they do not infringe the rights of others to do the same. Any action which might restrict this absolute right of individuals will become illegal.

Individualism and the pursuit of the common good are incompatible, and each person and each society has to make a fundamental choice between the two. The former is directed towards the self, while the latter is directed toward the good of the whole.

A fundamental stance in favour of the common good is compatible with many religious formations, including Christianity, which identifies love of God with love of neighbour. Ultimately, individualism leads to a rejection of the transcendent, because God has a tendency to ask individuals to deny themselves, and to give away their possessions to others, rather than to satisfy the desires of the flesh, and greed. Ultimately, individualism leads to moral relativism.

The philosophy and doctrine of individualism is the context in which various groups claim 'rights'. The 'pro-choice' groups claim that a woman has the right to do with her own body whatever she feels like, and therefore should be able to demand an abortion if she wishes to 'dash weh de baby'. 'Reproductive rights' means that people have the right to have sex while avoiding the consequences, requiring the state to make contraceptives and abortifacients available to them.




'LGBTQI rights' means that 'consenting adults have the right to do whatever they want to do in the privacy of their bedrooms', and demands that everyone else consider it to be 'normal' and 'natural'. Marriage must be redefined to include unions between any combinations of genders and numbers of persons who wish to enter into such contractual unions (e.g., three women and two men, and maybe the dog).

This 'absolute right of the individual to do whatever he feels is right for him or her' is intolerant of any other view, and trumps all other 'rights'. To state openly that homosexuality is unnatural may make the speaker guilty of discrimination and hate crimes. The 'right of free speech', protected by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, must be abrogated in favour of the one absolute right of the individual to do what he/she wants. 'Freedom of conscience' and 'freedom of religion' must similarly give way.

Today's society (not only Jamaica) suffers from a lack of critical thinking. The disciplines of logic and philosophy are not taught in school, resulting in sloppy thinking and false conclusions. Christian funda-mentalism leads adherents to quote passages from the Bible as 'proof texts', to an audience that does not regard the Bible as authoritative. They would do better to study 'natural law', a branch of philosophy that reasons towards ethics from first principles rather than from a religious text.

Individualism (basically selfishness by another name) is no basis on which to organise society. A focus on the common good keeps the human personality (mind, body, spirit) in balance, while focusing on the passions can lead to the oversexualisation of society and the commoditisation of people.

I think we need to lift the level of public discourse by discussing the philosophical underpinnings of modern trends in law and governance; otherwise, we will slide down the slippery slope towards dissolution and decadence and deeper personality disorders.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.