Viewpoint: Do rights of the few drown out morality?How does an exaggerated individualism contribute to its opposite, i.e., to a collectivistic, and increasingly regimented society? It weakens, perhaps even destroys, the mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state.
By: Thomas St Martin, Woodbury Bulletin
What is a paradox? According to my dictionary it a statement that seems contradictory … but may be true in fact. There are, as we know, many seemingly paradoxical assertions floating about these days. There are folks who, for example, prate about the dignity and value of the human person while simultaneously and loudly embracing a utilitarian ethic that effectively devalues, denigrates human life. Such views, however, are not paradoxical in the dictionary sense of the word. They are, rather, blatant contradictions, symptoms of intellectual and moral sloth. Or, alternatively, deceitful sophistries spun out by crafty propagandists. Unfortunately, however, we typically overlook, ignore a very real and challenging paradox, one that passes dictionary muster. Simply put, it is this: why does our vaunted commitment to individualism and individual freedom seem to move us toward its polar opposite, i.e., toward a collectivistic, centralized bureaucratic oligarchy?
Arguably, the answer to this question is to be found in the now widely held view that we are essentially atomistic unencumbered selves. And in the corollary notion that the individual’s conscience, the individual’s needs/wants trump any attachment to or even respect for what Edmund Burke, 18th century English political philosopher, famously called “little platoons” of meaning (i.e., mediating institutions). We are but autonomous singularities, a collection of individuals fighting, a la Hobbes, for their respective rights. The result? Family ties are weakened, even condemned as “oppressive.” Churches (especially those that resist the ambient secular humanistic culture) are told that they should not “impose” their values on others. Moreover, even freedom of speech is viewed by some as an individual right only: “corporate” speech must be constrained (censored?). Many voluntary charitable and private organizations are often co-opted, told, in effect, that because they receive public funds, they are to subordinate their principles to the rights of the individuals that they serve. And there is the widely held notion that non-governmental organizations, churches especially, must subordinate their principles to the consciences of their individual members.
I am aware, of course, that these comments will be cavalierly dismissed by some, ridiculed by others. Still others – perhaps even the majority of Bulletin readers – will argue that it just ain’t so: that my examples are farfetched, alarmist or worse. So then, an example. Consider the recent controversy triggered by the federal government’s “free” contraception mandate. According to this dictum, Catholic religious institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) would be obliged, whether directly or indirectly, to pay for employee health insurance coverage which includes contraceptive and abortifacient drugs. Although many people properly see any such policy as an egregious affront to religious freedom, many others—perhaps a majority – see it as a vindication of individual rights, women’s rights in particular. Forget that it attacks the Catholic church’s core beliefs, its institutional integrity. As an institution qua institution it has no standing in the matter. Individual rights, demands/desires are trump.
But to return to my opening question: how does an exaggerated individualism contribute to its opposite, i.e., to a collectivistic, and increasingly regimented society? The short answer is that it weakens, perhaps even destroys the mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state. Without the protection and diversity provided by Burke’s “little platoons,” the individual has little to protect himself or herself from encroaching state power. The absence of strong mediating institutions creates a social vacuum which the state is seemingly eager to fill. Moreover, the individual’s demands boomerang, effectually limiting rather than enhancing individual freedom. Consider the way in which our paradoxical demands for more, yet less costly health care are likely to engender more bureaucracy, more regulation and eventually a reduction in the quality of the services provided.
Be wary then. Although our concern for protection of individual rights and the satisfaction of individual needs is not intrinsically undesirable, we must nevertheless remember that human society is more than a mere collection of autonomous selves. It is or should be a group living together as a smaller social unit within a larger one. Not a collection of individuals bound together by a superior force/will. A community, of course, might not be as well “planned” and well ordered as the utopians among us would like, but it would likely be more humane.
St. Martin is a Woodbury resident