HOW the collective emerges out of the individual or how the individual emerges out of the community are questions that go to the heart of modern society. Of course, two possible solutions are either that there is no such thing as community or that there is no such thing as the individual. But for the purposes of this blog we will assume that both exist and attempt to work out how, if at all, the individual becomes part of the collective without losing an ethical perspective.
In I and Thou Martin Buber, as the title of his book implies, starts with the individual. For him the social means ‘the community that is built up out of relation’ but he is aware of the problem that involves the ‘collection of human units that do not know relation – modern man’s palpable condition of lack of relation’. Bearing in mind that this book was written in the 1930s, one wonders what Buber would think about today’s atomized society. Be that as it may, Buber writes: “Then we find only the one flow I to Thou unending, to one boundless flow of the real life.” But then Buber argues that the ‘religious man stands as a single, isolated, separated being before God, since he has also gone beyond the state of the moral man, who is still involved in duty and obligation to the world’. The moral man is ‘still burdened with responsibility for the action of those who act’. Here Buber becomes somewhat opaque as he argues at the same time that although the individual is not ‘freed from responsibility’ he has nevertheless ‘abolished moral judgements for ever’.
If this sounds familiar it may be because Buber was influenced by Soren Kierkegaard for whom God becomes dispensable if He is drawn into the ethical sphere and will then, eventually, disappear. Interestingly, Buber references Nietzsche and it it’s hard not to draw a parallel with his notion of Beyond Good and Evil, which transfers amorality from God to to a post-God world, a world which morality has no meaning unless it is ruled by the Ubermensch for whom morality means whatever is good or bad for him.
Another profound philosophy of the individual is existentialism, although it is often argued that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were its precursors. Jean-Paul Sartre was acutely aware of the problem that self-creation and individual freedom posed for ethics. He always intended to address this problem after his magnum opus Being and Nothingness but he never did. It was left to his lover Simone de Beauvoir to tackle this problem and she attempted this in her Ethics of Ambiguity in which she claims that it is the essential tensions that we experience in life – the chief of which is that between life and death – that lead to the place where ethics, politics and metaphysics intersect. What this means concretely is that at the very point that we become aware of our own existence we also become aware of sharing it with others so that, for example, ‘I’ cannot ‘will my own freedom without, at the same time, willing the freedom of others’.
John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice also attempts to extrapolate from the individual to the sort of society that it would choose if it had no idea what its position in society was. But as we have seen in a previous blog he does this in a question-begging sort of way by excluding any kind of communitarian solution in which a communal role is, in part at least, constitutive of the individual’s identity.
It seems, then, that the very notion of ethics is precarious when one starts with the individual. Either it disappears with the appearance of God (Buber and Kierkegaard) or it disappears with the death of God (Nietzsche). Alternatively, it rests in the restless world of ambiguity (de Beauvoir) or begs the question against anyone who proposes a more communitarian approach.
In the next blog we will focus on communitarianism to see if it can do any better and move on from ambiguity.