Friday, May 28, 2021

Individualism and Altruism

Interesting essay in the Times by Abigail Marsh asking whether America's individualism – however you measure that trait, the US always come out at or near the top – makes us worse people. Marsh says it does not, and that in fact Americans are by most measures among the world's most altruistic people. We give more to charity, donate more organs, care more about animal rights, and so on. Marsh:

How does individualism manage to promote altruism? One possibility, supported by other research, is that people in individualist cultures generally report greater degrees of “thriving” and satisfaction of life goals — and as noted above, such subjective feelings are meaningfully correlated with greater amounts of altruism. (Indeed, research has shown that being altruistic, in turn, promotes greater feelings of personal well-being, creating a virtuous circle.)

Another possibility is that individualism boosts altruism by psychologically freeing people to pursue goals that they find meaningful — goals that can include things like alleviating suffering and caring for others, which studies suggest are widespread moral values.

A third possibility is that individualism promotes a more universalist outlook. In focusing on individual rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on groups — and the differences between “us” and “them” that notoriously erode generosity toward those outside one’s own circle.

This is interesting but not, I think, definitive. Americans give more to charity partly because we pay lower taxes and have a less robust welfare state. Americans donate more money to victims of disasters in faraway places, personally, but governments like those of Norway and Germany devote a much bigger percentage of their budgets to such efforts.

I do agree with the main point, though, which is that old-fashioned group loyalty is not necessarily an ethical boon. Sometimes strong communities tightly control their members and punish any violation of common values with shunning or worse. And sometimes strong communities are hostile to outsiders; much of human history consists of strong communities that looked after their own waging war against other, similarly strong communities.

No system is perfect. Raised an American, I prefer the freedom of our system, but I recognize that our mutual indifference can be a serious problem. A world in which people care for each other without wanting to control each other, and without hostility to outsiders, seems beyond our reach.

1 comment:

David said...

It occurred to me when I read the article that people in more "collectivist" societies--which by many measures, I imagine, means more family-oriented, not collectivist in the society-wide sense--spend a lot more time caring for and catering to family members, including quite demanding or needy ones. This may leave their altruism somewhat exhausted.

In addition, there is a kind of familial solipsism, again especially in "collectivist" societies. One takes care of one's own first, before both oneself and the wider society. And so they save their money, time, organs, etc., for family members.