Monday, February 4, 2013

Postmodern individualism

An Ethical Musings reader prompted this post, suggesting that I write about postmodern individualism. (NB: Suggestions for posts are always welcome!)

Defining each word provides a helpful backdrop for discussing the phrase. The nineteenth century French historian and politician, Alexis de Tocqueville, apparently first used the term individualism, which suggests that a focus on self in contrast to family or a larger grouping is relatively new. The most extreme and weirdest example of individualism I have encountered is the 2003 marriage in Haarlem, Holland, of Jennifer Hoes to herself. The German magazine, Der Spiegel, reported that she explained, "We live in a Me society. Hence, it is logical that one promises to be faithful to oneself." In sum, individualism emphasizes self above all else. The German philosopher Max Stirner, an advocate of individualism, hoped that each person would become "an almighty I."

Postmodern is a widely used concept but ill defined. Postmodern may mean that which occurred after the modern era, a period often identified as the first half, or even most, of the twentieth century. More philosophically, postmodern connotes an outlook that rejects the accessibility, perhaps even the existence, of absolute truth and advocates relativism as the basis for human thought, including ethics, philosophy, and religion.

For example, in one Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and his friends lie on their backs in a grassy field, watching clouds drift across the skies. One of his friends sees a famous painting in a particular cloud formation. An embarrassed Charlie Brown was about to suggest that the formation resembled a horse and a sheep. Millard J. Erickson in The Postmodern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of our Age, citing that cartoon, writes that clouds really have no shapes or patterns, only those shapes or patterns that individuals impose.

Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger universalized this idea when he wrote that reality is just as a person perceives it. German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote that when faced with conflicting moral positions, "the individual has to decide which is God for him and which is the devil."

Postmodern individualism refers to a radical individualism linked to total, or nearly total, relativism. There are at least two problems with radical postmodern individualism. First, postmodern individualism carried to its logical conclusion makes community – whether family, tribe, nation, church, or any other form of community – impossible. Community requires compromise, two or more individuals willingly agreeing to make room, figuratively and literally, for the other. This room generally entails emotional space, as well as accepting divergent ideas, values, behaviors, and so forth.

Regardless of what we might want to think, no person can exist entirely and completely as an individual. Without human succor, a newborn will die. Death may not be as immediate for an infant, a seriously ill person, or an elderly individual suffering severe decline in mental or physical capacity forced to exist without assistance from anyone else, but death is as inevitable for such a person as for the newborn. None of these people has the requisite capacities to produce and preserve food, construct shelter, fabricate clothing and other necessities, etc. Stories of lone adult castaways such as Robinson Crusoe tell a highly romanticized and literally incredible (i.e., unbelievable) tale of an individual triumphing alone against the world. Even when successful at satisfying human requirements for water, food, shelter, and clothing, Crusoe's greatest need, for friendship, remains unmet until he establishes a relationship with Friday.

Ironically, postmodern individualism dehumanizes instead of humanizes people, the opposite of what it promises. When I view others primarily as a means to an end (that is, as a means to my happiness or flourishing), I block the possibility of entering into a genuine relationship with that person; the same applies to any relationship that I may seek to have with animals or with God. This is one lesson that we can learn from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who contrasted I-Thou relationships with I-It relationships. In the 1970s and 80s, Jesuit priest John Powell used Buber's thinking to create a series of very popular workshops and books in which he interpreted the goal of Jesus' message as helping people to become fully human, fully human.

Postmodern individualism, at least in part, appears to be a reaction to the narrow certainties of the Victorian era and its continental counterparts. The apostle Paul wrote that we see as though through a glass or mirror, dimly, i.e., imperfectly and incompletely.

Secondly, postmodern individualism with its absolute relativism provides no basis for declaring any behavior wrong for everyone. Thus, some may claim the daily prerogative of murdering with moral impunity, some may opt for pedophilia, etc. I find this prospect so deeply troubling that I cannot accept it. Some behaviors – such as pedophilia, wanton murder, and rape – appear always, or at least almost always (allowing for remote, usually hypothetical, exceptions), morally wrong.

Affirmations of human dignity, the worth of all creation, and respect for life transcend cultural boundaries and appear to have roots in most societies as well as human biology, i.e., they result from an experiential, pragmatic epistemology. Those propositions currently offer reasonable foundations for ethics and efforts to promote human flourishing. However, subsequent generations, with the benefit of a perspective perhaps shaped by space travel, undreamt of scientific discoveries and theories, and other new data may substantially revise those foundations. In other words, healthy relativism permits me to appreciate human diversity in the present, encourage ethical living and flourishing, and remain open to unexpected future possibilities.

Creative living happens when people hold in tension individualism (God created each of us as unique individuals), community (no person is an island, no person can become fully human, fully alive, apart from community), and resist the temptation to absolutize our limited, temporal understandings and perspectives. Postmodern individualism provides an insufficient foundation for human flourishing.

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