This is an excerpt from a manuscript (work in progress) on individualism.

The most recognized contemporary criticism of individualism is commonly associated with Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael J. Sandel. Their general view is that the individualist individual is socially and metaphysically untenable. Sandel has developed his critique taking Immanuel Kant’s ethics as starting point. Kant thought that moral principles should be learned through reason alone and developed his categorical imperative via a transcendental argument (DePaul and Hicks 2016). According to Kant, to acquire moral knowledge we need to consider the moral subject, i.e., human beings, independent of experience. His argument leads to the view that the right, i.e., duty, has priority over the good, i.e., e.g., happiness (Sandel 1998, p. 9):

On the Kantian view, the priority of right is both moral and foundational. It is grounded in the concept of a subject given prior to its ends, a concept held indispensable to our understanding ourselves as freely choosing, autonomous beings. Society is best arranged when it is governed by principles that do not presuppose any particular conception of the good, for any other arrangement would fail to respect persons as beings capable of choice; it would treat them as objects rather than subjects, as means rather than ends in themselves.

Sandel opposes Kant’s view. According to Sandel, the “independence of the deontological moral subject is a liberal illusion” (p. 11):

It misunderstands the fundamentally “social” nature of man, the fact that we are conditioned beings “all the way down”. There is no point of exemption, no transcendental subject capable of standing outside society or outside experience. We are at every moment what we have become, a concatenation of desires and inclinations with nothing left over to inhabit a noumenal realm.

According to MacIntyre, the Aristotelean notion of the good life is central to morality. Arguments about the good life are not purely theoretical but are necessarily placed within a framework of community and tradition. Therefore, the individual—whose life should be good—needs to be considered as an inherently social being. MacIntyre writes (1984, p. 220):

But it is not just that different individuals live in different social circumstances; it is also that we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity.

Taylor argues that individualism has brought about desirable changes in society, as it has liberated individuals from predetermined social roles, such as “shoemaker” or “villager.” However, while those roles constrained people, they also gave their lives purpose and a sense of direction. Individualism cannot provide meaning to individuals’ lives, as all goals and agendas gain their importance “against a background of intelligibility,” an “inescapable horizon” (p. 37). Meaning cannot be found “in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity” (p. 40; emphasis in original):

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters.

References

DePaul, M., & Hicks, A. (2016). A Priorism in Moral Epistemology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved (2020-05-18) from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-epistemology-a-priori/

MacIntyre, A. (1984). After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press.

Sandel, M. (1998). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press.