Friday, January 26, 2007

What is "collectivism", and why is it bad?

I've noticed that ideological libertarians tend to denounce utilitarian interventions (e.g. redistributive taxation) as "collectivist", or favouring "the group" over "the individual". I can't make the slightest sense of this charge. Can anyone help me out?

The obvious problem is that "group", in this context, means nothing more than "several individuals". There's nothing obviously anti-individualistic about harming one individual in order to benefit many other individuals. On the contrary, it's hard to see what could possibly be more pro-individual than the utilitarian's desire to maximally benefit every individual in the world!

When libertarians talk about "the individual", I can only charitably interpret this as a definite, rather than generic, description. As established above, their claims would make no sense in relation to individuals in general. They must be talking about that particular individual - call him Bob - who is being harmed for the benefit of others. When they call utilitarians "anti-individual", they just mean we're "anti-Bob" -- in the weak sense that we give greater weight to the interests of multiple people than we do to Bob alone. But then what sort of criticism is this? Who in their right mind wouldn't think that, say, one life could be outweighed by a million? So if this -- the denial of deontological absolutism -- is all that they mean by "collectivism", it's a charge without bite.

A more intuitive definition of the term, I think, would invoke the notion that the group is somehow more than just the sum of its parts. On this understanding, a collectivist would elevate abstractions over real people, pursuing the glory of the group at the expense of the actual people who make it up. Now, I can understand why this anti-human ideology might be thought pernicious -- I'd probably agree, in fact. (Even worse is when an authoritarian leader dishonestly appeals to the "greater good" merely as a smokescreen for consolidating their own power. But I don't imagine anybody supports that!) But of course none of this bears any relation at all to the utilitarian trade-offs that some libertarians seek to slur.

Or am I missing something?


  1. Whenever I've encountered this word from libertarians, I've always assumed that 'collectivist' meant elevating the interests of the majority above the interests of the minority (with the further twist that the 'interests of the majority' are hard to establish and are normally being interpreted by a politician whose own ideology is likely to cause a biased interpretation).

    It's the old question of whether it would be acceptable to enslave a minority if the majority were to benefit from that. Libertarians obviously believe that this is unacceptable, because the minority (even if that minority consisted of a single person, an individual) has rights which take precedence over the interests of the majority.

    Obviously this is an extreme example. Another example might be the case of a group of people of above-average wealth. A collectivist case can be made for redistribution of that wealth, since it would appear to be in the interests of the majority for that to happen (although this is, in fact, nowhere near as obvious as it seems; plenty of governments which attempted this ended up impoverishing the entire nation, Zimbabwe being a recent example). Is punitive taxation of the wealthy justifiable by the benefit it causes for the majority? What about land seizures? What about, say, the Holocaust?

    There is actually an argument which says that Germany's post-WW2 economic boom (in which their economy outgrew all others in Europe, including the victorious British) was aided by the fact that social welfare spending was kept down because many of those unable to work (the mentally or physically disabled) had been executed by Hitler's government. The majority could be said to have benefited from this, but I can't believe that you're arguing that this might be justified.

    For a libertarian, these examples are all abhorrent, because the individual rights of the victims must matter more than whatever benefit the rest of society derives from their violation. A strictly utilitarian collectivist might, on the other hand, be able to justify these violations on the basis of the benefit to the rest of society.

    Most libertarians have probably internalised this concept to the extent that any collectivist action (that is, action in which some individuals are forced to participate in or contribute to without consent) is seen as wrong. And, for what it's worth, I think it's a useful moral guideline, albeit one best used merely as a guideline and not as a rule. Certainly, there are some individuals rights which should remain inviolable no matter how much good it would do others to have them violated.

  2. I couldn't agree more with Rob. Harming some for the greater good of the many by, for example, taking away their rights, is justified on a purely utilitarian approach. Libertarians are taking the deontological view that doing harm itself is wrong, regardless of the greater good. With regards to things like killing and torture I can absolutely get behind this view.

    Where I differ from libertarians is in recognising that (A) certain interests are socially constructed, as you explain in your writings on property, and (B) not all interests should be held as inviolable. Personally I think that the two are strongly linked (those interests which are socially constructed, or to the extent that they are socially constructed, should be treated in a utilitarian fashion while those basic to humanity should be treated in a deontological fashion), but that is the subject of a post I will make in the future.

    The essential problem I see with a collectivist / utilitarian viewpoint is that it is willing to harm some to cause the overall greatest utility. As Rawls points out, this ignores the fact that for the individual harmed, there is no compensation and societies are not unified wholes. For the guy assassinated, it does not matter that this caused peace in the long term.

  3. That's fine, it's not my intention to get into a debate about consequentialism vs. deontology here. (Though for the record, I've written about Rawls' confused objection here. Perhaps it is this confusion that lies behind the libertarian's talk of "collectivism"?) I just don't think that 'collectivist' is an accurate term to describe what the libertarian deontologist is opposing here.

    Put it this way: a consequentialist might think it right to give one person a papercut in order to save another from starvation or torture. The libertarian opposes this -- it violates the first guy's rights. But there's only one individual on either side. There is no meaningful sense in which the utilitarian here is "anti-individual", nor the libertarian "pro-individual". They're each for and against different individuals, is all. (Though of course it's nothing personal. More precisely, the utilitarian weighs all interests equally, whereas the deontologist has a bias in favour of the status quo.)

    So "collectivism" is a misleading and ultimately quite silly label for all this. Coherent speakers should stick to the terms "consequentialist" or "utilitarian", and quit trying to paint these positions as something they're not.

  4. Richard,

    Different libertarians have different views about utilitarian calculation. Many libertarians, especially those who focus a great deal of attention of economics, are in fact philosophical utilitarians, and make utilitarian arguments for libertarianism. I happen to think that they are wrong about that but they are certainly out there.

    Libertarians who are opposed to utilitarian calculation, and who criticize it as "collectivist," may be criticizing any of several related but distinct things, since "collectivism" is a cluster concept that has several related but distinct applications. Classical utilitarianism is individualist in some senses and collectivist in others.

    Speaking for myself, I think there are at least two ways in which classical utilitarianism can be described as objectionably "collectivist."

    (i) The first is indeed related to the standard sacrifice cases that you discuss here. But I think your statement of the case in terms of balancing "interests" obscures the real issue. Libertarians who object to utilitarian calculation aren't entering the debate over whether or not Bob's "interests" can ever be jointly outweighed by Alice's, Ted's, Norah's, etc. in moral deliberations. It has to do with whether certain kinds of "interests" can ever outweigh certain other kinds of "interests." In particular, whether the benefit that Alice, Ted, Norah, etc. can get by forcibly seizing some natural good that rightfully belongs to Bob, can outweigh the violation of Bob's individual liberty of person and property. (Or, more tendentiously, the violation of Bob's right to control his own labor and enjoy the fruits of it.) Principled individualist libertarians (1) deny that the one kind of benefit outweighs the other[*], and (2) argue that the the reason has to do with qualitative distinction between the kinds of benefit and harm, not just a quantitative difference in the amount or the reliability or whatever of utility.

    [*] I've left it open as to whether the first condition is supposed to be a universal statement or a statement of typical conditions, because different libertarians differ on this point, depending on how absolutist they are and on their views on emergency situations.

    That's very far from being a crazy position to take, even for a committed utilitarian. Lots of utilitarians have wanted to make qualitative and not merely quantitative distinctions between different kinds of benefit and harm. As well they should. (Here's a case: suppose you were deliberating whether to rape a child on live television, and that the broadcast would only be played for convicted pedophiles. Presumably the victim would endure suffering from the rape and the audience would get some small pornographic thrill from watching. If all you can do here is run a simple quantitative comparison of total suffering to total enjoyment, then whether or not you should rape the child becomes a matter of whether or not the audience is large enough that the sum of all the small thrills adds up to more than the total suffering inflicted on the victim. And for any non-zero level of thrill that audience members might get, there must be some hypothetical audience which would be large enough to justify raping the child.) I take it that this sort of worry is why many utilitarians have been inclined towards making at least some qualitative distinctions between different kinds of benefits and harms. Also why many of the attempts that have been made (e.g. weighting the calculation so as to take the distribution and not just the net global total of utility into account) have tended to try to bake in some limitations on how badly any individual person can get treated for the profit of other individual people.

    Of course, you might agree with the principle of having some limitations on how individuals can be treated in order to maximize total net utility, but reject the claim that the right limitations to have line up with the limitations suggested by libertarian rights theory. Libertarians will argue that other baselines for treatment of individuals don't guarantee enough respect for their individuality, or the integrity of each person's one and only life. That's a substantive argument to be had elsewhere, but I think that the libertarian position here is certainly intelligible.

    (ii) The second doesn't actually have anything directly to do with sacrifice cases, although I think it explains why many people think that certain sorts of sacrifice cases are morally acceptable, when in fact they are not. To wit, utilitarianism methodologically begins with the idea that the object of ethical deliberation is maximization of global good. I think this is mistaken: the object of ethical deliberation is something much more personal, viz. the best way to live. So my worry here is not whether or not utilitarianism is "collectivist" in its treatment of moral patients, but rather whether or not it is individualist in its treatment of moral agents.

    Thus, for example, utilitarians (including both non-libertarians and some utilitarian libertarians) claim that there are cases where you can justifiably coerce Bob in order to stop a greater or a worse degree of coercion against Alice, Ted, Norah, etc. I think this is a fundamental mistake: the first task you should set yourself to is not keeping down the total amount of injustice going around, but rather not being unjust. Swallowing the personal demands of ethics up into some global mission to maximize net good ends up doing violence to the individuality of the moral agent. (As you may have noticed, it's won't take a very long segue to get from here to Bernard Williams's objections against utilitarianism. So how you feel about those may determine how you feel about the concern here. But whether it's right or it's wrong, again, I hardly think it's a stupid or unintelligible position.)

  5. (Of course, I recognize that there are pragmatic libertarians too. That's why my very first sentence limited the post's scope to "ideological" ones.)

    Sure, my polemics aside, I'd certainly grant that there are intelligible objections in this vicinity. Again, my point is that they don't really have anything fundamentally to do with individuals vs. collectives.

    I think that comes through pretty clearly in your section (i), where you suggest that the dispute is about weighing qualitatively different "kinds" of [presumably still individual] interests. (I don't think that's quite right, because non-consequentialists also oppose weighing within a kind, e.g. committing one rape to prevent a million others.) Anyway, whatever the best way to characterize the dispute between consequentialists and deontologists, "collectivists" vs "individualists" certainly isn't it.

    I guess the key issue is this: "Libertarians will argue that other baselines for treatment of individuals don't guarantee enough respect for their individuality, or the integrity of each person's one and only life."

    This Rawls-Nozickian line of argument really is, I think, completely nonsensical. It's precisely this claim of a link between deontology and individualism that I was objecting to in the original post. There just isn't any real connection there. To save reinventing the wheel, I'll just quote the relevant section from my linked post.

    Nozick writes: "To use a person [for another's benefit] does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice."

    To which I responded: "No-one is claiming that the demanded sacrifice is for his own good. Rather, it is to benefit someone else in greater need, another person for whom their life is the only life they have. Nozick's egoistic objection is patently question-begging. Further, as G.A. Cohen asks, 'if such sacrifice and violation are so horrendous, why should we not be concerned to minimize their occurrence?'"

    And then, of course, there's the argument of my above post, about how utilitarians are pro-every-individual, which seems about as pro-individual as you can get. Thirdly, there's my previous comment which points out that a 1-on-1 utilitarian tradeoff doesn't involve any groups at all.

    Your section (ii) is interesting, though. You point out, in effect, that consequentialists have a broader conception of their moral mission, as it were. They wish to promote value for all the world, when really they ought to limit themselves to keeping their own hands clean. I'll grant there's some sense in which this involves less focus on 'the individual', but again in the definite rather than generic sense. It is less of a focus on themselves. That's not obviously a bad thing. And of course it certainly doesn't entail being "anti-individual" in the broader sense that's typically understood.

    So, just to be clear: the odd swipe aside, my purpose here isn't to object to deontology. What I'm objecting to is the characterization of consequentialism as favouring "the group" over "the individual". I think that's a misleading way to characterize the debate, since their objections aren't really anything to do with groups per se.

  6. Richard,

    I don't think that consequentialists have "a broader conception of their moral mission" than people who urge the objection I suggested in (ii). There's nothing in such a position that would rule out trying to maximize the net global quantity of some good (pleasure, happiness, virtue, human flourishing, whatever). If you believe that philanthropy is a virtue (as I do) then that's one of the things that is included in the "personal demands of ethics" that I mentioned. What it does do is subject your philanthropic projects to certain boundary conditions: whatever good you try to effect in the world has to be consistent with, yes, keeping your hands clean, as it were. So the point isn't that you shouldn't try to promote everybody's well-being (however specified); it's that you have to concern yourself with some other things, too, and so can't set about doing it by any means necessary.

    There's a bunch of other stuff to say, but I have to run off to work shortly. Hopefully I'll be able to come back to it later.

  7. I'm pretty sure that these two words are either terribly vague or nonsensical. I'm leaning towards nonsensical.

    I happen to have a book called "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand." It's due to her influence that some libertarians use words like "collectivist.' Here's the definition:

    "'Individualism' means emphasis on the individual... 'Individualism' is the view that, in social issues, the individual is the unit of value; this is a moral corollary of the principle that each man is an end in himself. Politically, as an expression of this approach, an 'individualist' social system is one that upholds individual rights."

    And collectivism is: "an application to politics of the ethics of altruism. Since man exists only to serve other men, it says, individual rights are a myth; the group is the unit of value and the bearer of sovereignty."

    I have other suggestions for defining the words.

    Individualism is the normative thesis that we ought not sacrifice one for the benefit of another, or many others. Collectivism, in contrast, is the thesis that we can and ought to do this at least sometimes. Collectivism could also be a non-reductionist view about groups. It could maintain that a forest, say, is an epiphenomenal thing with a separate existence from the individual trees that make it up. This would mean that it is possible to talk about sacrificing some trees for the sake of the forest (and not just some other trees).

    Individualism and collectivism could be motivated by theories about comparability between individuals. Perhaps the two could just be theories about measurement.

    Individualism would be the view that, either, each individual has infinite worth or value, or the view that we cannot make interpersonal comparisons because there are no common scales between people. The former thesis would have to make the further claim that there are no bigger and smaller infinities (some deny this), and then conclude that a utilitarian (or "collectivist") calculus would not tell us anything about what to do. The latter claim would also deny the possibility of making interpersonal comparisons and calculations. We could make intrapersonal, but not interpersonal, comparisons. We could say "harming A would benefit B," but we could not say "and the harm to A is less than the benefit to B" since there is no common scale between them.

    Collectivists would deny both claims.

    That's my best kick at this can, although my suspicion is that these are pseudo-concepts, and probably just nonsense.

  8. Curious -- Rand seems to assume that taking individuals as "the unit of value" entails rights/deontology. Well, that's the problem in a nutshell.

  9. Some collectivists, do look to the collective or those who supposedly represent it, not just groups of individuals. Rights or rules for ethnic groups, "the good of the nation" defined as the good of the king or the dictator or the ruling party, who supposedly represents the nation, or of some large national goal, which may not be the goal of the majority or which may not be useful to most people.

    Another issue is that even if you are really trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number rather then some, frequent intervention to try to achieve such good, can in fact do the opposite, and a reasonable argument can be made that frequent and heavy intervention to secure such an alleged common good will in fact produce the opposite. A collectivist, could be someone who frequently imposes, or at least supports such interventions in the economy, and in personal life.

    And then of course there is the argument that certain types of actions against individuals are morally wrong and shouldn't be done even if it might help a larger number. That may be expressed either as an absolute, or as a strong preference and as something that should be given a great weight, or perhaps as something that is wrong, but which for practical reason we will do anyway. In the first case it would be a claim of a moral absolute, and perhaps in the third (although a moral absolute that is violated for practical reasons). The 2nd case is just holding the value of individual liberty and freedom from government or other forms of forceful coercion very highly (but not as an absolute automatically put above all other values). Someone of that opinion could define a collectivist as someone who values liberty and freedom from coercion to a lesser extent, compared to perceived practical benefits to other members of the group.

  10. "Some collectivists do look to the collective or those who supposedly represent it, not just groups of individuals."

    Only "some"? I'm suggesting that this is the very definition of "collectivism". Other consequentialists, e.g. utilitarians, are not anti-individual at all. It's that simple.

    "a reasonable argument can be made that frequent and heavy intervention to secure such an alleged common good will in fact produce the opposite"

    Indeed. See indirect utilitarianism.

    "A collectivist could be someone who frequently imposes or at least supports such interventions in the economy and in personal life.... [or we] could define a collectivist as someone who values liberty and freedom from coercion to a lesser extent, compared to perceived practical benefits to other members of the group."

    Anything's possible if you redefine the language. It's a misleading thing to do, though.

  11. Richard,

    Sorry it's taken me a while to come back to this.

    As a side note, the book that the anonymous poster is quoting from is by Leonard Peikoff, not by Ayn Rand. (It's an attempt at a comprehensive, exegetical presentation of Rand's philosophical thought.) As far as I know it doesn't particularly misrepresent Rand's own view on this point, but the stuff quoted from OPAR should be attributed to Peikoff, not directly to Rand.


    I know that you've addressed the Nozickian line of argument before. But I don't think you've understood Nozick's point well enough to mount a successful critique of it. As I tried (probably unclearly) to stress in my comments above, the issue here isn't that utilitarian calculators think they are pro-individual and Nozickian individualists just ignore it. The issue is that Nozickian individualists have a substantive disagreement with utilitarians over what constitutes respecting an individual person. The disagreement has to do with whether respecting individual people has mainly to do with maximizing pleasure (or happiness or whatever) for her, or whether it has mainly to do with respecting her wishes.

    If you're working on the latter notion, then it makes perfect sense to suggest that there's a pretty strong link between individualism and a non-instrumentalist account of rights. Violating the rights of one individual person--even if it, in some sense or another, serves some other individual person's "interests," will be seen as treating the victim as less than an individual person with a life of her own, as a mere tool or plaything for others' use. If you think that respecting individuals is mainly about respecting their wishes rather than promoting their interests, then the standard sacrifice cases are pretty easily understood as failures to be appropriately individualistic in your moral deliberations.

    Now, whether it's appropriate to label this particular failure-to-be-appropriately-individualistic as "collectivism" is a separate question. Maybe it's not; in that case the question is not individualism as against collectivism but rather respect for individual people as against willingness to sacrifice one individual people for one or more other individual people. (I'm tempted to draw the distinction in terms of "individualism" as against "altruism," but on balance I think that would be an unhappy way of putting it, Ayn Rand's bluster notwithstanding.)

    But I don't think the book is shut on calling it "collectivism," either--because I think that the sort of "respect" for individual people that utilitarianism claims to offer is, in an important sense, dehumanizing and anonymizing. Whether I'm right about that would take us pretty far afield from the discussion; but again, I think that at least the position is more sophisticated than you're giving it credit for.

    As for my remarks under (ii), I agree that there is a debate to be had about whether or not a given moral agent ought to incorporate considerations about her own definite individuality as a moral agent into her moral deliberation. But I think you've mischaracterized the terrain of the debate, as I remarked above; it's not that the position I sketched requires you to think only about your own definite individuality when making moral decisions, but rather that utilitarianism systematically rules out thinking about such things at all. And yeah, that does have something to do with individualism as against collectivism. And I think your suggestion that utilitarian calculation subordinates considerations about the moral agent's definite individuality to generic concerns for "the individual" unintentionally makes my point for me.

  12. That's mostly fair enough, though I still think you're confused on the "different kinds of interests" issue. Since I hold to a preference-satisfaction theory of welfare, I take the utilitarian maximiation of welfare to precisely comprise of "respecting people's wishes"! (Of course, since various people's wishes come into conflict, this requires us to make trade-offs between the two.) Paternalism is not the issue here.

  13. Richard,

    Fair enough.

    I'd forgotten your specific position on the nature of moral patient welfare, so I spoke much too loosely. (I didn't mean to suggest that the issue was paternalism, exactly, in any case.)

    In that case we'll have to precisify my loose talk further than I had precisified it above. The substantive disagreement about what constitutes respecting an individual person then has to do with the sorts of "wishes" (or more precisely, the sorts of considered choices) that you've absolutely got to respect, not just the sorts of "interests."

    (And one of the desiderata for libertarian individual rights theories is that the kind of choices in question be specified in such a way that they don't conflict, thus eliminating the question of whom to sacrifice. How far any given theorist succeeds at that task is, of course, a separate question.)

  14. Is not a collectivist a person who would put the goals of the collective above those of the individual. that doesn't say anythign about if those goals are right or waht facts are assumed to reach those conclusions.

    So a colectivist in china might be willing to sacrifice his own welfare for the glory of China (regardless of whether that was a net utilitarian gain or not).

    A colectivist in america might claim capitalism or tax cuts are good even if it happens to harm them personally.

    A global collectivist might propose either theory based on the assumption that hte facts supported it, as too might an individualist I guess.

    It might well be hard to decide which side of a debate the collectivists are standing on.

  15. "There's nothing obviously anti-individualistic about harming one individual in order to benefit many other individuals"

    You might convince yourself of that if you were the one receiving the benefit, but your opinion would be quite different if you are the one being harmed. Coercion by the state is never justified, as rights are intrinsic to the individual, not "granted by the state", as collectivists believe.

    If I may quote G. Edward Griffin, who puts this much better than I could, "When someone argues that individuals must be sacrificed for the greater good of society, what they are really saying is that some individuals are to be sacrificed for the greater good of other individuals. The morality of collectivism is based on numbers. Anything may be done so long as the number of people benefiting supposedly is greater than the number of people being sacrificed. I say supposedly, because, in the real world, those who decide who is to be sacrificed don’t count fairly. Dictators always claim they represent the greater good of the greater number but, in reality, they and their support organizations usually comprise less than one percent of the population. The theory is that someone has to speak for the masses and represent their best interest, because they are too dumb to figure it out for themselves. So collectivist leaders, wise and virtuous as they are, make the decisions for them."

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  16. "your opinion would be quite different if you are the one being harmed."

    Actually, no, it wouldn't. I might be unhappy, and I might even think it unjustified (depending on the details). But I wouldn't think it was conceptually anti-individualistic to benefit other individuals.

    The rest of your comment has no bearing on the conceptual issue at hand.

  17. I'm a bit late to this discussion, so it may be to late to fully & constructively engage with the interesting comments here?

    But as to your article, I wholeheartedly agree with your distinction between collectivism as a kind of moral absolutism, and 'collectivism' as a snarl word for certain government interventions. I've had the same thought, and probably many others have had too.

    In my opinion, it's better to leave the word 'collectivism' for the former, and not the latter. I don't think social welfare or redistributive taxation (the latter of these being the example you cited) are 'collectivism.'

    I am sure there are different visions of individualism.

    Can't you be a Democrat in the USA and be an individualist? Just not a Tea Party individualist.

    Can't you be a Liberal Democrats supporter in the UK and still be an individualist? Just not a Tory individualist.

    It's time people took back individualism, out of the hands of Rand and Rothbard.

  18. *Too late, sorry.

    Great piece though. I will write a response some time in near future.

    I'm glad to see you have thought about this. I think it's important not only to defend economically progressive measures, but to choose the most effective and truthful rhetoric to do so. This is not just about party-political strategy, but ensuring a good life for many individuals, and not few.


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