The Western Experiment in the Supremacy of Individual Rights

Historical perspective can be inconvenient. Anthropological perspective, even more so.

Societies rely upon a bedrock and hierarchy of foundational values. Some of these values are fairly universal – things like, “Don’t kill members of your own group,” and “Help members of your own group” and similar values are basic values in any society’s toolbox.

Other values, however, are more complex, and of these some of the most interesting of these are the values of individual rights and community rights. While these are not necessarily in conflict, the reality is they frequently are. Whenever a decision between the good and rights of the individual and the good and rights of the larger community are in conflict, that society’s unwritten rulebook of its ethos defines what that society determines to be the moral viewpoint.

But let’s back up for a minute.

Most of us will remember from high school the basics of natural selection; replication error in DNA results in periodic mutation. Most of these mutations are unhelpful or malign, but some are by chance beneficial for the environment the organism exists in. (This last part is far too frequently forgotten; as the physical or social environment itself changes or the organism moves to a new physical or social environment, what is “ideally adaptive” will similarly alter. In other words, the rules are always changing. Kinda sucks for all of us organisms, but nobody promised us this would be easy.)

Organisms that mutation have made better adaptive for the physical or social environment they exist in will – on average and over the long haul – live longer and breed more offspring, thus tilting both the genepool and memepool in those respective directions. Note the use of “physical or social” environment and “genepool and memepool” in the preceding; mutation and natural selection operate at the level of culture and society as well as the physical. In the case of culture and society the underlying mechanic is not DNA replication, but it involves the same kind of replication error as we use the imperfection of abstraction and language to communicate to other people ideas, those ideas mutating and changing, dying or thriving, depending upon the social environments their hosts (us) find themselves in.

So going back to values, and in particular the values of individual rights and community rights, where these conflict, which of these two are ascendent?

Throughout history and the anthropological record the overwhelming answer has been: Community Rights. This doesn’t mean these societies don’t care about the individual’s rights, but it does mean that in the event of conflict, the general rule is that what is best for the community as a whole is what that society will judge to be the moral decision, even if that means harm to an individual. From a sociodynamic point of view this makes sense; memes flourish when their hosts flourish, and hosts of organized societies capable of large-scale collective action towards focused purposes will almost always cream hosts in less-organized societies.

Western civilization – and at the extreme end of this, North American society – has over time migrated to the opposite extreme. The United States Bill of Rights sets the stage for this, delineating the rights of the individual that the state (that is, the formal representation of society) in theory must respect.

This is not a bad thing, in truth, since in the conventional approach of community rights over individual rights has a tendency to purge itself of square pegs that will not fit into round holes. When I say “this is not a bad thing” I am not making a moral judgment but a functional judgment; square pegs are a society’s equivalent of DNA replication error – mutation. Square pegs are the primary engine for creating new ideas, new processes and new mechanics without which a society will lack adaptive options in the event of social crisis. (Though it should be noted, just as with DNA replication error, most square pegs are useless or even malign; this is the price for the tiny percentage of effective adaptations.)

In the case of extreme valuation of community rights over individual rights, the result is over-homogenization, meaning such societies will be resource poor in the area of adaptive options. In the case of extreme valuation of individual rights over community rights, the result is over-heterozation, meaning such societies will be so rich in adaptive options and so poor in unifying societal elements that such societies will tend to be paralyzed by gridlock and infighting.

Individuals pay a price in both of these extreme scenarios as well. In the case of societies that value community rights to an extreme degree, eccentricity is punished and immigrant groups that can bring vast reservoirs of new adaptive social mutations are viewed with suspicion and marginalized. Society loses, to be sure, but the individuals lose even more.

In the case of societies that value individual rights to an extreme degree, individuals are trained to view their purpose and life solely at an internal level. The question, “Who am I?” becomes inevitably an internal exercise divorced of the subjective relationships that define that ultra-social species we call humanity. The cliche of the midlife crisis and the “finding yourself” are born out of this.

I am not saying that the internal level should not be a consideration – I am a serious introvert who finds talking to strangers on the phone a distasteful exercise, after all – but what I do think is too often forgotten in the currently dominant North American society is that we humans are closer to ants in our socialization than we are to wolves or sheep; we are not social – we are ultra-social. We rely on abstraction and reciprocity to generate social structures that allow us as a species to harness vast and powerful engines. In other words, while an individual certainly has an internal component, even the most introverted and isolated of us is a social being defined as much by our relationships to other individuals and abstract ideologies and groups as we are defined by our genetic code and personal experiences.

The culmination of this experiment in the supremacy of individual rights has resulted in some truly great things. We cherish the individual’s right to self-expression fanatically resulting in an unprecedented reservoir of potentially adaptive social mechanisms. We protect individuals that in most societies throughout history would have been stamped out, exiled or systemically crushed. Whatever we as a society do, it is not in our interest either as individuals or as a society to see these triumphs curtailed.

The downside of this experiment, however, is something we are all too familiar with: we live in a society today that is rent with divisions, our support networks are fragmented and ephemeral, our ability to create effective collective action is laughable. These issues are present at national levels, but they are also evident all the way down to our family structures and kith networks. Certainly, we humans are an adaptable bunch, and we have come up with all sorts of clever mechanisms to compensate for this – witness the radical rise of social media, distributed subcultures and fictive kinship networks – but the reality is that these mechanisms have not been sufficient. We, as individuals and as a larger society and a collection of distributed subcultures, are paying the price for this.

Somehow, we need to modify this noble experiment, reincorporating the better parts of a cultural valuation for community goods without losing the victories we have fought so hard to attain. The only other option is the partial or total disintegration of this experiment in the supremacy of individual rights, inevitably with many of its benefits.

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