There’s a common theme shared by many of the most divisive ideologies, from leftist ‘identity politics’ to white ethno-nationalism. Both value group identity at the expense of individuality. The leftist may say something like, “We should do more to serve the good of black muslims,” while the ethno-nationalist will say, “We should do more to serve to good of the white race.” They disagree about which groups deserve to be helped or preserved, but they share the belief that groups can deserve something.
This is the reason they’re both wrong. Only individuals deserve anything. Ultimately, only individuals matter at all. This view, typically known as individualism, is commonly cited by those who reject notions of collective worth and blame. But rarely are reasons given, or arguments made for WHY individualism is true. The choice between individualism and collectivism is foundational to any political philosophy. But typically, individualism or collectivism is merely implicit, or taken as self-evident. It would be better to have a deductive reason to either accept or reject individualism; a reason that strictly follows from a few unassailable premises. That’s the purpose of the following paper.
Summary of the Central Argument:
Should groups or individuals be valued?
You think therefore you are. That’s indisputable. But it’s logically possible that nothing else actually exists except in your mind.
Therefore you exist as you regardless of whether or not any group exists. So you fundamentally exist as an individual, as does any other person.
So should groups or individuals be valued? You can only logically value that which exists. Individuals exist.
But do groups? Not in a morally relevant way. In order for groups to exist as morally valuable entities, they would need to be capable of experiencing good or harm. Where is the experience of a group? Only in its members.
And why should we value the experiences of a group’s members above other individuals? It can’t be because of their group affiliation. That would be circular reasoning.
So people only matter as a function of their individual existence, not as a function of group membership.
The Illusory Good of Group Identity and Rights
Can a moral right be held by a group of people as a group rather than by its members severally? In this paper, I will argue that groups qua groups have no intrinsic moral value, and therefore have no grounds to possess moral rights or desert. In the course of arguing against some prominent accounts of group rights, including the communitarian claim that individual moral value is inseparable from group value, I will argue that there is good reason to reject the possibility of group rights.
Edmund Wall writes with the same goal, but his account is incomplete; it leaves an opening for a plausible account of group rights. His approach is to rule out several types of arguments that would ground group rights. First critiquing a grounding in agency, Wall argues that there is no conceivable mechanism by which a group could exercise a right, since any action of a representative would merely be on behalf of the group, not by the group itself (Wall 2003, 270). Having rejected the possibility of grounding by agency, he moves on to address the possibility of grounding of group rights in interests common to the group. Wall sees all such proposed interests as ultimately reducible to individual interests, and thus not a viable grounding for actual group rights, but rather for individual rights of people who comprise a group. The crux of Wall’s argument is this:
“The alleged recipient of the harm is certainly not some metaphysical unity residing over and above each and every individual group member. Even if there exists such an overarching unity, how could it be harmed? After all, it would have no feelings or any other interests. In fact, it would have no cognitive capabilities whatsoever” (Wall 2003, 270).
While I completely agree with this, Wall’s central claim, it is vulnerable, as it stands, against a strain of arguments which he failed to rule out. Wall correctly reasons that the group, analyzed as an entity distinct from each individual, does not exist to experience anything. But there are certain views which conceptualize the individual’s interests as fundamentally inseparable from the group, which if true, would make Wall’s analysis of the group as an entity distinct from each individual inappropriate. Communitarians such as Charles Taylor and Marilyn Friedman claim that the group is not metaphysically separable from the individual, nor the individual from the group (or at least that the group’s interests are not separable from the individual’s interests). In some of his early writing, Marx put forth such a conception of the individual and the group:
“Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product … :my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with consciousness of myself as a social being… The mode of existence of the individual is a more particular, or more general mode of the life of the species, or the life of the species is a more particular, or more general individual life” (Marx 1975 , 298).
More recently, a similar conception of the individual and the group has been espoused by commintarians. Of the communitarian ontology of the self, Marilyn Friedman writes:
“Against [the] individualist view of the self and of human community, many feminists have asserted a conception of what might be called the ‘social self.’ This conception fundamentally acknowledges the role of social relationships and human community in constituting both self-identity and the nature and meaning of the particulars of individual lives. . . The communitarian self, or subject, is also not a social atom but is instead a being constituted and defined by its attachments, including the particularities of its social relationships, community ties, and historical context. Its identity cannot be abstracted from community or social relationships” (Friedman 1989, 275-6).
If the communitarians are right, Wall makes a mistake by analyzing the group as an entity distinct from each individual, and thus wrongly concludes that no group-level entity exists which is capable of having interests. In the communitarian view, the interests which exist for individuals can never be abstracted away from their groups because the individuals are fundamentally constituted by their groups. Taking that view, group interests must exist if individual interests exist because there is no distinction between the two. For Taylor, this entails the existence of ‘irreducibly social goods’, which have been invoked by Miodrag Jovanović to ground a concept of group rights which he uses to argue for protective treatment of certain ethnic groups (Taylor 1995, 136; Jovanović 2005, 635). Denise Réaume also presents an account which views ‘participatory goods’ such as culture itself as irreducibly collective. Réaume reasons that any right to such a collective good must be a collective right because the good itself necessarily involves participation of multiple people (Réaume 1988, 10).
What Marx, Friedman, Taylor, and Réaume have in common is that they all find ways in which the experience of some moral goods, which we may want rights to, purportedly can not be separated from social groups. Marx and Friedman claim that people themselves are composed of groups. Taylor and Réaume claim that some cultural goods can only be experienced as groups. If any of these accounts are valid, then Wall’s account against group rights must be malformed because he works under the assumption that individuals and groups can be analytically separated.
My aim is to prove that individual identity can be perfectly well abstracted away from groups, making Wall’s and similar views of ontology and rights tenable. Frederick Douglass explicitly asserted such a view. He wrote regarding his escape from slavery in a published letter to his former slave master:
“The morality of the act [of escaping], I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine to depend upon yours” (Douglass 1848).
In this letter, Douglass claims his ontological independence, and situates his individual person as the locus of his moral rights. I will put forth an argument that aims to prove what Douglass asserted and Wall assumes; that individuals and their interests are ontologically separable from all other people and their social groups. This will justify doing exactly what the communitarians condemn; abstracting the interests of individuals away from their cultures and social groups. I will demonstrate in some detail how my argument for metaphysical separability of the individual works against Taylor’s arguments for inseparability, and then against Réaume’s concept of ‘participatory goods’. But first, I will make my actual argument, which is quite short.
The argument follows from Descartes’ cogito. I think, therefore I am. I necessarily must be certain of the existence of my own mind. But I can not be quite so certain that anything else exists. In absolute terms, I am not certain that my car exists, that Kansas exists, or that my legs exist. And I am not certain that other people exist. It is logically possible that they and their groups do not exist. My existence is certain while no group’s existence is certain. So I exist whether or not any group exists. That is precisely to say that I, my interests, and my experiences of moral goods are ontologically separable from all groups and their supposed interests and experiences. I may causally depend on others, just like I causally depend on the weather the day my parents met. But I can not be ontologically tied to the weather and other people if I might exist without them. And since any person who exists must exist in this way, as an ontologically independent individual, any value she has must be individual value, and any rights she has must be individual rights.
If this argument is sound, it gives good reason to reject the communitarian ontology. Marilyn Friedman’s claim about people themselves being literally composed of ‘social relationships, community ties, and historical context’ is obviously refuted. But without further exposition, the flaws in Taylor’s and Réaume’s views may not be apparent. It now seems my duty to put my argument into conversation with Taylor’s and Réaume’s, so that I do not merely contradict these prominent arguments, but explicitly demonstrate their untenability.
Taylor says that many ‘goods’ are irreducibly social. That is, that the desirable experience of many important aspects of life only exists in a social group locus, not in any individual locus. He makes two central arguments for the existence of these social goods. I will present and counter his first argument, then move on to the second.
Against Social Meaning
Taylor reasons that some goods in a society require thoughts, that thoughts have meaning, and that the dimension of meaning is cultural. Taylor writes, “Thoughts exist as it were in a dimension of meaning and require a background of available meanings in order to be the thoughts that they are” (Taylor 1995, 131). He goes on to say that the background of meaning is a sort of language, and that that locus of the language is in a ‘linguistic community’, not individuals (Taylor 1995, 131). So according to Taylor, goods which require thought can exist no other way except culturally, in the locus of the group.
Taylor invokes an interpretation of Wittgenstein that supposedly rules out individual meaning by ruling out the intelligibility of a ‘private language’ (Taylor 1995, 133). The claim is that a private language is impossible because the private user of the language would be unable to establish meanings for its signs without reference to some external meaning (Candlish and Wrisley 2014, §1). That is, that the private linguist would have no criterion to determine whether her belief about the definition of her symbol is correct. But this same problem is present in the actual act of using an ordinary public language. In a public language, all meaning ostensibly originates in the world external to the thinker (in the social world for example). In Taylor’s formulation, this external background of meaning provides a criterion for determining whether belief about the definition of a symbol is correct. But in actual language use, a speaker’s beliefs about the correctness of definitions of words can only reference her internalizations of the external meaning.
Wittgenstein demonstrates the problem of determining definitional correctness thusly; ”[In a private language] whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’” (Wittgenstein 1967 , §258). This disintegration of rightness purportedly makes private language unintelligible and thus impossible. But this disintegration of rightness applies equally well to public language. Or at least it applies to any particular usage event of a public language. When I think or speak in English, I use words in a way that, to the best of my ability, matches the way the words are used by most English users. But the only thing to which I can actually associate a word as I use it is my impression of the way the word is used by most English users. So is my usage of the word correct? At the moment of usage (in the actual act of thinking or speaking), whatever is going to seem right to me is right, because my usage of the word can only be checked against my impression of how the word is to be used. After the fact, I may learn that most English speakers use the word in a very different way, at which point I may say that I misused the word. But this correction was not relevant in the actual act of thinking or speaking. If I were never corrected, I may continue my entire life thinking in an English that maybe no one else in the world would understand. Would that make all of my thoughts nonsense, or make my thoughts impossible? Could I not live life and solve problems in my accidentally private English? And do I not have an accidentally private English right now? It is almost certain that my impressions of the common use of some words are wrong. I do not know which of my impressions of word use are wrong. If I knew, those impressions would not be wrong anymore. So every time I think or speak in English, whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that means that here, in an ostensibly public language, we can’t talk about ‘right’. In Wittgenstein, this same disintegration of rightness is supposed to make private languages unintelligible and thus impossible. So it should make public languages unintelligible and thus impossible. Or, more plausibly, it has no bearing on the possibility of any language. Empirically, language exists. Wittgenstein’s disintegration of rightness may amount to a fundamental limit on our certainty. But in regard to language, public or private, the uncertainty must describe its nature, not imply its nonexistence.
Thus Taylor’s invocation of Wittgenstein does not show that there can be no private language, and does not imply that there can be no individual meaning. It was Taylor’s claim that meaning can not be individual, therefore must be social, and therefore any good which depends on meaningful thought must be an irreducible group-based social good. So far, I have tried to show that the Wittgensteinian line of thought does not eliminate the possibility of individual meaning. Now I will argue that meaning affirmatively can be individual, and then that all meaning must be individual.
Consider one solitary person isolated in a closed room. It is true that this person has a history in society, and that her history has shaped who she is and what she thinks. But we should distinguish between what caused a thing, and the thing itself. So even if we assume that all of the notions in this person’s mind come in some way from society, and have been copied into her mind with generously high fidelity, we are still left with a thinking being who is now removed from her prior causes. At this moment, there is no communication between society and her. She has thoughts, which have meanings. Since her mind has been produced by society, it may seem that the meanings are societal meanings. But even if all of her definitions and ideas came from society, the precise combination of definitions and ideas which she has and which she lacks are slightly different from anyone else in the society. (She may know slightly more about board games and artisan bookbinding than anyone else, and completely lack knowledge of Eastern European geography.) The uniqueness of even a mind which has been straightforwardly filled with notions from society will lead to the production of meanings which are shared with no one.
People are driven by identifiable deterministic causes, yet are highly unpredictable in many dimensions of thought and behavior. A small initial difference between the thoughts of two minds can quickly lead to large differences as thoughts progressively build on each other over time. Given a little time, our isolated subject in the room will have an original thought with content and valence which differ slightly from that of any thought previously conceived in her society. The isolated thinker names the novel thought S0 (people actually do name new experiences regardless of anything in Wittgenstein). Now the thinker forms more new thoughts which are intelligible only in reference to S0, which is a private concept.
A defender of Taylor’s view may want to say that S0 is only intelligible in reference to the societal background of meaning, and thus the meanings of the isolated thinker’s new thoughts are all still inseparable from social meaning. To answer that objection, I again emphasize the difference between the prior cause of a thing, and the thing itself.
Our solitary person remains a few hours in her thoughts, then exits her isolation bunker. She finds that every other human in the world had been killed one second after she had entered isolation. Throughout the duration of her isolation, there was no society. There was no group-based background of meaning, since there was no group. This little twist in the story makes clear the important distinction between the question of where things came from and the question of what things are. The isolated person’s mind came from society, but it clearly was not society. Her thoughts had meaning in the isolation bunker. Finding out that no society existed during those thoughts does not retroactively remove all meaning from the thoughts. Since her thoughts and their meanings would have been the same whether all other humans were alive or dead, the meaning must be individual, not social.
So individual meaning is possible, but does it require such contrived extreme circumstances as that? No, since we are already actually in similar circumstances. Is it logically possible that only you exist? Do you experience meaning regardless? The answer to both, of course, is yes. And this implies that all meaning you experience must be private, just like the meaning of the isolated person’s thoughts. And this is true for any person who does exist. Though it is empirically true that your internal locus of meaning has been shaped by the actions of people around you (roughly referred to as culture), this is a mere contingent condition. The existence and current arrangement of your neurons did causally depend on the people around you, and the ways in which you interacted with them. Though in the same way, your existence and current state causally depended on the weather, viruses, and the moon. So clearly, causal dependence does not imply ontological dependence. The locus of meaning of your thoughts does not depend on from where meanings descended.
Against Common Understanding
So we move on to Taylor’s second strategy for identifying group-based social goods. He claims that goods which incorporate ‘common understandings’ of their values must be social (Taylor 1995, 139). His examples of this sort of good include friendship and public relations of frankness and equality. Taylor makes the claim that for relations to be of the sort they are, there must be ‘common understanding’ of the character of the relations. He also asserts that ‘common understanding’ is not reducible to a combination of each participant’s understanding. He writes, “Our having a common understanding about something is distinct from my understanding it, plus your understanding it, plus perhaps my knowing that you understand, and your knowing that I understand; nor does it help to add further levels” (Taylor 1995, 138). Taylor argues from this assertion that friendship and other desirable relations are social goods because of the social nature of the ‘common understanding’ on which the relations rely. I disagree with Taylor’s assertion about the nature of common understanding. It seems to posit an understanding without an understander. Taylor himself agrees that “No one supposes that there is a locus of thought or feeling other than the minds of individuals” (Taylor 1995, 130). But what is ‘understanding’ without thought or feeling? It is nothing that most people mean by ‘understanding’. If Taylor wishes to define such an understanding, then he defines an understanding that simply does not exist except in his own definition. His argument for the existence of such an improbable entity is lacking. His justification in full:
“Something is common when it exists not just for me and for you, but for us, acknowledged as such. Much of human life is quite unintelligible if we ignore this distinction. To start with, we could never understand why people strive to maintain the convoluted type of relations mentioned above. Nor could we grasp what friendship and love consist in, because it is essential to them that they repose to a large degree on common understandings” (Taylor 1995, 139).
On the contrary, I do not find it difficult to understand why people engage in relations without Taylor’s ‘common understanding’. People simply allow their subconscious emotional minds to effortlessly estimate a good-enough approximation of commonality. Psychologists have known for decades that people come to many such feelings and semantic conclusions without the use of strictly logical reasoning (Kahneman and Frederick 2002, 54-5).
One might ask ‘good-enough approximation’ in reference to what? What is an approximation without a precise thing it approximates? The approximate commonality is ultimately approximate in reference to survival and reproduction. The content of my mental state which represents your mental state is approximately that content which makes me most likely to survive and reproduce. Ultimately, the less-than-logical thinking that facilitates social relations exists because it works—most of the time, that is. Sometimes we make errors in our assessments of common understanding. These errors demonstrate that the common understanding we experience is in fact not metaphysically common. If understanding were truly common, would one party of a friendship ever misunderstand the friendship to be something more romantic? Would one party ever wish to find a way out of a friendship, while the other party seeks to deepen it? A response may be that those cases do not count as common understanding, while genuine cases still exist. This response misses the point that the parties within the friendship never know which case they are in. They may feel like they know, but many other people in one-sided romances also felt like they knew, only to later find out painfully that they did not know. So not only do people not actually know the degree of commonality or uncommonality in their understandings, they do not know that they do not know. This shows that ‘common understanding’ is really just the collection of approximately useful feelings and beliefs that individuals have about others.
Taylor’s metaphysical ‘common understanding’ is not needed to describe human relations, and does a poor job of it when tried. And as mentioned before, his ‘common understanding’ must exist without an understander and without thought or feeling. It is not a coherent concept of understanding at all. For these reasons, I reject its existence, and therefore I reject all conclusions that would follow from its existence; there is nothing fundamentally social about the moral goods related to friendship, public relations of frankness and equality, or any other kind of relation.
Against Participatory Goods
With both of Taylor’s arguments for the existence of social goods considered and rejected, there still remains a similar prominent account of group rights. Denise Réaume proposes that we should understand group rights as rights to ‘participatory goods’. A participatory good is said to be a good whose enjoyment by an individual depends upon it also being enjoyed by others (Réaume 1988, 10). Réaume claims that the enjoyment of participatory goods is group-based, and argues that if there is a right to enjoy a participatory good, it must be a group right. Some examples of such goods are friendship, a team game, or culture in general (Réaume 1988, 12–13). It is true that I cannot enjoy genuine friendship entirely alone; I can play a team game only if others do too, and so on. So there is some element of group participation related to some goods. However, the necessary element of group participation is in the production of the good, not in the enjoyment of the good. Réaume points out that the distinction between production and enjoyment is important, though she insists that group participation is inherent in both the production and in the enjoyment of participatory goods. It is important for her that the enjoyment, not just the production of some goods be group-based. For according to Réaume, if a good is experienced as an individual, then its moral value is the value it has for the individual, though it may be produced by many people (Réaume 1988, 7). So my strategy will be to show that participatory goods are produced by groups, but enjoyed by individuals as individuals, which then by Réaume’s standard, will imply that the locus of moral value and rights must be the individual.
Participatory goods are said to be goods that must be both produced and enjoyed publicly because they are simultaneously produced and enjoyed by all those who participate in them. Put simply, “The good is the participation” (Réaume 1988, 10). But identifying the good as participation does not exempt it from the question, what produces the good, what experiences the good, and are they the same? Just as the experience of clean air is different from the clean air itself that makes the experience possible, the experience of participation may be different from the production-participation that makes the experience possible. The experience and the production may both roughly be referred to as ‘participation’, but that is due to ambiguity in the word. It has not been ruled out that my experience of your participation may be importantly distinct from your experience of my participation, which may be importantly distinct from my experience of my participation, which may be importantly distinct from your experience of your participation, which may be importantly distinct from my experience of our participation, which may be importantly distinct from your experience of our participation. One thing called ‘participation’ could be the production of the good, while an importantly different thing called ‘participation’ could be the enjoyment of the good.
Only if production and enjoyment can be merged into one, can the groupishness of production be commuted to the enjoyment side of participatory goods. Group participation is the production of cultural goods, and the experience of the goods is causally dependent on that production. But we have already seen that Réaume herself said that causal dependency is insufficient to make production and enjoyment into one and the same. Réaume writes that cultural goods “can only take place through, not merely because of the involvement of many” (Réaume 1988, 11). This is the most vital distinction in her paper. But what is the difference between through and because? Réaume cites one difference: simultinaity. She reasons that culture is not completed at one time to be enjoyed at another; it is a simultaneous process of production and enjoyment (Réaume 1988, 10–11). Unless Réaume has neglected to explicate some other important difference, these are the definitions that can be extracted: causal dependency ⇒ because. Causal dependency and simultinaity ⇒ through.
Might causal dependency and simultinaity together be sufficient to collapse production and enjoyment into one? No; a true combination of causal dependency and simultinaity is impossible. It follows from Einstein’s postulated cosmic speed limit that a cause must occur a nonzero amount of time before its effect (Reichenbach 1958, 147-9). No event in this universe can occur simultaneously with its cause. So if enjoyment of a participatory good is causally dependent on group production, then enjoyment can not be simultaneous with production. And if enjoyment is simultaneous with production, then enjoyment of the good can not be causally dependent on group production.
Regardless of the laws of time and causality, causes certainly seem Réaume to happen at the same time as their effects. But that is merely an illusion composed of many small events occurring in rapid succession, or near-simultinaity. I can only enjoy what has already been produced, and my enjoyment of it can only be enjoyed by others just after my enjoyment has been produced. For example, I can only enjoy the play of a team sport which has already occurred. Even if I am in the middle of a game, I enjoy what has just happened in the game, and the fact that I enjoy it can only be appreciated by the others just afterward. We may all be in states of enjoyment at the same time, but each of our states has slightly different sets of causes which occured at slightly different times. Since there is no real simultinaity involved, but only a series of many causes and effects, we are left to wonder what distinguishes the through type of cause and effect from the because type of cause and effect. If not simultinaity, what makes makes through different from because? Réaume does not tell us.
Thus Réaume’s fusion of the production and the enjoyment of participatory goods is unjustified, and so her importation of groupishness from the production to the enjoyment is likewise unjustified. The argument for group enjoyment is lacking, but my argument against it remains. If experience in general is a provably private process (and I think I have previously shown in my core argument that it is), then each participating individual has his or her own distinct enjoyment of a good. Each instance of enjoyment must be an instance of enjoying a state of the world which already existed at the time of enjoyment (since no cause is simultaneous with its effect). That instance of enjoyment is itself a change in the state of the world, which may in turn be enjoyed subsequently by another person. Many people contribute to the state of the world with their own enjoyments (thus ‘participating’ in a sense). Each instance of individual enjoyment changes the world a little bit. The state of the world at any given time is the causal result of many people’s enjoyments, added like polydimensional vectors. But no matter what the state of the world may be, it is only experienced and enjoyed by individuals because experience itself is fundamentally individual in nature.
Implications and Applications of Ontological Individualism
Finally emerging from the dive into the intricacies of Taylor’s and Réaume’s accounts of group rights, and finding them wanting, questions of further implications arise. Before exploring externalities, I want to restate my core argument a final time, with the clarity allowed by leaving Taylor and Réaume in the past.
I know with pristine certainty that I exist and have experience regardless of whoever else does or does not exist. That is ontological independence by definition. And since any person who exists must exist in this way, as an ontologically independent individual, any value she has must be individual value, and any rights she has must be individual rights. Moral goods such as culture are good, but good for whom? They are good for people. But they can only be good for people as people actually exist, not for an incoherent concept of people. Further, people themselves can only matter at all as they actually exist. As I have argued, people exist as individuals. So the locus of the real good of culture, friendship, language, or anything else is the individual. So the values of culture and groups are instrumental, not fundamental or intrinsic. This final framing of my argument explicates that not only are there problems in the prominent arguments for social goods and group rights, but that there is a strong argument against any possibility of group rights: that any good can only be good for people as they actually exist, which is as individuals.
Since the value of a culture is not intrinsic, there is no harm in abandoning any particular culture if the affected individuals would be better served by a different culture. This is in contrast to the perspectives of writers such as Miodrag Jovanović, Anthony Smith, and Patrick Thornberry who see cultures as entities which, independently of their individual members, deserve protection (Jovanović 2005, 633-4; Smith 1986, 96-7; Thornberry 1991, 57). My disagreement with these writers is not to say that a culture should be flippantly thrown away. Take clean air as an analogous example of an instrumental good. If the instrumental good is such that there are no possible better alternatives, it should not be abandoned. If a culture exists, it is probably safe to assume that it provides some good to somebody, so it may empirically turn out that most cultures are worth some sort of concern for preservation. But there remains a fundamental disposability of cultures that leaves the door open for improvement when a culture is oppressive or inadequate.
Now we are approaching the realm of semi-practical implications of the nonexistence of group moral value or rights. Before getting any more specific, I want to derive the heuristic that can be applied in life. Rights conflict with rights, and finding the correct solution to those conflicts is often an uncertain and unseemly process. I might have a right to a quiet and peaceful night in my home. My neighbor on the other side of my living room wall may have a right to enjoy a jovial boisterous party in his own home. These rights would conflict. How should they be balanced? How does the balance shift between 8pm and 2am? This esoteric example shows that there must be endless other such granular little conflicts of rights with messy solutions. Clean rules of decision are precious and hard to come by. If such a rule can be validly derived, it will have practical value even if it only applies to a subset of conflicts. As Nietzsche said, “The future work of the philosopher is … to solve the problem of values and that he has to decide on the rank order of values” (Nietzsche 2006 , 34).
So here is the heuristic for ranking values that follows from my argument: when an individual right comes into conflict with a supposed group right, always favor the individual right. This rule holds even if the validity of the individual right is in question. The group right is always illusory, so an individual right with any possibility of validity dominates. Below, I apply the heuristic to two specific moral debates.
In The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Harlan Lane advances the view that medical research aimed at curing deafness is unethical because it “endangers the future of the Deaf-World” (Lane 2005, 306). Similarly, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke expresses concern that scientific advancements in the treatment of deafness will contribute to “the eradication of a particular population and social community” (Blankmeyer 2015). Both writers rely on the notion that the deaf ‘community’ as a whole has a moral claim to existence which may supersede the rights of individual parents to choose whether or not their children should be able to hear. A hundred people who accept that notion may have a hundred different opinions about how to balance the rights of the ‘community’ with the rights of individuals. I propose cutting through that Gordian knot by simply realizing that the ‘community’ as a whole has no intrinsic value, no moral interests, and no rights to anything. Therefore concern for individuals automatically prevails; medical research should continue in order to serve the good of individuals who can choose to accept or reject treatment for their individual selves and only for their individual selves.
In a logically analogous case reported by Peter Kivisto and Georganne Rundblad, certain white identitarians are very concerned about what they call ‘white genocide’, which amounts to race-mixing such that the number of pure ‘white’ people will dwindle over time (Kivisto and Rundblad 2000, 59). The concern relies on the notion that the white race as a whole has a moral claim to existence which supersedes the rights of its individual members to mate and reproduce according to their own preferences. Again, the solution is to simply realize that a race as a whole has no intrinsic value, no moral interests, and no rights to anything. Therefore the rights of the individuals automatically prevail; no one should be under any moral pressure to breed with a partner of one race rather than another. So long as no individuals are coerced or harmed, the fate of the group is inconsequential.
The specific implications of my argument may at once arouse vehement rejection and agreement, possibly in the same reader. It may seem that I deliver a righteous blow to groups which deserve indignation, while heartlessly undermining groups which deserve protection. Both of these reactions would miss the point that I have tried to argue; that to even consider what a group may deserve is to make an error in selecting the relevant unit of analysis. I have said that a group can not deserve a good, and by the same reasoning, a group can not deserve an evil. To refute my claims from a conceptual framework which assumes group desert, is to not engage with my claims at all.
If I have accomplished my aims in this paper, I have shown that the individual is the correct unit of analysis for moral considerations. Prominent accounts of group moral goods including Charles Taylor’s and Denise Réaume’s have been shown untenable. And an argument has been made against all potential accounts of intrinsic group moral value, leaving only the individual, as Frederick Douglass asserted of himself, as the true locus of moral rights. This argument has implications for resolving some conflicts of supposed rights. Though among some scholars, it should exhume a certain conflict in the substratum of political thought. I argue explicitly against philosophers who argue explicitly for the possibility of group rights. But there is another sort of scholar who does not explicitly engage in this debate, but rather takes it as a given that some groups deserve one thing or another. A nontrivial portion of political theorists, critical race theorists, legal scholars, gender theorists, feminist scholars, education scholars, and many others with normative plans for the world, work under that general assumption that some group can deserve something. If my argument against group identity and rights is correct, then it is more consequential for these implicit proponents of group desert than for the explicit group rights theorists. The trunk and roots would be chopped away from the tree of theories built on the assumed possibility of group desert.
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