The moral implications of the question of individualism verses collectivism have been a splinter in my mind since I first studied the issues around ten years ago. Some cultures—like Western cultures, especially American culture—view the individual as an autonomous unit, responsible for all of his/her own decisions. Other cultures emphasize broader social units: decisions are made by groups (or by leaders within groups), and people identify not primarily a free agents but as members of a familial or social group. (More here.)

The books I’ve read about this, from the likes of Harry Triandis and Geert Hofstede, have emphasized that both individualism and collectivism create social problems. Individualism’s focus on the individual creates problems like pathological self-centeredness and high divorce rates—in short, a personal ethic that extends no further than individual desire, and a social ethic than recognizes nothing more than mutual consent (even if this produces inconsistent judgments in some cases). Collectivism’s tendency toward in-group/out-group dichotomies promotes things like discrimination and genocide.

From the perspective of cultural relativism, there’s nothing more to say. Cultural relativism doesn’t allow cultures to be compared along a moral dimension, since morality too is relative in that framework. I, however, believe in morality—even absolute morality—and so am faced with a quandary. Do cultures really just choose between divorce and genocide? Should we split the difference, as India and Spain seem to do? At what point is it illegitimate for a society to intrude on the actions of the individual? At what point should individual desires be subordinated to the group life?

I myself stand out as an individualistic person in the most individualistic society in the world. I was chided in high school for my lack of school spirit. I don’t have any branded clothing except what I may have picked up at a thrift store. I’m not patriotic (though I am proud of some aspects of American culture). In my bones, I just don’t care about group identity. On the other hand, the perils of individualism are plain for me to see: the aforementioned divorce (along with a general lack of loyalty to family), lack of interest in civic life, selfishness, and so forth. So I’m an individualist with strong reservations about individualism. My experience in a more collectivist society has shown me both some strong points and weak points of collectivism: the tendency on the one hand for the individual to be steamrolled by (in this case) the family, but on the other hand the strong family ties that exist, and the individual’s commitment to the welfare of people beyond his immediate family.

All of this a prelude to a distinction that occurred to me this morning as potentially helpful. By way of introduction, here are four decisions that, as an individualistic American, I would expect to make for myself.

  1. Who to marry
  2. Whether or not to kill someone
  3. What I do for a living
  4. What religion I practice, if any

As an American, the very idea that someone would make these decisions for me produces a wave of revulsion. Am I not free? Can’t I make my own decisions? I have rights! The full emotional and intellectual response, etc.

Where I live, most people would generally not make these decisions on their own, but to follow the decision of the head of household, or the broader family (#2 in special circumstances only, of course, like an honor killing). As an American, I bristle at that. And yet, I see that arranged marriages don’t produce notably unhappier marriages, and that most people would never think of choosing their own profession. (In fact, I’ve basically come around on the idea of arranged marriages.) The problem is that I’m certain that my reaction mixes some legitimate moral concern and some American culture—how to distinguish these?

Here’s the distinction I’ve realized. Decisions #1 and #3 are matters of preference; decisions #2 and #4 are matters of conscience. I’m slowly arriving at the conclusion that cultures can “legitimately” delegate matters of preference to units larger than the individual. On the other hand, matters of conscience need to remain in the hands of the individual. When the group makes a decision in a matter of conscience, I may bristle as an individualistic American, but that’ just a cultural difference. When the group makes a decision for an individual in a matter of conscience, then the culture has perverted the moral order. (As all cultures do, one way or another: Tim Keller said once that all cultures take good things and turn them into ultimate goods. I think that is a very elegant way of describing things.)

To take this a bit further, even an American can recognize that #1 and #3 are not only up to the individual. Maybe I love Jane, but Mary is the only one willing to marry me. Maybe I want to be a doctor, but I can’t get into medical school. These are cases were my preferences may be strong, but not determinative. If I can’t marry the person I want, or if I can’t get the job I want, then that’s disappointing, but I haven’t been forced to violate my conscience. But if I don’t want to kill someone and society requires me to, or if I want to change my religion and society will not allow me to, then I am forced to violate conscience. (C.S. Lewis helped me to realize that the former is why I am a pacifist.)

This doesn’t solve the problem for me, but I feel like there is a seed of a solution here. I feel like I have at least some intellectual traction in parsing out my emotional/moral/spiritual responses to various cultures.