in´di·vid´u·al·ism´ n. a doctrine that the interests of the individual are, or ought to be, ethically paramount.
Although I’ve had the good fortune to travel and live abroad in over 35 countries, I have spent most of my life in the United States. I largely think of myself as a world citizen, but I carry an American passport and much of the baggage that being an American citizen implies. What do I mean by that? I’m very independent, I like to do things my own way, and an ethic of individualism has shaped much of my life – as it does for many Americans.
This doctrine has some obvious advantages. It can lead people to take more initiative, for example, or to fight injustice. The Baha’i writings laud the role of the individual, and encourage the related duty of the individual to independently investigate the truth. As Abdu’l-Baha clarifies:
Therefore, man must endeavor in all things to investigate the fundamental reality. If he does not independently investigate, he has failed to utilize the talent God has bestowed upon him. I am pleased with the American people because, as a rule, they are independent seekers of the truth; their minds are actively employed instead of remaining idle and unproductive. This is most praiseworthy. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 313.
But over-attachment to this philosophy also has its downsides. Namely, it can disconnect people from a sense of community and cause them to suffer all of the mental consequences – of loneliness, anomie and separation – that this lack of connection implies. This paradigm is especially prevalent in the West. I am reminded, again, of the book released in the mid 1990’s called Bowling Alone, in which Dr. Robert Putnam used extensive social science research to argue that civil society was breaking down in America as its citizens became more disconnected from their families, neighbors, and communities. Social cohesion seems even more frayed since that time despite, or maybe because of, virtual communities overtaking physical ones.
These singular worldviews of individualism have also shaped global affairs. In a more recent work (2015) entitled Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities, the author George Rupp writes about individualism as a powerful force in Western culture and foreign policy, but finds that it also elicits strong resistance in many other cultural and religious traditions. Dr. Rupp notes that western liberalism, as currently defined and practiced, can become a “corrosive individualism that undermines the essential role of the community.”
Despite being raised in an American cultural context, I get that. When young people are drawn to groups like ISIS (the Islamic State), I don’t think an affinity for horrific violence attracts most of them. Instead, they often rebel against the unbridled individualism and materialism that Western society exhibits, and which many normal, law-abiding people also ideologically oppose. Contemporary statements from Baha’i institutions are quite direct about some of the damaging impacts of individualism when taken to the extreme:
In the absence of conviction about the spiritual nature of reality and the fulfillment it alone offers, it is not surprising to find at the very heart of the current crisis of civilization a cult of individualism that increasingly admits of no restraint and that elevates acquisition and personal advancement to the status of major cultural values. The resulting atomization of society has marked a new stage in the process of disintegration… Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, 2001, p. 89-90.
Individualism is so central to American culture that it may be difficult for some to call it into question. For some of us, it’s a big part of who we are. But, as the world struggles to find some balance, perhaps those of us in the West could use a more humble appreciation for worldviews that do not, in fact, make the individual the “be-all-and-end-all.”
Ultimately, the Baha’i Faith advocates a golden mean and “moderation in all things.” The role of the individual is lauded and encouraged, but individual rights are also placed in the context of one’s responsibilities to one’s family and to the larger society. At a more personal level, the individual finds fulfillment – not in just satisfying his/her own wants – but in service to others.
That broader vision is, admittedly, sometimes hard to achieve when one is bombarded by daily messages extolling personal gratification, but, as Abdu’l-Baha elaborates:
…the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellowmen? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight. – Ibid., pp. 2-3.