Many of us were told as children that it is essential that we think of other people before ourselves. We have to put other people’s feelings and needs ahead of our own because to do otherwise is to be selfish. This message obviously got through to a lot of people because the message is frequently presented dramatically in TV and movies with utilitarian ideas such as, “the greater good” or “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” These ideas sound nice enough, however, when these ideals are applied serious ethical problems begin to arise.
For me, I stopped believing in the idea of teaching children to automatically respect the feelings of other people when I realised how wrong it comes across in the classroom.
Teacher: Hello, Tommy, today I am going to teach you about how you should regard people you do not know or necessarily like: you should always worry about hurting their feelings.
Tommy: But are not my feelings just as important than another person’s? How can I respect my own feelings when I am automatically putting other people’s feelings ahead of my own?
Tommy has a good point. Teaching your children to automatically respect other people is the same as telling them their thoughts and feelings do not matter. That they should be seen and not heard. This is a common way that parents, adults and teachers undermine the self-esteem of children. When teaching children about respecting other people (as opposed to teaching them to respect), it is important to teach them that respect is not a quality granted by a birth-right but something a person needs to earn. At the core of individualism is people deciding for themselves what behaviours and kinds of people they chose to respect and want to associate with. Not indoctrinating children to treat themselves as less important than anyone else.
This issue relates to a philosophical and political argument as old as history: which has greater value: the individual or the collective (society)?
Personally, I am an individualist, I support individual natural rights that exist as a consequence of being a living human. They are not granted by citizenship or by government. These rights include: the right to own your own body, the fruits of your labour and to express yourself freely so long as it does not interfere with the rights of other people to express theirs or to secure their property. This point of view sees human beings as sovereign over the decisions that direct their own life. Thus people become ends in themselves and not means for somebody else’s ends.
The socialist or collectivist viewpoint holds that people do not individually own themselves or the fruits of their labours. They belong to a collective and are expected to provide for other people, even if it is against their will. Thus compulsory taxes are not theft, but a necessary sacrifice to for the good of the community. If someone is in need, then you are obligated to help them, even if they do not wish to help themselves. If you have a lot of money, then you are obligated not to spend it how you wish to spend it but to spend it how other people expect you to spend it.
In a world of social rights, if the majority of people want something, then it is unethical for you to resist them. If the majority of people want to seize your property, reduce your freedom, bulldoze your house, put substances and objects inside your body, raise your taxes, force you to send your children to have a particular kind of school, limit your freedom to travel or even enslave you, then you do not have an ethical argument in such a society to object to this treatment. These ideas are not built on moral absolutes like honesty and self-ownership, but on moral relativistic ideas that state the majority are always right.
The majority of people used to believe the Earth was flat. This never made the minority who believed it was round wrong. Thus questions of morality should never be purely determined by popularism, but by a rational process.
The disadvantages of the collectivist system is that it treats people like they are cattle. People exist to produce things for other people and not for themselves. This destroys the motivation in most people to do things, leading to a state of depression and hopelessness. In order to function in such a society one needs to feel worthless, that their life is meaningless (except so far as you are valued by other people) and that their suffering is not important. In such a state of mind, one must not take one’s own feelings and emotional needs seriously, instead the focus is not on whether a statement is factual, but whether or not it offends the feelings of the majority. To point out that publicly funded schooling is ineffective, over expensive and is psychologically damaging to children would upset a lot people, so keeping it quiet and not talking about it is the most considerate thing to do. Do not rock the boat, do not tell people what you really think or feel, just focus on feeling rotten and that the only way to feel good about yourself is to give to other people selflessly.
In a world of individual rights, each individual person is important. Each person is allowed to think, feel, act and behave how they please so long as it does not restrict the ability of other people to do so. Individual well-being and happiness is important. Children are treasures, not resources to be exploited. Slavery in all forms is wrong and looking after yourself is not a crime.