Capitalist Ideology And The Myth Of The Individual Self, Part 1: Competing Autonomous Individual Agents

What’s The Problem?

Every age has had its share of troubles, but seldom has the old saying “He who can still laugh has not yet heard the news” been more credible than it is today. TV and radio are describing one large-scale disaster after another almost daily: widespread hunger, de- and re-jected refugees, seemingly endless wars, multiple mindless shootings, grinding poverty alongside obscene wealth, catastrophic environmental degradation, the threat of nuclear annihilation, eroding democracy, epidemics. Meanwhile, fear, demagoguery and hatred are steadily rending the social fabric both in the U.S. and abroad.

Virtually all of these wretched conditions can be traced to human activity, and it should therefore be human activity we must look to for repair. Everyone knows this, yet with few exceptions these horrific conditions are continuing to worsen in number, scope and severity rather than improve, as most people are apparently waiting for others to act even while they seem to be listening with increasing apprehension for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen.

Why is this? Cynics, skeptics and those of a misanthropic bent will argue that the failure of the American peoples to act is because they are either too stupid, too selfish, too lazy or too uncaring.

Whatever its overall merits, this argument is worthless as a plan of action because it implies either that the situation is hopeless or the citizenry will have to be coerced into doing anything. Moreover, for myself at least the claim is simply false: I have met some selfish, lazy, uncaring fools in my day, but the overwhelming majority of other Americans I know of all ethnicities are decent people, and I read about many others in the pages of local newspapers. I feel sorry for any readers who have had different experiences with their countrymen, and read only of the murderers, child abusers and rapists the national news media deem endlessly newsworthy.

But then the question of inaction becomes even more pointed. Ignorance of what might be done cannot explain our lack of will either because a number of workable solutions to each of these issues and problems have been advanced by the wonderful people and groups that have formed in protest and/or are engaged in ameliorating efforts. But until their numbers are augmented a thousandfold their successes will surely be much too little, too late. Yet there is little doubt that with a mass movement/commitment in the political realm the situation could improve measurably and fairly quickly in almost all areas including disarmament, violence in the Middle East, food production, new medicines and their distribution, prison reform, gun control, water conservation, race relations, immigration, alternative energy, and  more. Effective legislation could attenuate almost all of these problems, but instead the Congress is almost solely concerned with subverting the president no matter what he tries to do while state legislatures are going backward, working to greatly restrict women’s access to abortion 40 years after Roe v. Wade (Texas), disenfranchising as many minority voters as possible a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation (North Carolina), and repealing regulations on firearms, with 45 states now endorsing “open carry” policies (Missouri the most recent).

Again, everyone is aware of this state of affairs who isn’t living in a clothes closet. Securing large-scale changes will not be easy. Much time, hard work and persistence must go into the struggles, a strong and abiding commitment to improve our lot must be made by all, and almost all participants in the struggle will have their pocketbooks affected adversely for some time. But surely these efforts are small compared to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, cataclysmic environmental destruction, pandemics, the degradation and worse of the lives of many of our fellow human beings, and/or more civil wars both at home and overseas fought over issues of race or religion – or water.

Again, then: Why? Why do so many people seem to lack the will to take a more active role in demanding positive changes for themselves and others?

I want to suggest that the answer to the question lies in the moral foundations of capitalist ideology, specifically, that an ordering of people’s values necessary to morally justify the struggles to secure needed fundamental changes in American society is not compatible with the ordering embedded in our current moral thinking within the dominant ideology of capitalism. What I believe it is to be a human being in general, and how I see myself in particular jointly determine in significant measure the kind of moral positions I take, and even more basically, affect the development of my moral intuitions that contribute substantially to the eventual moral view I adopt, and the sense I have of myself, of my relation to other human beings, and my vision of a decent and just society. The vision of human beings long dominant in U.S. society has been one of free, autonomous self-interested profit-maximizing individual selves competing with one another via the free market, thus producing the best society for the kind of people we are.

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that such persons cannot even properly address the problems our country now faces, much less solve them; what is needed now are empathetic and compassionate persons interrelated rather than independent, and encumbered by responsibilities to other human beings, from family and kin outward to encompass the whole world. But such persons will embrace, must embrace, a different ordering of values than is the case for competitive autonomous individuals.

Perhaps, then, it is neither apathy, weakness of will, ignorance nor immorality on the part of the American peoples that accounts for our march to dystopia, but rather their ordering of values attendant on continuing to be under the spell of an increasingly dysfunctional moral ideology with which everyone in the capitalist system has been indoctrinated since birth that is at the root of our present paralysis: few good people will struggle for changes if either the struggles or the changes basically conflict with the value-ordering in their belief system grounded in their idea of what it is to be human. If this be so, it might behoove us to look carefully at the ideological underpinnings of the capitalist economic system which so thoroughly permeate our society that it is extremely difficult to appreciate the extent to which that system has become supremely immoral as well as socially, economically and politically inefficient, and grounded in myth. These myths have influenced us so pervasively psychologically, politically and spiritually as well as economically and morally that it has become almost impossible for progressives and reactionaries alike no less than liberal and conservatives to think otherwise. But it might be worthwhile to try.

The Social Significance of Ideology

Every society must have a dominant ideology which includes an ordering of values, a view of what it is to be a human being, a morality, and a consequent rationale justifying the way(s) resources are produced and distributed in that society, and people interact with one another. There may well be a number of belief systems among the membership but one will have pride of place if the economy is to run smoothly, the government govern, the people not at odds in their cultural setting. To take pride in belonging to a slave society, for example, its ideology must include the belief that some human beings are naturally inferior to other human beings. Or again, gross inequalities in the distribution of goods is prima facie an untoward state of affairs, and must be rationalized, in some cases by viewing certain human beings as deserving by birthright (medieval societies ― aristocracy) or by merit (industrial capitalism – entrepreneurs). Given the inertial resistance to change in virtually every society, absent successful challenges to its dominant ideology it is doubtful that any significant alterations in dysfunctional productive forces and/or practices of a society will occur no matter how badly they are needed. If you firmly believe the values attendant on “rugged individualism” in a free, fairly unregulated  competitive economic setting are what have made America great, you are going to have a very hard time believing that addressing the problems of climate change requires large-scale governmental regulation and massive cooperative efforts over an extended period of time; it will probably be easier for you  to deny climate change.

During the early industrial period the U.S. had a small population in need of immigration, had a cornucopia of resources for logging, mining and agriculture, an enormous West to be settled (after displacing the indigenous peoples living there) and later, the beginnings of mass production. The oceans and rivers were pure, the air clear, fresh water was in abundance, and we had no enemies real or imagined. In such a bountiful environment a moral ideology of “rugged individualism” could fit in with only minimal mischief. Focusing on the values of self-reliance, independence, ingenuity, competitiveness, and above all, freedom to self-interestedly seek one’s fortune in markets free and open to all (or at least non-indentured adult white males) led to undreamed of productivity and wealth production. The ruggedness mirrored the wilderness that still dominated much of the country, and the individualism was inspired by the Enlightenment in Europe and developed by the Founding Fathers of the Republic, and has been the dominant view ever since: human beings flourish maximally by competing with one another as fundamentally free, rational, autonomous, self-interested individuals who have rights (at least civil and political rights).

But the United States entered a new, post-industrial era several decades ago, with its citizens now living in a globalizing, high technology, multi-ethnic and consolidating society with more of its natural resources polluted or depleted, or nearly so, and sharing the planet with 7 billion other human beings, many of whom hate us or fear us (or both), some of whom have the capability to destroy us. Yet the dominant ideology of capitalism remains basically unchanged: Human beings are fundamentally free, autonomous, rights-bearing individuals; self-interested, appropriative and competitive.

Thus, throughout most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries corporations, for example (like individuals) were subsidized, unregulated, given land, and encouraged in many ways simply to seek profits because they were transforming resources into manufactures which people needed and wanted, and provided employment for a great many workers. But corporations continue to be measured by and celebrated for maximizing profits today, so even though their actions  are now significantly responsible for many of the current  problems of our society it is difficult to fault them for avoiding taxes, laying off workers whenever possible, outsourcing jobs to where labor is less costly, or polluting the environment when it is not illegal and much cheaper than cleaning it up; hoarding wealth secretly overseas; and subverting democracy by using their money to enact only those regulations that are in no one’s interest but their own. All of these activities are morally dubious at best, and destructive for government and society ― but very good for enhancing shareholder profits. And because corporations (individuals) are supposed to seek their self- interest, how can one criticize their actions, or want to more significantly regulate their behavior?

The celebration rather than condemnation of such activities applies no less at the individual than at the corporate level: seek wealth to maximize your self-interest, pay not a penny more in taxes than you absolutely have to, vote against government subsidies for solar panels and do not purchase them yourself until they are considerably cheaper than continuing with an air-fouling fossil fuel. But it is OK to give an obscene amount of money if you’re wealthy enough to help elect legislators that promise to leave you alone and lower your taxes. If corporations are supposed to compete, so are individuals – for schooling, jobs, partners, good housing, celebrity, and much more.

This ideology of the autonomous individual has become so deeply ingrained in us that it is almost impossible to think in other than individualistic terms (Of course I’m an individual! And free! What else could I be? Or want to be?). A related reason why it is so difficult to think outside the capitalist box is that this ideology includes the view that the only possible alternative to being a free autonomous individual in a capitalist society is to become a fettered and faceless cipher in a communist or fascist one, and how could anyone want that?

But we can no longer afford or desire a capitalist ideology centered on competition and individualism, even of a less than rugged sort. It has become too dysfunctional as well as morally and metaphysically questionable, and is becoming socially disastrous. Among its many and growing shortcomings, grounding an ideology in competition by a society guarantees by definition that it will generate many losers as well as some winners, the former growing in number over time as the latter become fewer and more powerful, and steadily increasing inequality. The richness of the resources of the earth – especially in the U.S. – has allowed us to ignore that simple logical fact for well over a century, believing instead that we can substantively reduce the number of losers simply by producing more, hence there being no need to speak of more equitable distributions of wealth. But many resources are now in short supply, a number of our purple mountains are no longer majestic, many of our plains bear little fruit. It is becoming much more expensive to exploit the remainder at an increased profit (the only goal of entrepreneurs and corporations) and thus if privatization of the water supply becomes the only way people can secure potable water we may expect more and more poor people at home and abroad to die of thirst in the future (In some areas, the near future).

Clearly – or so it seems to me at least ― as water grows more scarce it must be collectively conserved and equitably shared. But that will require cooperative efforts on a major scale, with government orchestrating much of the cooperative efforts, in which case properly funding the government should be undertaken willingly, for it is only with the government’s assistance that I am able to meet my responsibilities as my brother’s keeper (and sister’s, too). We would look askance at those who grudged the government its needed funds. But if I only see you as another autonomous individual acting in your own self-interest it is not rational for me to believe I am responsible for you or your sister in any way,(except to leave you alone), nor that the government is anything but a necessary evil to adjudicate clashes between competitors and protect them all from foreign interference. Hence there will be no moral qualms about paying as little in taxes as I legally can as often as possible, compete to the max at all times, and instead of feeling ashamed, rest content by invoking the well-known rebarbative capitalist saying, “Nice guys finish last.”

Do we have other ideological options with which to confront today’s realities? It will do no good to criticize the model of human beings as competitive, free and autonomous individual selves if we have no real alternatives of a more cooperative nature to contemplate, so I will proffer one below, taken from early Confucian China of 2500 years ago. This alternative presents a very different account of who we are as persons, but will not require taking on a whole new set of values, for such is impossible;we can only engage in dialogue with each other on the assumption that many or most of our values are held in common, but ranked differently. U.S. citizens who rank privacy very high are much more appalled by the NSA spying activities revealed by Edward Snowden than security-oriented others, but that doesn’t mean they both value only one of the two. We must thus all endeavor to rethink and reorder our values in keeping with our circumstances and our humanity, values it is reasonable to assume all normal human beings share, once they can get over the vision of human beings as isolated, self-interested individuals.

Values and Value Orderings

Each person values many human qualities and behaviors (in addition to material things), sufficient in number and variety to form an inconsistent set. We should not assert both that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and “You’re never too old to learn.” But the inconsistency holds only when asserting both statements at the same time with respect to the same situation. We do believe there are circumstances in which each of the statements would be altogether appropriate. If your grandfather has always believed Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the worst and most dangerous president the U.S. has ever had, and complains about it at every family gathering, then pointing out the salutary effects of the New Deal will almost certainly be a waste of time. On the other hand, if, upon his retirement he expressed an interest in learning to play the violin, it would clearly behoove the family to chip in and buy one for him, and secure a teacher thereof. This is no more than to say that neither adage quoted above about teaching the elderly should be taken as a universal principle, but that both are appropriate to invoke and act on at times. We tend to believe, in other words, that certain qualities and behaviors of others deserve praise (or blame) at different times in differing situations. Morality is neither universal nor relative, but it is plural, determinatively so. It needs few if any universal principles, but much particularistic attentiveness relative to our fellow human beings and environmental circumstances. As this homely example shows, we will do better in thinking about morality if we avoid the dichotomy right/wrong, and instead think in terms of appropriate/inappropriate.

An appropriate ideology for the world of the 21st century could provide a vision of  human beings basically not as competitors but cooperators, not as actors but interactors and consequently not isolated and autonomous but interdependent and interrelated; not self-reliant and alone, but as benefactor and beneficiary of others; not free (to do as we choose), but encumbered (to meet our responsibilities). And we would thus re-order our values accordingly. If we see human beings as basically competitors, “May the best man win” will loom large in our value ordering; but in a world with shrinking resources perhaps the adage should be replaced by “It isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts;” It is much less important now for children to learn the insight of “Every man’s home is his castle,” than to come to feel and appreciate the truth of “No man is an island.”  Christian parents especially should devote less time describing the Deity with “God helps them that help themselves,” and more with the injunction to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  

I suspect that every one of my readers will acknowledge the “truth” of each of the quoted statements, even though they are inconsistent together. That is to say, virtually everyone will agree that cooperative values are not at all alien to us despite living in the competitive, profit-seeking “sweet land of liberty.”  This suggests fairly strongly that developing a new (or very old) ethical orientation will be less difficult if we stop thinking about different peoples and cultures having to take on an entirely new set of values, which can seem plausible only if we believe we are all autonomous individuals and therefore my values reflect only my individual interests, not yours. It might be better (and more accurate) to think of different people in the same or different cultures having different orderings of values virtually every human being holds at some level, or may be presumed to hold. This orientation thus paves the conceptual way for dialogue inter-and intra-culturally, not on the merits of the values alone, but equally on the basis of which value ordering best reflects the physical demands of the entire society, and what place the other values can take therein.  Otherwise we will end up with paralyzing endless debate eventuating in a mindless relativism – anything goes ― or “the one true morality” being imposed by the group with the most machine guns.

There is more that is societally dysfunctional with the ideology undergirding American capitalism. It is grounded in a moral individualism that stresses freedom, choice, rationality, personal responsibility, autonomy, independence, competitiveness, self-interest and self-reliance, and success, all of which we are led to believe are very good things, But they can no longer be ranked at the top of our value-ordering today. They isolate us from society and each other, stress competitive attitudes, and allot high marks – or at least high tolerance ― to extravagance, encourages everyone to seek wealth, places independence and freedom as the highest values and thus seriously undermines efforts at achieving social justice, fetishizes material goods and allows people to fully respect other people’s rights simply by ignoring them. (Of course you have a right to speak, but not to have me listen). Such an ordering of values justifies capitalist economic, political and legal systems, but is no longer in keeping with the new American reality, and requires ever greater amounts of propaganda governmental and corporate to keep it going. Yet giving these values a lower place in our overall belief system, although necessary, might well be difficult for some people because the pull of the vision of human beings as free, autonomous, rights-holding competitive individuals remains strong. Thus we must examine it in closer detail both in the abstract and concretely to establish its present mythical and mischievous nature before taking up a more cooperatively-oriented and, I will argue, assuredly more realistic Confucian alternative.

Warning: As we proceed, you might come to think you are not who you think you are.

Individualism in Theory

That we are all social creatures, strongly influenced by the others with whom we interact, has always been acknowledged on all sides, but has only very rarely been taken as of any real consequence at the moral and political (and metaphysical) level. Nor, for most foundational individualists, can our social selves be of compelling worth, because our concrete circumstances are for the most part accidental, in that we have exercised no control over them – i.e., who our parents are, the native language we speak, our citizenship, and so forth. Consequently what must give human beings their primary worth, their dignity, integrity and value as individual selves on this account – and what must command the respect of all – is their ability to act purposively, to have a capacity for self-governance as well as self-awareness, i.e., they must have autonomy, and of course in order to be autonomous, human beings must be free, and rational, i.e., not merely governed by instinct, or passion.      

This morally, politically and metaphysically fleshed-out concept of the self as a free, rational autonomous individual has clearly been the foundation for virtually all modern and contemporary Western moral and political theories beginning with Thomas Hobbes. We cannot speak of duties or obligations if we do not have the freedom to meet them. We cannot command respect if it is merely instinct that impels us to our duties (It seldom makes sense to say that we have an obligation to make love or duty to urinate). We must have been able to have chosen otherwise than to do our duty; else we could not be autonomous. And above all we must be capable of being described, analyzed and evaluated on our own, as individuals.

If everyone has the highly valued qualities of freedom, rationality and autonomy associated with the concept of the individual self, and it is just these qualities we must respect at all times, then, aside from minor details, their sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, religion, skin color, and so on, should not play any significant role in our decisions about how to act with them morally and politically. It is not simply that these qualities are contingent for each of us; details aside, they are irrelevant, too. On this account it seems incumbent upon us to seek principles for our morals and politics that are applicable to all peoples at all times, or else the hope of a world at peace, devoid of group conflicts, racism, sexism, homophobia and ethnocentrism supposedly could never be realized.

This is an impressive vision, and the values ordered in it have much to recommend them. We have now been living with this ideology of the unencumbered individual under the umbrella of capitalism for almost two centuries, and the living conditions of tens of millions of people have improved considerably during that time.

But U.S. capitalism has also been responsible for no small number of horrors as well – think, for instances, of  slavery, slaughters of Native Americans, colonization, sweatshops, Bhopal, and militarily from  the large-scale killings at Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki to My Lai and Falluja; the benefits of capitalism have come at a high and often dehumanizing cost.

But far and away the most significant weakness of the account of human beings as free autonomous individual selves is that it is almost certainly false as a description of what flesh and blood human beings are actually like.

Individualism in Practice: Who Am I?

Much of the time there is little I feel more certain about than the fact that I have an individual self, that there is an essential me that is unique and unchanging even as I age, and that I am free, have memories of my past, make my decisions for myself most of the time hence am autonomous, and can be rational when I work at it. Ergo, the capitalist account of what it is to be a human being must be at least roughly right.

Until I start thinking a little more carefully, and deeply. The more I try to specify what, exactly, is essential for me to be me, what makes me unique, the harder it becomes to do so. What do I have that makes me like no other? After several futile efforts to answer the question I begin to recall the views of the Scottish thinker David Hume, who took very seriously the basic tenet of empiricism, namely, that all  knowledge comes from sense experience, from which it must follow that we cannot have knowledge of ourselves, for that would require that we be experiencer, experience  and experienced simultaneously, which is impossible: no wonder I become tongue-tied when I try to say who I am, unlike any other.

Is Hume wrong? At a nonphilosophical level, it is admittedly hard for me not to believe there is something very basic to my being who I am —something without which I would seem not be Henry Rosemont, Jr. and no other. Yet the more I try to specify with any precision or clarity what that something is, the more difficult it becomes to do so. What do I ‘have’ that makes me just who I am and no one else?

I can say that I am a Rhode Islander, a Democrat, Cubs fan, professor; all true enough, but I can leave or join any number of  groups and still believe there is an essential me substantially unchanged from before, only now unique in slightly different, secondary or tertiary ways. The bedeviling question remains: Who am I, specifically,that belongs to these groups?

At first blush we may be inclined to identify our unique individuality by reference to our many memories. Nobody, supposedly, can have exactly the same memories that I have. Everyone has a vast store of memories, however, so we may need to rephrase the question in a somewhat more focused manner: Which memories make me who I am? To appreciate the bite of this challenge fully I want to switch from the first to the second person personal pronoun, and ask you to answer it for yourself, dear reader: What makes you an individual self like no other?

As you attempt to describe for me what it is about you that is unique I suspect you will be befuddled for an answer, at least at first, just as I was,  when you begin to realize the difficulty of narrowing down the set of possible  “yous” to the one in which you are the sole member. You can’t invoke your memories, because you almost surely will not think you have lost your individual self if you contract amnesia, suffer from acute self-deception, are bi-polar, or become comatose after an accident, for example. But even without these cases, invoking memory for self-identity is dubious. Consider as a quick thought experiment, that your entire memory bank can be examined, and its contents enumerated, and that you memories that you can actually recall to mind are exactly the sum of every 250th of this vast inventory. From this it follows, if you link your self-identity fundamentally to your memory, that the set of every 250th memory bits is uniquely who you are. But subsequently suffering a severe electric shock your memory shifts, and you can no longer call up any of the 250th memory bits at all, but instead now every 735th can be brought to consciousness. Do you believe you will be an altogether different person? Why or why not?

There is much more.

We of course tend strongly to think that apart from the aging process we are not  very different persons at different stages of our life, or with different memories. Imagine a person in his early fifties reflecting on what he might have done instead of going to law school and then becoming a practicing attorney for the next 25 years, getting married, raising children, leading a typical upper middle class life. Although the details will be different, I suspect that a great many people have engaged in imagining other life paths they might have followed in this way, altogether naturally. But again, to think about the matter more deeply is to realize that it makes no sense to imagine what you might have hoped, dreamed, feared or expected  had you not become a lawyer, because you did  become a lawyer, and your lawyerly  life over the past thirty years has had a profound impact on the hopes, dreams, fears and expectations you now have, but  wouldn’t have  now with respect to what you might have thought about being then.

But we do not need to focus solely on the ghostly I of self-identity: what kind of individual self is a thoroughgoing amnesiac? Or think of Alhzeimer’s patients. In a recent book on the subject, Sue Halpern noted that when signs of the disease begin to show,

[T]his is when you begin to say that someone is not herself.  We even say this about ourselves, But how can that be?... How can you be anything but yourself?  The obvious, rational answer is that you can’t.... You are only yourself now. And what if that self is one that can’t remember itself? What if that person you had been is only a memory... held by others?

Reductionistts will also insist there can be no such thing as a self, sometimes stated a bit extravagantly, as with Francis Crick of double-helix fame, who wrote:

The Astonishing Hypotheis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than he behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Thomas Metzinger in his interdisciplinary monograph entitled Being No One in which he straddles the empirical sciences and the humanities, neurosciences and philosophy of mind, takes the challenge to the notion of self a step further when he summarizes the research underlying his book rather starkly in the following terms: “This is a book about consciousness, the phenomenal self, and the first-person perspective. Its main thesis is that no such thing as selves exist in the world: Nobody was or had a self.”

The problem as Metzinger sees it is mistaking  phenomenal experience itself for a superordinate self—that is, “treating vehicle and content” as being something more than“two strongly interrelated aspects of one and the same phenomenon.”

As Metzinger insists:  

It is simply not true that everyone has a rough idea of what the “consciousness” refers to. In my own experience, for example, the most frequent misunderstanding lies in confusing phenomenal experience as such with what philosophers call “reflexive self-consciousness,” the actualized capacity to cognitively refer to yourself, using some sort of concept-like or quasi-linguistic kind of mental structure.

In short, it appears that it is very difficult to describe what it is to be an individual self – for ourselves or for others – and yet we are inclined to continue to believe that every human being is, or can be uniquely identifiable in isolation from all other human beings, and therefore there must always be a clear answer to the question “Who am I?” for each of us. But perhaps this belief is less grounded in fact than it is a presupposition that we make before looking for facts to support the belief:  We feel in advance that there must  be an answer to the identity questions, an unreflective assumption so common as to not even be seen as such. It is equally ubiquitous among many professional philosophers and psychologists, as the philosopher John Greenwood has noted from his own survey research on issues of identity:

About the only thing that many philosophical and psychological accounts of identity do have in common is a commitment to psychological atomism – the doctrine that psychological states can exist and be individuated independently of their relation to other psychological states; and individualism – the doctrine that persons can exist and be individuated independently of their relation to other persons, and that social collectives are nothing more than aggregates of individuals. This is also true of most avowedly “social” theories of personal identity based on “cognitive labeling.”

There is another, even more important reason for wanting everyone to ask “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” as personal questions for themselves that have serious  consequences. That reason lies in the self-fulfilling nature of the answer we are inclined to give to the question itself. That is to say, the more we believe we really are fundamentally individual selves, in the end independent of all others, the more easily we can become such. The extent to which people think of themselves as being separate and distinct from all of their fellow human beings is surely psycho-physical in significant measure, but is just as surely influenced – perhaps very heavily influenced – by their family environments and cultural milieu with specific circumstances therein. Which is the greater determinant of self-definition I do not know; but clearly the more our society sends strong signals ― via political speeches, advertisements, literature and the like ― that we are unique, individual selves, free, autonomous, rational and self-interested, the more likely we are to think of ourselves as such. Aldous Huxley put the matter clearly and bluntly:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone.

This is a frightening scenario. Happily, it is not necessary to live with it. I certainly have not proved that the autonomous individual self is a mischievous fiction (although many more arguments for that conclusion can be adduced). But I hope readers can at least appreciate that the isolated individualist model is by no means certainly true, and indeed may be altogether false, serving largely as propaganda for a capitalist ideology that must be replaced if we are to meet the manifold problems threatening the U.S. and the world now. We may still accept the individualist model, but must realize that such is a choice to do so, for other options are available, with differing moral implications.

To one such option we will turn in the second part of this essay.

Henry Rosemont, Jr. is Visiting Scholar of Religious Studies at Brown. His most recent book is Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality. Politics, the Family and Religion, from which parts of the present article have drawn .Full documentation for all material herein can be obtained from the author: