The Duality of Society

Brian A Lopez



Society is, by its very nature, a duality. Two contrasting forces that simultaneously hold it together and pull it apart: Individualism and Collectivism. This should be obvious, given that society if a collection of individuals, but I would like to explore this theme in greater detail.

Pure individualism would be "The State of Nature" as Thomas Hobbes described it in Leviathan. A state where there is no law, no private property, no contracts or even morals. It is a simple, completely pure battle of the fittest. If I take something from you and am successful, so be it. If you can stop me, so be it. If someone is stronger, faster or smarter than another, it is no more complicated than that. Needless to say this would be an extremely undesirable world, and Hobbes described life in this scenario as "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Besides the physical negative aspects, there would also be zero economic this scenario of pure individualism no individual would be manage to become better off. There would certainly be no technological or intellectual development either.

If one thinks about it, the state of nature is unfettered freedom. If I decide to murder someone near me and take their possessions, what should stop me? If I manage to overpower/out smart them I was simple a better specimen, and if I fail then they are the better specimen. Meritocracy at it's most brutal. Thus, society is, even in its most minimal form, an infringement on freedom...but one that is accepted by those involved. No one wants to live in constant fear of being attacked.

So there are rights and laws put in place: The right to private property, and its protection from aggression. Contracts. Laws forbidding murder, and theft. This creates stability and of course provides every individual the ability to flourish. This surrender of some individual freedom for the common good, is beneficial to every individual. In a way, it is an even better form of meritocracy: With an even starting position and universal rules and protections there will still be unequal development, but everyone can now develop. In fact superior specimens can achieve greater success, no longer having to be on guard perpetually. An economy can develop, technology can arise and people can think. All this is possible once the constant fear of violence is removed.

However, once this universally accepted position of some individual sacrifice for the common good is reached, a question arises: What should this balance be?

An unfettered, purely collectivist society would be as undesirable as its opposite, with the same detriments to economic, technological and intellectual progress. In a way, neither extreme state is a state of true freedom, which is only achieved in a middle ground where every individual is free to better their lives to the best of their ability, as they see fit, or indeed pursue any life they choose. In the state of nature, perhaps some people may wish to not partake, but have to for survival. In a society, if one wishes to enjoy a life free of competition, with no want of material gain they are free to do so, just as much as one is free to accumulate as much financial or material wealth as they can.

This of course raises other issues: Should some forms of achieving individual betterment be illegal? What amount of services, if any, should a society have and who should pay how much? These are well known issues that are beyond the scope of this piece, instead I will say simply: As long as we live in a middle ground between the extremes of pure individualism and collectivism, there will be debate about the question: What should this balance be?

Since society is a collection of individuals there will always be the counter forces mentioned early on. Every individual wants to better themselves, or more so live the life they want, but there must be self sacrifice for the overall betterment of society, where people will have conflicting views, lives and the want to naturally better oneself at the expense of another. This inherent competitiveness can never be removed, it is part of the human element, just as much as the need for collective society is. No person can exist without human connection, and the necessary cooperation, (at least in a minimal way) that goes along with it.

The conflict of counter pulling forces, individual and collective, is a personal one, as much as a societal one. This duality, is perhaps the very essence of being human.