Individualism is not selfishness

Individualism is a polemical word that causes many misunderstandings. I believe it is due to the fact that the term is employed for multiple meanings that can unleash different emotions according to the manner in which each person understands it. Individualism is a word that incites negative judgment when used as a synonym for selfishness. The same happens when it is employed to describe someone who is incompetent in affectionate relationships and has trouble socializing.

It is worthwhile to dedicate some rigorous reasoning to this theme, especially because we are living a phase of our history in which the tendency towards individualism is increasing. Individualism has been growing basically as a result of the technological progress that has allowed us to spend more time in solitary activities provided by gadgets like ipods, computers, electronic games etc.; and since the very beginning of our first walks of life! It is also a fact that, at present, the availability of most mothers has decreased because of their work outside the home. Besides, it becomes harder each time for children to be with others of the same age in spontaneous interchange, since the streets are no longer the playground they were in the past.

We can define individualism as the capacity to exercise our individuality. That is curious because the word individuality has a positive connotation, indicating the conquest of a state of autonomy. We are born with total absence of identity and in a state of fusion with our mothers. It takes us over 20 years to complete the process of inner development that will define our individuality. It is, perhaps, one of our greater achievements: finally we are able to recognize ourselves as an autonomous being, with personal thoughts and points of view built upon our private life experiences – but obviously influenced by everything that surrounds us.

Individuality makes us acutely conscious of being loners; of the awareness that any contact we establish with “others” is rather unstable; that we are not always as well understood as we would like to be, due to the fact that the reasoning process of each brain is unique and communication is not always established. Over the years we have fought against the sensation of loneliness determined by the constitution of our individuality. I believe that we, as a species, still struggle against that condition and are only approaching it because of the technological progress that is “forcing” us to follow suit in the process of emancipation that we have a tendency to interrupt.

Contrary efforts to individuality are part of the amorous phenomenon because of the tendency to cuddle up in coziness, initially with our mothers, and later with her adult substitutes – amorous relationships, patriotism etc. When we assume the role of defenders of love and the gregarious tendencies that result from it, we position ourselves, not always consciously, against the development of our individuality. We begin to consider it harmful to common good, to view it as an attitude that would keep us from also having thoughts about our fellowmen. To preserve the term “individuality”, we alter the focus of criticism to another word with a similar significance. Those in favor of social causes take a stand against individualism – which simply means the exercise of individuality, something they themselves consider a positive thing.

I understand the affliction people feel in face of a new point of view that apparently contradicts their usual one – which is that individualism implies selfishness and disregard for others. But from my point of view, I see no contradiction between the complete exercise of our individuality and the development of a moral sense and social solidarity. On the contrary, I have observed that an incomplete emotional development – which is the result of not reaching the individualistic level, usually engenders morally dubious conduct in many people.

Therefore, I do not only believe that individualism is not a synonym for, nor does it imply, selfishness; rather, my strongest convictions point in the opposite direction: selfishness stems from the emotional immaturity characterized by an incomplete development of individuality. The selfish person cannot be an individualist because he must favor group life for lack of competence to generate everything he needs. It is from the group – or from some people belonging to that group – that he extracts benefits. The selfish person is one who needs to receive more than he is capable of giving. He is a weakling, not a smart person. He is really a cunning individual exactly because he is weak and needs to use his intelligence to beguile others to obtain what he needs but is not able to produce. The selfish person needs to be sympathetic and an extrovert. He is not that way because he likes people and enjoys their company. He is like that because he depends on them and has to seduce them with the intent of obtaining everything he needs.

Another form of emotional immaturity, but less dramatic than selfishness, is generosity. The generous person needs to feel loved and well liked. To achieve this goal he will make any type of concession. The selfish individual perceives it – for he is clever and alert to every beneficial opportunity – and proceeds to procure the practical favors that the generous type is willing to deliver with the intent of experiencing coziness. It establishes a solid and pernicious association between these two types of immature and dependent persons: the selfish type depends on practical issues of survival and the generous type depends on emotional aspects of coziness to avoid feeling lonely. This type of alliance defines a common type of amorous bond that E. Fromm called sadomasochism: the sadistic type is the selfish one and the masochistic type represents the generous individual. There exists an interdependence in which the more powerful – because the less immature – is the generous or masochistic person. Yes, because even in sexual sadomasochism the one dealing the cards is the masochistic character!

Over the past 25 years I have been trying to decipher and undo this scheme, in my opinion a very dubious one that is established between “good” – generous – and “bad” – selfish persons. For two decades I have been combating this duality that has not led us anywhere and is transmitted, by example, from generation to generation. For decades I have tried to unveil what lies beyond good and evil. With tenacity and persistence I have sought a manner of being that is truly moral, contrary to this pattern that confers virtue to generosity when it really obliges the existence of a corresponding number of selfish people. Generosity is not a virtue because its exercise perpetuates the selfish ways of its beneficiaries.

I consider it important to distinguish generosity from altruism: the latter corresponds to the anonymous help from third parties unknown to each other or barely acquainted. For that reason it does not cause the reinforcement of selfishness, since intimate exchanges are inexistent. Selfishness and generosity interact and strengthen each other in a negative manner in intimate relationships among couples, parents and children, business partners and society in general. For decades I have been declaring that selfishness will only disappear when generosity ceases to exist. Meaning that a parasite will only cease to exist when there is no longer any host upon which to feed. Therefore, everyone who defends generosity as a virtue is indirectly promoting the existence of selfish types!

Overcoming the selfishness-generosity duality corresponds to a way of being that I call fair: the pattern in which one does not receive more than one gives but one also does not give more that one receives. The fair person will have to be an independent individual from a practical as well as an emotional point of view. He will not need anyone for his practical issues of survival, as is the case with the selfish type. He will not need anyone for his emotional coziness, as is the case with the generous type. That does not mean that he will refrain from establishing bonds in which exchanges of all sorts exist. Fair exchanges. One should also not despise the difference between need and desire. In the case of desire, what is at stake is pleasure not necessity; therefore we tend to be much more careful in the “accounting” that involves exchanges with those close to us.

Emotionally mature persons like to relate socially and affectionately. Since they do not need others vitally, they are not obliged to be with them all the time, as is usually the case with the selfish, more immature and dependent types. More mature people also like to spend time by themselves with their thoughts, dreams, music, books etc. More mature people are the ones who have developed their individuality more intensely and have reached a way of being that pleases them; so that, spending time alone is also good entertainment!

Therefore, more mature persons are individualists who exercise their individualities with pleasure. They usually prefer a more restricted social circle, therefore becoming more demanding in the choice of their friends and acquaintances. Others do not feel very gratified by human interactions and may prefer a more solitary life; especially those who have already made peace with this peculiarity of our condition. Yes, because it is probable that one of the reasons for which it took us so long to reach this stage that may be called emotional birth is due to the difficulty in accepting our condition of unique and solitary beings. We are born physically at the moment of deliverance and only after several months are able to recognize ourselves as separated from our mothers, a moment that corresponds to psychological birth. It seems that we need over 20 years more for emotional birth to occur in the few who really make it that far!

I reaffirm my conviction that individualism corresponds to the achievement of emotional maturity, an indispensable condition for the establishment of high quality affective relationships and also for the emergence of effective moral advancement among us. That is the good news that arises from the dramatic and not always adequate changes that we have witnessed over the past 40 years. I hope that we have time to see it flourish, but that will only happen if the world does not come to an end as a consequence of yet another war between “good” and “evil”!

Translated by: Norma Blum