The Anatomy of Individualist Belief

A declaration of absolutist belief often opens one up to the smart-aleck retorts of petty pedants who use narrow-minded sophistic jibes to try and warp the ground on which absolutists have built said beliefs.

One such contention involves censorship.

“I am in no case for censorship.” says the absolutist.

“Well, are you for pornography being broadcast by network television on Saturday mornings?” replies the sophist, with a wicked twinkle in his eye.

“No.” replies the absolutist, aware of the implication with which the sophist has seeded his claim — that this would potentially expose small children eager to watch early-morning cartoons to pornographic context.

“Well, see, you do support censorship.” crows the sophist, thinking he’s proved invalid the absolutist’s entire way of thinking.

But, even supposing this were not a wholly ludicrous strawman (television networks are not going to risk driving away advertisers skittish of controversy or angering parents and moral decency groups incensed by having their children accidentally stumble across graphic adult content) two things can be true at once: for the individualist — whose epistemology is rooted in the idea that individuals are sovereign in their own lives — personal belief is not necessarily aligned with policy advocacy.

Individualist beliefs are absolutist. But they are not dictatorial. A person’s will is a juridical force only so long as the individual exercises full mastery and ownership of an object. Personal belief governs individual habits; it is not a limitation upon external actors and conditions. External actors exercise the same autonomy over the ordering of their own private affairs as the individualist does over his.

In the unrealistic case that the government suddenly abandons regulating broadcast television, and in the even more unrealistic case that networks decide to air pornography on Saturday mornings, the individualist might refrain from tuning in to such programming on the grounds that he finds it objectionable, but he would nevertheless support television executives’ right to make such decisions.

This is because the individualist takes responsibility for his own life. As sovereign in one’s private life, the individualist is responsible for his or her life choices. This includes making the decision to not act in ways that violate personal belief. So, if an individual finds pornography to be objectionable, it is up to him to take the steps that no member of his household acts in a way that supports values in conflict with his own. The individualist may even go so far as to boycott any network that pursues programming choices he or she finds personally distasteful. Such a model of behavior allows each actor to act in accordance with the diktats of his or her conscience but still respects the general right to conscience.

But the individualist does not lobby for a change of policy that forces another’s actions into alignment with his or her own values. At its core, individualism is about choice. Sovereignty, if it is to be truly secured, requires respecting the same freedoms one desires to personally exercise. To not do so — to attempt to mold the world through policy that reflects one’s value-judgments — actually undermines personal sovereignty. It creates a precedent that buoys altruistic action done for “the common good” over respect for the individual’s ability to make determinative choices about his or her own life. An individual’s place in society is never secure. His or her values may reflect the majority consensus on one point, but they may divulge wildly from the community on another. If the individual allows his views, because they are reflective of common consensus, to influence policy in one area, he runs the danger of policy impinging his freedom in another area where his views depart from the majority.

Love of one’s own freedom demands respect for another’s. This is why it is possible for the individual to support policy positions that are seemingly incongruous with privately held values. One can be for drug legalization and still abstain from consuming them based on the belief that they are a detriment for personal health. One can be in favor of deregulating media but still seek out content that supports the values one believes are wholesome.

The individual ego does not seek to remake the world in his image. It seeks to promote that which is of value through private action: by seeking out goods ans services that are rooted in resonant values. But the individual ego respects the sovereignty of others, even when others make choices the individual abhors. Doing so is imperative to one’s own survival.

This means reasoned debate is the only course open to the individual who wishes to bring others around to his way of thinking. Coercion is implicit to government regulation and any value-driven public policy. Values are intuited by the individual mind; they are therefore to be hashed out in the private realm, not the public. For in the private realm, free association means individuals are capable of making conscience-based choices. They seek out things that resonate with their beliefs and eschew things that support different beliefs. Community consensus as to value arises naturally as a result of a plurality of free actors making similar choices. But those who disagree are still free to order their private lives as they see fit.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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