All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 2001

Individual and Society: Irreconcilable Enemies?

Voluntary Cooperation Takes Imagination and Determination

Contributing editor Tibor Machan is a professor at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University.

Do individual rights clash with the interests and “rights” of communities?

Some say that they do, at least sometimes. And some think they clash quite often. But an individual “right” that can be abrogated at will whenever others are inconvenienced or annoyed is not really a right at all but merely a temporarily awarded privilege.

Consider the case of a famous theater in Fullerton, California, which was about to be sold by its owner, Edward G. Lewis. Neighbors not only scolded Lewis for his willingness to sacrifice “community interests,” but also trooped to the local government to demand a ban on the sale. Then there’s the case of a resident in the neighboring city of Orange who wanted to build some apartments on land he owns. Alas, he was guilty of owning that land within the bounds of a “historic district,” inspiring the neighbors to insist that the city government abort his plans.

Finally, there’s the case of influential citizens in Indianapolis who wanted to institute random car searches to stem drug traffic. They claimed that opposing their desire amounted to pitting private against community interests—and of course the latter should prevail. Luckily, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, siding with those who wanted their individual rights protected.1

Is there anything natural or necessary about this apparent conflict between the individual and the community? After all, no individual has ever survived alone, utterly apart from others. Family, neighbors, tribe, village, city, country, and world—all form a vital feature of the life of every individual human being. So any basic antagonism between the individual and the various communities of which he is a member would seem to be a fiction. As individuals, we need other people. Community benefits, Aristotle observed, are natural.

At the same time, we cannot exercise our full human potential if our individuality is stifled, suppressed, and banned by the mass of men who call themselves society. Creative thought, self-directedness, resistance to mindless conformity and the like are all part of what we have come to understand as human virtues. So how did individual rights and the public interest come to be the premier polar opposite of political life?

Perhaps the deepest roots of the notion lie in the conditions of tribal life before the dawn of civilization. It has always been natural, as F. A. Hayek pointed out, for persons to be bound up in close relationships with others. And in the earliest times, especially before human beings had engaged in much reflective thought, let alone writing, survival literally depended on these ties.

With the birth of political thought in ancient Greece, attention began to be paid to individual moral development. But there was still much more focus on how communities should be administered and on what specifically civic virtues men ought to cultivate than on how to resolve conflicts between individuals and the community. With the life (and death) of Socrates, serious issues did arise that Plato then developed into major themes of his political explorations. But although Socrates was in conflict with society, he explicitly granted the moral supremacy of the group—it had a right to impose the death penalty on him, he believed, and it would have been wrong to try to elude it.

Nevertheless, the question posed by the drama of Socrates is still the question we face today: to what extent does any individual have the right to dissent from the group . . . and to what extent does the group have the right and authority to subdue the individual?

The Supremacy of the Community

Plato’s own philosophy of social life assumes the supremacy of the community in spades. For Plato the universal Idea of Humanity, or Man, possesses transcendent significance, while the particular incarnations of that Idea—namely, you, me, and Fred next door—are perishable, imperfect, even base and low—poor shadows of the Real Thing. So the first major political reflection in Western history underscored the notion that individuals are lowly parts of a greater whole.

Even in Aristotle, the status of the individual citizen takes a back seat to the need to properly administer the community. Indeed, for the ancient Greeks generally the obligations of citizenship take precedence over concerns about individual rights or liberty. Individual rights do make a vital appearance in Aristotle—a pivotal appearance, historically speaking—but are not treated in the prominent way that they would be in the thirteenth century, in the work of William of Ockam, and thereafter, especially in the writings of John Locke and later libertarians.2

Historically, then, “society” had a head start when it came to resolving allegedly fundamental clashes between it and the individual. But there are also competing views, and the issue is hardly moot. We don’t have to settle for whatever seems the traditionally dominant way of looking at the world. Instead we can and should ask: What are the standards according to which we should judge and resolve apparent conflicts between the individual and the community? And does it not matter what kind of community we are talking about? If an individual comes into conflict with the Third Reich or modern Iraq or the former Soviet Union, should such a conflict be resolved invariably in favor of the community—or is it precisely “the community’s” stance toward the individual and his rights that in part determines whether it is a good community or a bad community?

In fact, what is at issue in purported conflicts between the individual and society are varying conceptions of good community life held by various individuals. It is hard to imagine any individual rejecting community life as such; it is too vital a support system. But there are people who do so and march into McDonald’s or the local schoolyard, weapons at the ready. What a normal, reasoning individual seeks is not an end to community but a community in which his own goals can be realized and his values reflected. He may also seek to impose his choices and preferences on others by force—but then it is his own choice that introduces conflict, one that rests in fact on a mistaken conception of what constitutes a healthy and viable community.

Communities are not automatically healthy or nurturing. Individual members need to watch over them to make sure—applying standards that are objective, rather than impulsive or emotional—that they are conducive to human life. This vigilance is the responsibility of the individual. Even the most crucial of communities, the family, is subject to moral evaluation: when a child, for example, is abused or neglected and is incapable of protesting, others may make just claims in his behalf. By the same token, a larger community that chronically stifles individual aspiration may be deemed corrupt and stagnant—something to be repaired or even rejected altogether.

What makes a community suitable is its systematic embrace of principles that make self-directed individual life possible in a social context. That means a community which pervasively respects and safeguards individual rights; that is, the ability of each sovereign individual to pursue his own life and goals without arbitrary coercive hindrance from others.

Some conceptions of community life do violence to individuality and thereby undermine their merits as suitable communities. Yet some folks prefer them, fight for them, struggle to establish and maintain them. When they say human beings need to give up their individuality or abandon their basic rights in deference to community, they mischaracterize the actual conflict. If a community is destructive, opposing it does not mean opposing community as such, just bad community.

The Environment

Consider the common allegation that the needs of communities in environmental matters clash with individual rights. But why should this be so?

It turns out that private property rights provide the best chance for conserving the resources human beings require in the long run. The tragedy of the commons, or collective ownership, is the main threat to environmentally sound public policy, while private property rights secure long-term care for resources. So it seems that respecting and protecting the individual’s property and developing measures that address environmental problems within that context lead to the best solutions—best for the individual and the sort of community in which individuals can flourish.

But suppose an individual wants to pave his land while his environmentalist neighbors, enjoying the view, ache for him to leave it as it stands. These neighbors may not care about environmental questions in general, just this single patch of natural wonderland on their own block. Here we have a definite and unmistakable clash of the preferences between members of the community. The matter cannot be a clash of rights, however, because the neighbors don’t own the land in question.

Obviously, all sorts of preferences, including mutually contradictory ones, can be wrapped in the banner of community. But if your rights can be repealed whenever a bunch of neighbors decides they should be repealed, you obviously have no rights at all. And that is not a good social setting in which to attempt to live one’s life.

So what about the beleaguered theater owner in Fullerton? If we are really worried about the interests of the community as a whole, then we should be concerned about the rights of all its constituents. That means we should be concerned to uphold the property rights of every individual in that community. To build nice theaters individuals need to know that they will be able to sell them when that is deemed to be to their best advantage. Without this freedom, the creation of values is seriously hampered.

As for the historic district in Orange, there are ways of working to sustain the value of the area without violating anybody’s rights. The owner of the parcel in question could, for example, have been compensated for his loss by those concerned to sustain the historical flavor of the area. (Of course, raising the money might have been a problem.) Restrictive covenants could have prevented the conflict. These sorts of solutions require foresight and expense. But how much better to expend effort on the things one cares about than to open the door to endless coercive interference with private plans?

The Indianapolis residents who want random searches to abate drug traffic must accept the fact that this would be a serious breach of principles appropriate to a free people. That doesn’t mean they can’t tackle the problem at all. Education, social pressure, and other peaceful means of combating the drug trade can be deployed without forfeiting the Fourth Amendment.

Working to achieve one’s social values on a voluntary rather than coercive basis often takes imagination and determination. But aren’t individual rights worth this effort?


  1. City of Indianapolis et al., petitioners, v. James Edmond et al.
  2. Fred D. Miller Jr., Nature, Rights and Justice in Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1995). Compare to Alistair McIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). See also Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights (Atlanta: Emory University Studies in Law & Religion, No. 5, 1997). The most elaborate philosophic defense of individual rights, based on human nature, appears in John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960 [1690]).

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.