Individualist or Collectivist?

Which are you when it comes to making moral decisions? Which situations in life do you think are most in need of either individualist reasoning or collectivistic reasoning? Here’s a set of lines from a book I’m reading: 

Individualistic values center on the rights and needs of each person. Examples of individualistic values would be freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, self-esteem, individual achievement, personal enjoyment, and self-expression. Collectivistic values prize most highly the person’s obligations and duties to others. Examples of collectivistic values would be duty, loyalty, kindness, generosity, obedience, and self-sacrifice.


It’s a little too either-or for me, but there’s something insightful here about how we conceptualize values and on what basis we make decisions.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Honestly, I think I’d need to have a whole psychological survey to answer that question. It’s not just that it’s too “either/or” (although it certainly is) but that I don’t think that any of us are good judges of our own character/mindset on issues like this.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    This reminds me of another of my favorite questions: When Breathing, which is more important to you? Inhaling or exhaling? :-) One only becomes more important than the other when I have an imbalance of one over the other.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Interesting, Scot…what’s the name of the book?
    I think this is the problem folks have when they don’t understand covenant (and I mean the NT covenant in Jesus). Covenant is all about collective, or community as we say. (Collective makes me think about the Borg Queen, resistance is futile and all that….)
    The strength of the individual position must always derive from the strength of the community. Hence, we are one body made up of many parts. Listen to the Shema … the LORD (the eternal three) is ONE. There is no focus on the individual that does not intertwine with the ONE.
    It cannot be either/or; it must be both/and. Individuals must become part of the community in order for the individual benefits of the community to be received. Privilege always has a purpose — and it is other-oriented, not self-oriented.
    The important distinction in the New Covenant is that this is to be a community where each are connected to and looking out for the best interest of the others to whom they are connected (hesed). That’s where our American Rugged Individualism has often not served the Church particularly well, imo.
    Take a read through the New Testament…ponder the 50+ “one another” texts. The life of the Jesus-follower is definitely to be “other” oriented.

  • Peggy

    …but this demands that we allow our needs to be met by others serving us — just as theirs are met by our serving them. And that’s just a little too uncomfortable, eh?

  • http://lutheranchiklworddiary.blogspot.com LutheranChik

    Response #2 — I second that emotion.

  • Scot McKnight

    It’s from Arnett’s book I mentioned; he’s relying upon collectivist/indivdualist scale and research. One thing I know: many Christians today are not aware of the significance of collectivist logic.

  • Peggy

    “One thing I know: many Christians today are not aware of the significance of collectivist logic.” Amen, Scot!

  • http://whateverisgood.blogspot.com Wes Ellis

    Thanks for this.
    I think there a pendulum in effect. The pendulum has been, largely in western culture (and the culture of wealth) the pendulum has been stuck in the individualist position, valueing such things as independence, self-sufficiency, self-esteem, etc. I wouldn’t mind seeing the pendulum swing to the other side so we might embrace a culture of generosity and self-sacrifice. But I guess the center is probably where we should be… a balance of the two. Personally, I’m tired of the individualist reasoning.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    BTW, I’m with Peggy on the “collectivist” terminology. Sounds a little to Borg for my tastes.

  • Brandon Hovey

    Scot,
    Also worth noting is the “third way” of Alan Carter, interrelationism. In this theory society is explained in terms of relationships between individuals that lead to the formation of groups and relationships between groups. In this view the basic unity of society is bi-polar relationships. Consequently, neither the individual nor the larger society can steal all of the attention. This view seems to play out across Scripture and balance out the evil tendencies of communism vs. Western liberalism (and utilitarianism).
    Still, I think you are correct that our culture tends to err of rugged individualism and thus an emphasis on collectivism is much needed. These categories seem to bleed into so much of our lives–politics, ecumenicalism, ecclesiology, parenting, education philosophies, etc.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    From the standpoint of politics in the U. S., our conservative and liberal factions or alternative means to individualism. Both emphasize the rights of the individual. There isn’t a collectivist (as described in the post) view.
    Conservative politics leans toward personal freedom from government while liberal politics leans toward personal freedom through government. Conservatives generally want to be left alone to exercise there right to rise or fall on their own merit and everyone else should be allowed to do so as well. Liberals generally believe everyone has a right to be free of material need and that everyone’s basic wants should be met independent of lifestyle decisions or accountability to local communities and families so each person can express themselves however they see fit. (And yes I’m over selling to make my point.)
    Neither of these is about prizing “obligations and duties to others” or “duty, loyalty, kindness, generosity, obedience, and self-sacrifice.” I think Brandon #10 hits upon some key points about interrelatedness where “neither the individual nor the larger society [I’d also specifically identify centralized government] can steal all of the attention.”
    One of my biggest disappoints with wide swathes of the Emerging Church movement has been the tendency to rightly reject some the excessive individualism of the Republican conservatism only to embrace Democrat/Obama style liberalism as some fresh new form of collectivism (again, as defined in the post.) It isn’t.
    If modernism is prone to excessive individualism, then I think we are simply entering hyper-modernism versus post-modernism. We aren’t seeing collectivist values taking over the national ethos.

  • faith

    It does sound too much either / or in definition. I think there is a place in which persons are self-differiented, having a true sense of self and being in community. In Family systems theory, there is a balance between togetherness and separateness. Healthiest communities consist of those who have a solid sense of who they are as separate persons and a sense of who they are in relation to others.
    If human beings are only defined by the community they have no nucleous. If they are only defined by self, they are self-centered. There is a balance and wholeness that exists.
    Jesus said, no one takes my life… i give it. In systems where there is too much togetherness, the life is taken by others. In systems where there is too much separateness, there is no giving of self. A healthy system is whole people who freely give themselves of their own choosing.
    It is a giving out of wholeness.
    Also in scripture we see JEsus forming a community that is separated to God not the in group. He says do not be men pleasers. Scripture speaks of a kind of community defined not by society and its norms but by Christ and the set-apart community in allegience to God. This requires self-differiantion–knowing where self begins and another person begins.
    The new community is not defined by the status relations or the stratified ordering common in the first century but by the table of JEsus Christ where all are welcome. The people of God needed to separate themselves unto God and his purposes.
    Maturity is definded by how self-differentiated persons are. Mature people are able to give and receive freely of their own choosing. They are not enslaved or co-dependent but can give freely with holy motives. They are not compelled to give or coerced by the approval of others.

  • faith

    A really good book on systems theory is A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman.
    he uses a lot of examples from science to illustrate separateness and togetherness continuims and the theory of healthy systems.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    #13 faith
    “A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman”
    Sounds interesting, Faith. I’ll check it out.

  • faith

    Yes, check it out… my concern is what i see practically in the church–which is a lot of dysfunctional community. I think growing mature, self-differienated diciples is the key to healthy, holy (set apart unto God) community.
    another good book, i read on this is Transforming Spirituality by LeRon Shults and Steve Sandage. They integrate theology and Spirituality with the aim of whole people of God who can live in community.

  • Brandon

    Michael: Re: Politics.
    To some extent I see your point. But its always easier to critique than propose. Our version of democracy is not perfect, but its better than a lot else. What do you propose? If our “individualist” political system fails what is better? Are the collectivist models of communism and socialism better? Not according to the history books. Is monarchianism or feudelism the answer? And of course, American democracy is a bit of an expierement, espically when you throw in the new x-factor of “big” business flowing from the industrial and scientific revolution. In and sinful world its messy not matter how you look at it. Until the consumated theocratic government of the New Creation politics will never elude criticism. But all things considered the States are (comparatively) doing O.K.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Brandon my point would be that the answer is neither isolated individualism nor large government solutions. We need to strengthen the mediating institutions that exist between the individual and large social entities like government. Here is a lengthy quote From “Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility: For and Against” by David Schmidtz and Robert Goodin, that I will put at my blog next week. Schmidtz writes:
    “I’ve been invited to defend individual responsibility and institutions that encourage it, but I have no problem with collective responsibility per se. Individual versus collective responsibility is not the crucial distinction. More crucial is a distinction between what I call internalized and externalized responsibility. Economists say a decision involves a negative externality when someone other than the decision maker ends up bearing some of the decisions costs. A pulp mill dumping wastes into a river, leaving them to be dealt with by people downstream, is a classic example of a negative externality. The cost of cleaning up the mess is foisted upon people who played no part in causing it.
    When I speak of responsibility being externalized, I have something similar in mind. Responsibility is externalized when people do not take responsibility: for messes they cause, for messes in which they find themselves. Responsibility is externalized when people regard the cleanup as someone else’s problem. We can speak of responsibility being externalized whether the messes result from mistake, misfortune, or (in the case of the pulp mill) from business as usual. In contrast, responsibility is internalized when agents take responsibility: for their welfare, for their futures, for the consequences of their actions.
    The contrast between internalized and externalized responsibility does not really track the contrast between individual and collective responsibility. Collective responsibility can be a form of internalized responsibility. It can, in other words, be an example of people treating their welfare as their own responsibility. A group collectively internalizes responsibility when, but only when, members willingly take responsibility for themselves as a group. So when family members willingly accept responsibility for each other, we can see them as internalizing responsibility even though the responsibility takes on a collective form. To some extent, this is a semantic issue, but it points to a real difference: some people see their welfare as someone else’s problem; other people see their welfare as their own problem.
    … In such [prosperous] societies, although people willingly take responsibility for themselves as individuals, they also willingly and reciprocally take responsibility for themselves as families, businesses, clubs, church groups, and so on. What strikes me about citizens of prosperous societies, then, is not their individualism so much as their willingness to take responsibility. It is that willingness to which the term ‘internalization’ is meant to point.
    Collective responsibility as such is not a problem, but the urge to externalize responsibility is. …” (7-9)


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