Individual vs Societal perspectives
Oct 16, 2010

Individual vs Societal perspectives

Many moral, political and economic issues can be looked at from two perspectives: individual and societal. We can look at the consequences of such a moral, political or economic claim on any given individual and compare the effects to that of an aggregate of individuals or society. Interestingly, I think the two perspectives actually yield different results. The societal effect is not merely the aggregate of the individual effects.

For economics, this is well understood and so should be addressed first. The study of economics is very explicitly divided along the individual/societal distinction. Loosely, microeconomics deals with economic properties relating to a small amount of individuals while macroeconomics deals with the broader aspects of the economy at large. For a long time there was a hope that macroeconomics could be derived from microeconomics in the sense that if we understood enough about individual transactions, the macroeconomic properties would just come out. As it turned out however, this goal remains elusive and simple macro phenomena can not be accurately predicted from an aggregate if micro knowledge. As an analogy, It is much like how knowing the micro level physics of how atoms behave doesn't give immediate predictions about macro level physics like the relationship between temperature, pressure and volume and certainly not about what the weather is going to be tomorrow. Of course it may just be that our microeconomic understanding is merely currently insufficient to provide a foundation for macroeconomics and that with mote knowledge it could. However, for the realities of the present the two perspectives - individual and societal - remain distinct in their ability to give economic understanding.

This idea can now be extended from economics to morality. Does a morality we find just for individuals apply well to societies, and vice versa? Consider this with the example of the role of government, as is often brought up by libertarians. They argue something like the following.  Suppose we agree that using force or the threat of force to take a persons property from them agains their will is an immoral thing to do.  In this case, since that is up to rhetoric precisely what government taxation is, government taxation is inherently wrong. This is intrinsically taking the individual perspective and from that perspective they are absolutely right in that there are people who have money taken from them against there will because of the threat of force. Consider this from the societal perspective. As a society, taxes are accepted. We don't all come out en mass every election supporting candidates advocating for the complete dismantling of all government and taxation. So from the societal perspective, society is not being forced against its collective will to pay taxes under threat of force. The moral claim then is reduced to the matter of which perspective one chooses and in the case of government which is an intrinsically societal concept its moral merits usually hold up far better under this perspective than an individual one. As an aside, recall my previous comments about the issues of a reductionist morality which call into question the validity of the taxation criticism even from the individual perspective.

Given that I have outlined two perspectives it is perhaps natural to ask which is superior. I don't actually contend that either is so and would suggest instead that both perspectives be kept in mind and attempt to act morally from both perspectives.  That said, there is a certain asymmetry in the sense that while there are many examples like the above where something is individually questionable but societally acceptable there seems to be few (any?) clear examples of the reverse. I.e., is there a morally just action at the level of individuals that we would condemn should it also occur at the level of societies. Kant's categorical imperative -  which asserts that an individual action is moral should it remain so when universally applied - explicitly emphasizes this asymmetry whereby societal morality trumps individual morality.

Since i have not been too precise with definitions of morality I should emphasize the distinction that simply because society desires something that trumps individuals, does not make it moral. So for example, a societal bigotry that prevents gay marriage in many places does not trump that individually being able to marry whom one chooses is morally virtuous. This is why I like to keep both perspectives in mind; it allows us to catch immoral acts on individuals performed by society while not shackling us with the difficulties in deducing societal morality that come from considering only personal morality.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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