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The big problem with the relative lack of philosophical attention given to qualitative individualism is that the ideal has had relatively powerful defences. Its most explicit defenders have been existentialists like Sartre, but Sartre’s best-known defence, at least, seems to fall flat. Charles Taylor has done the most to articulate the idea and how and it makes internal sense, but for the most part he is very cautious about ever actually endorsing it. Sometimes his defence of it seems to be simply on historicist grounds, as I quoted him in my first post on the subject. That is: qualitative individualism happens to be what we believe in the educated 21st-century West, and it is just for that reason important to us. Western governments therefore need to respect it just as the governments of Turkey or Indonesia need to respect Islam. Beyond politics, it is among our assumed starting points for inquiry, such that philosophically it is important to think with it (even if in the end we come to find it untenable). This point does matter.

But the point also doesn’t go far enough. The world is full of cultural conservatives who think qualitative individualism is a problem that needs to be fought against, at a cultural if not political level. A court may have legalized gay sex in India now, but the RSS, the widespread militant Hindu organization with close ties to the governing BJP, proclaims that same-sex marriages “are not compatible with norms of nature, so we do not support such relations.” For transgender or gay or lesbian people trying to be their authentic selves in India or in Malaysia, it is not good enough for Westerners to say “this is our view in the West”: they need to defend being themselves in a place where that ideal is not so widely accepted. They need the ideal of qualitative individualism to be defended on grounds more universally human than “hey, that’s what we happen to believe here”. Can it be?

I think it can be, and should be. It can feel difficult to defend because relatively few philosophers have tried to defend it – but I think that’s all the more reason we should try, we philosophers who are persuaded to some extent by qualitative individualism. And a reason I’ve spent so long on the history of qualitative individualism is I think many of the reasons can be found there.

Especially, the metaphysical history I discussed earlier, points to the idea of individual teleology. That is to say: Aristotle believed living things have an inherent telos, or purpose. But on most readings of Aristotle, especially Thomist readings like MacIntyre’s, that purpose is taken to be about a human universal, indicating that the purpose of every human being (typically understood as eudaimonia, flourishing or well-being) is basically the same. A qualitative individualist should argue that each individual human being has a telos that is uniquely hers – coming out of her haecceity, as Duns Scotus would put it, or principium individuationis, as Leibniz would say. MacIntyre recognizes a distinction in Aristotle between answers to the question “What is it to be a good human being?” and “What is it to be a good [member of a role]?” – a good uncle, a good employer, and so on. What isn’t there is answers to the question, “What is it to be a good me?” And it is that latter question that I think one should be asking.

Here I think modern scientific understanding makes a major difference to our understanding of what purposes are. For Aristotle, everything has four explanations, one of which is its final explanation, its purpose, its telos. But scientific investigation has found no such purpose in the nonliving world. Biology does make frequent reference to teleology – what organs or other biological phenomena are “for” – but after Darwin, many biologists now view this as merely a convenient but imprecise way of speaking (like sunrise and sunset). To say that wings are “for” flying is a shorthand to say that because beings with wings were able to fly, they were able to survive in their environments better than beings without wings. The natural world is not filled with purposes and purposiveness in the way Aristotle would have thought.

Rather, purposes are things we have, we living creatures. Living beings are the sort of beings that act in order to achieve goals – but our goals are not the goals of evolutionary shorthand! When two cats mate, they are not trying to propagate their species, even though that is what their mating is “for” in the shorthand of evolutionary biology – for they do not even know that offspring will result from that action. The purpose they are acting for is far better described simply as sexual pleasure.

Still, it does not seem to me that qualitative individualism applies to nonhuman animals: one cat’s goals are not that different from another cat’s goals. Humans, on the other hand, have both culture and reflection: we make sense of our actions. So we can have what Harry Frankfurt calls second-order ends: we can decide we want to have purposes different from the ones we started with. And we now do so in a social world that, with the help of technology, is designed to further human aims of one sort or another. So what might be minor differences between the way one cat acts and another cat acts, can in humans become vast. So my true nature can be very, very different from that of someone else who grew up in different circumstances from mine. Individuals have different natures and therefore different purposes.

If all of that is true, it combines powerfully with MacIntyre’s Aristotelian connection between the nature of X and the nature of a good X, where “the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch nor the concept of a farmer independently of that of a good farmer; and that the criterion of something’s being a watch and the criterion of something’s being a good watch.” So likewise for Aristotle the concept of a human being and the concept of a good human being cannot be defined independently of each other. But if we acknowledge that human beings’ haecceity or principium individuationis is important, then we can go a new individualist step: the concept of me, and the concept of a good me, are also interdependent. In an excellent phrasing that is common today, you should “be your best self”. That absolutely requires self-improvement and virtue – being your best – but the nature of that virtue is inextricably linked to who you are, your self.

Contrary to the existentialists, moreover, this individuality is not a matter of arbitrary choice or will. It has more to do with our dispositions than our decisions. We can get our true natures, our teloi, our best selves wrong. But that doesn’t mean our purposes are the same as those of everyone else in the same situation.


I will be travelling for the next few weeks, so Love of All Wisdom will pause until late January.