The Individual-Versus-Group Paradox

By John "Birdman" Bryant


While there are many paradoxical things about life, one of the most important ones is what might be called the Individual vs Group Paradox, or IVGP for short. On the moral or social plane it is manifested in the question of how to resolve the conflict between the interests of the individual and the interests of the group as a whole. It is not a true paradox in the sense that it does not involve some sort of logical conflict, but only in the psychological sense that it often seems difficult and frustrating to resolve the interests of the group with the interests of the individuals who make up the group -- individuals whose interests are often in conflict with the best interests of the group as a whole. The paradox has an analogy in what I have called the Paradox of the Conflict of Evolutionary Realms, or POCER, where we see evolution operating on many levels from the smallest to the largest, eg, from elementary particles, genes, and individual organisms to groups, ecosystems, planets and universes, and where the success of evolution in one realm may mean a failure of evolution in another. The analogy comes when we observe that the 'selfish' interests of one level in its 'struggle for survival' may conflict with those of another level, as in the case of ant genes and ants, where the genes survive at the expense of making individual ants readily expendable.

One thing which has represented an important advance in resolving the IVGP in a practical (as opposed to logical) way is the political theory of libertarianism, which is founded on the observation that the interest of individuals coincides with the interests of the group in a free-market economy -- a coincidence which was characterized by Adam Smith as the operation of an 'invisible hand' which guided the society to wealth as individuals pursued their self-interest. More restricted 'resolutions' of the paradox for the individual may be seen in such instances as where a person works for a 'cause' (ie, the good of the group) but manages to make a good living at doing so (the good of the individual). A similar case is where a man must risk his life for his country (negative for self-interest) but is rewarded sufficiently to make it worthwhile (as in the chance to be a war hero, having the status of being a veteran, getting rank and a war pension, fulfilling his 'patriotic duty', etc). There of course have been attempts to 'resolve' the IVGP by the policy of forcing people to abandon individual interests for group ones -- ie, in communism and other forms of leftism -- but this has been a failure, with the greatest failures being associated with the most extreme efforts to force abandonment of self- interest, as seen in various communist dictatorships. The problem may yet be 'resolved' when technology becomes sufficient to provide a high standard of living for everyone with only minimal need for doing work: Under these circumstances the sacrifice of individual interests will not be needed in order to provide for the needs of the group.

A well-known special case of the IVGP is the Tragedy of the Commons, discussed by Hardin in his famous article by that name in Science. The basic idea is that when property is treated as 'owned by everyone' as in communism, then it becomes abused, and eventually becomes useless to everyone. In the 'tragedy' that Hardin discussed, the Commons was 'owned' by everyone, ie, everyone had a right to graze on it, so it became overgrazed -- and useless -- because everyone wanted to take advantage of the Commons but no one wanted to take care of it. This of course is communism writ small. The practical solution to the IVGP 'tragedy' in this case was that important bulwark of libertarianism, private property: When property is owned by particular individuals rather than in common -- ie, if the individual has the right to exclusive use of the property -- then he will care for it, and it will likely be productive under that care. Thus by 'privatizing' the Commons by dividing it into individually-owned parcels, owners will be motivated to care for their property and make it productive, and the group as a whole will benefit.

Another example of the IVGP is the well-known Prisoner's Dilemma. Here the IVGP emerges by the fact that the prisoners can do best for themselves by cooperating, but will not do so for fear of becoming the other's patsy and suffering the severe consequences. The practical resolution to the PD is to realize that the situation is portrayed as happening in a social vacuum, when in reality the prisoners are likely to feel an obligation to one another ("brothers in crime"), and/or a fear of future retribution from the other or his friends should they not cooperate; and for these reasons in most practical situations they will cooperate.

For the situations not covered above, the fundamental practical solution to the IVGP is the free flow of information, and the rewards or punishments which it will lead to. (I have discussed this matter at much greater length in my book Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy.) In general, under conditions of free flow of information we will always act morally (ie, in accord with the greatest good for the greatest number, or the maximization of group utility) because of hope of reward if we do and fear of punishment if we don't, and the fact that free flow of information will make our behavior known to all.

In conclusion it is worthwhile to note that, until recent times, religion served as a substitute for the effect of the free flow of information -- an ironic fact indeed since religion has often acted historically to restrict the flow of information. More specifically, Christianity has posited an omnicient God who would punish and reward -- if not in the present, then in an afterlife -- and this can be seen as having the same effect as if everyone knows what you are doing and is ready to reward or punish you accordingly. Now that God is dead, however, the moral impetus of a God- who-is-always-looking-over-our-shoulder has largely died out, and with it a great deal of the morality which once guided people in their daily lives. As it happens, however, a solution of sorts to this moral lacuna has been gradually materializing -- Big Brother. Needless to say, George Orwell's image of the government always looking over our shoulder gives most people the trots; and yet from a technological standpoint Big Brother is on the way, and from a moral standpoint he may just be needed. We can only hope that the result of his arrival is more like that of Christianity than of Orwell's frightening novel.


* * * Back to the Home Page of John "Birdman" Bryant, the World's Most Controversial Author * * *