FIVE Individualism, Collectivism, Leadership, and the Greater Good

Edwin A. Locke

This chapter examines the metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political implications of two opposite approaches to the organization of human society: individualism and collectivism. Individualism asserts that every individual is sovereign and grants the right of every individual in society to pursue his or her own rational self-interest without violating others’ rights, whereas collectivism advocates the subordination of the individual to the group. True individualism has yet to be realized, for even in contemporary societies that stress its ideals, individualism is increasingly compromised by the intrusion of collectivistic premises. It is argued that collectivism results in a dystopian society like that described by the philosopher Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged.

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This conference was called to propose solutions to what Gordon Allport labeled the “master problem” of social science: the relation between the individual and society. Actually this is most fundamentally a problem of political philosophy, not social science. More precisely, the problem was described as how to balance individual freedom with the need to sacrifice for the “greater good” of society, which means “of the collective.” Let me begin by saying that I disagree with the whole formulation of this problem, because it assumes in advance what needs to be proved: that the individual must sacrifice to society. Since this idea

is based most directly on the concept of collectivism, I start with a discussion of collectivism and contrast it with individualism. I discuss these concepts at the deepest level—that is, in terms of their basic, philosophical meaning. I recognize that in the social sciences, these terms are often used very loosely. For example, collectivism may be used to mean trying to help others. But such loose usage only confuses matters—for example, one can help others for self-interested reasons. Similarly, individualism may be used to denote people who like to be or work alone, but such usage reduces an important political concept to a personality quirk.

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