Sunday, March 23, 2014

Collectivism and Moral Relativism

The authors of a popular persuasion book evinced the fundamental differences between the mindsets of collectivism and individualism. Individualists are often stereotyped as whimsical, flaky, self-absorbed and unlikely to stay true to their word. By contrast, collectivists are often seen as reliable, duty-oriented and dedicated to the public good.

Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini have shown that quite frequently, the exact opposite is closer to the truth. In their example, the individualist Tiger Woods exercised resolute self-discipline to compete in a major tournament despite a myriad of personal tragedies that beset him. Why did he do it? Because he made a personal commitment to the tournament and strongly believed that he should exercise self-discipline in his golfing career. Unlike the thinking of a collectivist, his moral reasoning was not motivated by social expectations, cultural mores or even obligations to society.

In his interview, Woods unabashedly disclosed that on that doleful day, he golfed only for himself. The authors explained that by their nature, individualists tend to operate based on their personal moral compass. By contrast, collectivists tend to believe that morality is determined by the expectations of their communities and individuals lack the moral prerogative to challenge it. In so doing, the collectivists have implicitly reaffirmed the key tenets of cultural relativism: that morality is determined by communities rather than inviolable and objective principles.

Although individualists can be moral subjectivists and subscribe to arbitrary and self-serving principles, most tend to believe that there is an objective justification for their stance. In other words, they are more likely to claim that they espouse their moral values because they are "right" rather than simply because they want to do so.

 Individualists may be open to the possibility that they are misguided in their beliefs and that is why it is common for people of this point of view to display pluralistic tolerance for the diverging views of others. Indeed, the world's most pluralistic societies tend to be resolutely individualistic and by contrast, totalitarian societies of communism and Islamo-fascism are invariably collectivist.

Although the United States has been founded as an individualistic nation and remains as such, the Academic Community has been taking our culture in the collectivist direction. They have done so by promoting the creed of post-modernism one of the key premises of which is that people are mass-produced by their environments, they are powerless to resist such influences and true objectivity is impossible. This ideological orientation has been re-affirmed by a proliferation of "hyphenated American studies" where the curricula center on the discourse of marginalized groups such as women, LGBT, African-Americans, Asians, etc.

While they may be correct that people invariably operate with biases and are often much less objective than they think they are, it is a mistake to conclude that people lack the capacity to resist social influences. By promoting this notion, the universities undermine the type of moral resolve and consistent behaviors with moral principles that is the basis of morality itself. Individualism is the foundation of objective moral values and the true vanguard against the encroachments of collectivism upon a free society. In light of this notion, Karl Popper famously declared that an Open Society is necessarily individualistic and its principal nemeses such as Plato, Marx and Hegel were inveterate collectivists.

What lesson about persuasion did Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini wish to impart on their readers? When dealing with people from an individualistic culture, we should entice them to act ethically by pointing out that such behavior is consistent with their personal moral principles. Conversely, when interacting with collectivists, we should encourage them to act in accordance with the moral principles espoused by their communities.

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