Individualism is also a relationship

What does it mean to be an individual?

The answer to this question may seem fairly straightforward. We tend to assume that to be an individual is to be one person (in some sense) set apart from the rest of the world. Starting from this assumption, we then consider how that one person set apart should relate to the rest of the world. Should he or she blend into the rest of the world? Ignore it? Fight it? Use it? Avoid it?

Less consideration has been given to whether the assumption that each individual exists as one person set apart from all others is a useful description of individual existence or even of how we each become an individual. On some level, we just assume that each of us is fundamentally separate from everyone else.

In many ways our daily experience reinforces this assumption. When I sit down to sip a cup of coffee, it is clearly me who is doing the sipping, and no one else has to be there for me to do it. In our daily lived experience, our connections to others are not always obvious, so it is not surprising that the me aspect of existence feels more fundamental than the we. Yet thinking of ourselves as one person set apart is not entirely satisfying. After all, we experience much if not all of our lives in the context of our relationships with others. While the me may feel more essential, the we clearly also exists.

Philosophers have proposed social contracts, ethical systems and other devices to help all of those one persons set apart make sense of their inter-connectedness and inter-dependence. Immanuel Kant suggested that we bridge the space between individuals by remembering that each person is an “end-in-itself” not a “means to an end.” He provided us with the categorical imperative as an ethical guide to help us take action in the interest of not just ourselves but also others:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

While Kant’s ethics pushes us to take action with a recognition that we share this world with others, he still seems to posit an individual existence that is fundamentally separate. You might say that the categorical imperative enables us to overcome our sense of separation by reminding us that even though we are separate, we nonetheless share the same world and should act accordingly because what goes around comes around. But is separation really fundamental to our existence?

Perhaps individual existence should be understood as something emerging in the interplay among people

By the beginning of the 20th century, some philosophers and social scientists began to question the utility and accuracy of thinking of the individual as something separate from the rest of the world. George H. Mead in the United States and Watsuji Tetsuro in Japan explored alternative ways to explain what it means to be an individual. While they granted that we in some sense exist as separate beings, they also pointed out that our development as individuals is so dependent upon relationships with other people that connectedness should be given a more central role in our definitions of what it means to be an individual. Steve Odin refers to this shift as the social turn in philosophy. 

How would our understanding of personhood change if rather than assuming that each individual is fundamentally separate from the world we started with the assumption that each individual exists primarily in relation to the rest of the world?

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly clear that through our diverse, inter-connected networks we have a profound impact on each other, including many others we will never directly meet. We are constantly helping or harming each other – even when we are not aware of those impacts – as our individually-held beliefs express themselves in our words and actions.

Consider implicit bias. Research shows that our implicit biases are a fundamental feature of the fuzzy logic that enables each of us individually to make sense of and take action in the world. Aggregating diverse data into uniform categories enables us to make sense of the chaos of the real world, so that we can take action to survive and in some cases even thrive within the chaos. Unfortunately, though, it has become increasingly clear that when our implicit biases coalesce in the form of aggregated political or economic behavior (actions, transactions and communication), they contribute to the formation of institutions based on flawed generalizations that benefit some groups of individuals while harming others. Our beliefs about ourselves and others may take shape in our individual minds, but as our beliefs are aggregated into patterns of communication and behavior, they create imbalances in the rights and opportunities of the real people who have been aggregated based on those beliefs.

Starting with the assumption that we are fundamentally connected might lead to more enlightened forms of individualism

Thinking of ourselves as fundamentally connected can have profound implications for how we think of ourselves as individuals and how we relate to others. Discussions of individualism tend to focus on the need to protect individuals from coercion or to hold them accountable for their actions. The idea is to free individuals from societal pressures so they can freely pursue their self-interests, while simultaneously preventing them from using that freedom in ways that violate other people’s rights. The problem is that these kinds of discussions frame the existence of each individual in an isolated and narrow way that only addresses a small sub-section of the full spectrum of ways that each individual is connected with other individuals.

George Mead suggested that we become who we are through the experience of and reflection on our present, past and anticipated future relationships with others (see George Mead: The self is essentially a social structure). If Mead was correct, then it follows that what happens in our inner worlds is deeply influenced by our outer world relationships and those relationships play an immense role in determining the individual self that each of us becomes. You might even say that we owe a large part of our current individual identities to the people and experiences that have brought us to this point. The reverse is also true. Just as other people provide the context in which we construct our individual selves, we provide the context that enables other people to construct theirs. Each of us owes our sense of individual selfhood to all the others who have provided the context in which we became who we are.

We are not just potential victims requiring protection from others or players competing for resources. We are also social beings who constantly influence the contours of each others lives in a host of other ways. When you acknowledge and take ownership of this fundamental truth, you may be inclined to give more attention to how others have contributed to making you are who you. You may also feel an urge to pay more attention to the impact you have on others through your own words and actions.

Designing organizations in which all people are ends-in-themselves rather than a means to someone else’s end

Starting with the assumption that each individual is fundamentally separate has implications for how we design and manage our organizations. We design our management systems to break work and performance down into individual targets, individual inputs and outputs, individual successes and failures. We structure our organizations to cue individuals to compete with each other for limited career opportunities, rewards and other forms of recognition, reinforcing competition based on separation of interests. Then, we are somehow surprised to find that people often struggle to work smoothly together toward a shared vision.

When our organizations are designed to separate us, even those who start with a more robust sense of human relationships – assuming there is usually potential for collaboration, compassion, benevolence, and mutuality – can feel trapped in the narrative of separation. We may start with the intention of treating our colleagues and employees as people (ends-in-themselves) with whom to collaborate and create something valuable, but in hindsight we notice that we have come to treat them as resources (means to an end) that we use to achieve our own or the organization’s ends.

Recently, there are signs of an emerging sense in society and in organizations that we need to give more attention to what connects us rather than what separates us. We are told to put empathy and compassion for each other at the foundation of our innovation and collaboration efforts. But there is something fundamentally dissonant about the calls for empathy in a world of separate individuals. If you start with the assumption that you are separate, it takes ongoing acts of will (in the form of willpower) to bring empathy and compassion to life in your actions.

In the Lecture on Ethics, Kant states:

“Moral instruction must, therefore, be based on the view that our pleasure in seeing others happy should be synonymous with the pleasure it gives us to promote happiness. It follows that the object of our pleasure is not the happiness of others in and of itself, but only in so far as we have helped to bring it about.”

In essence, what Kant is saying is that we have to hold ourselves accountable for taking action to contribute to other people’s happiness, and it is the holding ourselves accountable part that should be given priority. I don’t know about you, but if I start with the assumption that I am fundamentally separate from the people whose happiness I am supposed to promote, this sounds like a pretty exhausting proposition. Indeed, research on willpower implies that we have a limited capacity to discipline our urges so that we can shape our actions through willpower.

Luckily, though, it turns out that willpower is not the only factor involved in empathy and compassion. Research shows we are actually designed to get pleasure from exactly the kind of action Kant is describing. It seems the pleasure centers of our brains actually light up when we take action that results in the happiness of others. It doesn’t necessarily require willpower to take action in the service of others happiness; we just need to start noticing that taking action in the service of other people’s happiness is a powerful way to pursue our own happiness.

It appears that our default assumption of separate existence and interests may not accurately describe the way we are designed or the full range of our social experience. Many if not all forms of enlightened self-interest entail consideration of the implications of our actions for other people and things. If we find more opportunities to notice and experience the hedonic benefits of acting in the interest of other people’s happiness, it can become a natural habit that in many cases will not require willpower.

Starting with the assumption that we are social selves may open our eyes to more opportunities to follow our natural empathy and compassion, and over time we may notice that acting with enlightened self-interest does not consist of overcoming our instinct for selfishness so much as remembering our hard-wired instincts for connectedness. It may open our eyes to ways to design more empathy, compassion and connectedness into our societies and organizations. What do goal-setting, performance evaluation and organizational structure look like when we start by assuming that we are fundamentally connected and that we are just as likely to derive pleasure and meaning through the experience of empathy and compassion as through the experience of individual achievement and competition?

Each of us is because the rest of us are

I am not questioning that we experience our selves as individual or distinct things. I’m not even questioning the value of competition; there are clearly contexts in which competition is not only fun, but produces better results. And I’m certainly not questioning the need to protect individuals from coercion. Indeed, protecting individuals from coercion – or as Kant might put it treating each other as “ends-in-ourselves” – is an essential part of discovering and taking full advantage of our nature as social selves.

What I am questioning is the utility of starting with the assumption that we are fundamentally separate and in conflict with each other. Starting with the assumption that we are fundamentally separate nudges us to adopt a default setting of competitive, aggressive or defensive behavior even in cases when we would probably gain more by remembering and taking advantage of our essentially-connected nature.

Whether we choose to focus on our fundamental connectedness or not, through our beliefs, words and actions, we do in fact have an impact on each other in ways that shape who we become as individuals. You might even go so far as to say that the impact we have on each other is the most fundamental measure of the meaning we create through our individual lives and careers.

The more you look at how we become individuals, the more obvious it becomes that individualism itself is fundamentally just one among many ways that we make sense of our connections with others. George Mead explained the development of the individual self as a process of self-creation that occurs in the context of relationships. The next essay in this series, George Mead: The self is essentially a social structure, explores his thinking on the social process through which we emerge as individuals.

For more information on George Mead, see:

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press. (Direct quotations of Mead used in this article come from this book. Although the book is attributed to Mead, it was actually compiled by his students based on their notes from his lectures.)

Also see:

Steve Odin, 1996. The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism.  Albany:  State University of New York Press

For a more recent exploration of how the self is constructed based on social context, see: 

Eviatar Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology(1997), (excerpt below)

For a recent examination of American individualism from the perspective of cross-cultural psychologists, see:

Freakonomics Radio, episode 469, “The U.S. Is Just Different — So Let’s Stop Pretending We’re Not (Ep. 469)” and episode 470, “The Pros and Cons of America’s (Extreme) Individualism (Ep. 470)” @

For an account of how the aggregation of behavior based on biased beliefs can have negative impacts (both personal and economic) on real people, see the Freakonomics Radio episode 480. This episode also includes research on the challenges that come with trying to overcome bias through top-down approaches:

For more information on game theory, including why even when you start with the assumption of selfish self-interest, it makes sense to take care of others, see:

For an exploration of how treating employees as costs (“means to an end” rather than “ends unto themselves”) has become a fundamental tenet of business education, see:

For an explanation of the concept “end-in-itself” see:

For more on Kant’s Lecture on Ethics see (the quote appears around 27:30 in the video):

For more on Kant’s categorical imperative, see:

For cross-cultural research that uses the presentation of more detailed stories of real people’s lives to draw comparisons and contrasts between American and Japanese culture, see:

Gordon Mathews, What Makes Life Worth Living, (1996) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

© Dana Cogan, 2021, all rights reserved.

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