Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 87-115

First online:

In Defense of Individualism

  • Eric MackAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Newcom Hall, Tulane University

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This paper offers a programmatic philosophical articulation of moral and political individualism. This individualism consists of two main components: value individualism and rights individualism. The former is the view that, for each individual, the end which is of ultimate value is his own well-being. Each individual's well-being has ultimate agent-relative value and the only ultimate values are these agent-relative values. The latter view is that individuals possess moral jurisdiction over themselves, i.e., rights of self-ownership. These rights (along with other rights individuals may come to possess) constrain the manner in which agents may pursue value. For this reason, the articulated individualism is an constrained individualism. Sketches of arguments are offered for both value and rights individualism. And it is argued that the sole legitimate function of legal/political institutions is to further delineate and protect the rights of individuals. However, the paper is also concerned to indicate why this radical moral and political individualism does not have many of the features or implications that are commonly ascribed to it. In this connection, I seek to show how this social doctrine accords with individuals' having concern for the well-being of others, with the emergence of relationships among individuals that have both instrumental and non-instrumental value, with a degree of responsibility for self and others that is often thought to be antithetical to individualism and, in general, with a flourishing of civil order.

agent-relativity civil society emergent order individualism moral side-constraints rights