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The Selfish Collective

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Much of the debate surrounding Covid — and increasingly now, other crises — has been framed in terms of individualism vs. collectivism. The idea is that individualists are motivated by self-interest, while collectivists put their community first. 

This dichotomy paints the collective voice, or the community, as the prosocial option of two choices, where the threat lies with recalcitrant individuals holding everyone else back. The individual threatens the common good because they won’t go along with the program, the program everyone else has decided upon, which is what is best for everyone. 

There are several immediate problems with this logic. It is a string of loaded assumptions and false equivalencies: first, it equates the philosophy of collectivism with the idea of prosocial motivation; secondly, it equates prosocial behavior with conformity to the collective voice.

Merriam-Webster defines collectivism as follows: 

1 : a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution also : a system marked by such control

2 : emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity

Note that there is no mention here of internal motivations — and rightly so. The philosophy of collectivism emphasizes collectively organized behavioral patterns over those of the individual. There is no prescription for these reasons. They could be prosocially motivated, or selfish. 

After the past couple of years of analyzing collectivist behavior during the Covid crisis, I have come to the conclusion that it is just as likely as individualism to be motivated by self-interest. In fact, in many ways, I would say it is easier to attain one’s selfish interests by aligning oneself with a collective than to do so individually. If a collective composed primarily of self-interested individuals unites over a common goal, I call this phenomenon “the selfish collective.”

When “Common Good” is Not Collective Will 

One of the most simple examples I can give of a selfish collective is that of a homeowner’s association (HOA). The HOA is a group of individuals who have unified into a collective in order to protect each of their own self-interests. Their members want to preserve their own property values, or certain aesthetic characteristics of their neighborhood environment. In order to achieve this they often feel comfortable dictating what their neighbors can and cannot do on their own property, or even in the privacy of their own homes. 

They are widely despised for making homeowners’ lives miserable, and for good reason: if they claim the right to safeguard the value of their own investments, doesn’t it stand to reason that other homeowners, with perhaps different priorities, have a similar right to rule over the little corner of the world they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for? 

The selfish collective resembles the political concept of “tyranny of the majority,” of which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America

“So what is a majority taken as a whole, if not an individual who has opinions and, most often, interests contrary to another individual called the minority. Now, if you admit that an individual invested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why would you not admit the same thing for the majority?”

Social groups are made up of individuals. And if individuals can be selfish, then collectives made up of individuals with common interests can be equally selfish, attempting to steamroll their visions over the rights of others. 

However, the selfish collective is not necessarily comprised of a majority. It could just as easily be a loud minority. It is characterized not by its size, but by its inherent attitude of entitlement: its insistence that other people must sacrifice increasingly high-level priorities in order to accommodate increasingly trivial priorities of its own. 

This inverse relationship of priority valuation is what belies the true nature of the selfish collective, and distinguishes its motives from the true “common good.” Someone motivated by genuine social concern asks the question: “What are the priorities and goals of all community members, and how can we try to satisfy these priorities in a way that everyone finds acceptable?” 

Social concern involves negotiation, tolerance of value differences, and the ability to compromise or see nuance. It involves genuinely caring about what others want — even (and especially) when they have different priorities. When this concern extends only to those in one’s “in-group,” it may appear to be prosocial, but is actually an extension of self-interest known as collective narcissism.

Collective Narcissism and Conformity

From the perspective of the selfish individual, collectivism provides a host of opportunities for achieving one’s goals — perhaps better than one could on one’s own. For the manipulative and calculating, the collective is easier to hide behind, and the ideal of the “greater good” can be weaponized to win moral support. For cowards and bullies, the strength of numbers is emboldening, and can help them overpower weaker individuals or coalitions. For more conscientious individuals, it can be tempting to justify one’s natural selfish inclinations by convincing oneself the group holds the moral edge. 

In social psychology, collective narcissism is the extension of one’s ego beyond oneself to a group or collective to which one belongs. While not all the individuals involved in such a collective are necessarily narcissists themselves, the emergent “personality” of the group mirrors the traits of narcissistic individuals. 

According to Dr. Les Carter, a therapist and creator of the Surviving Narcissism YouTube channel, these traits include the following: 

  • A heavy emphasis on binary themes
  • Discouraging free thinking 
  • Prioritizing conformity 
  • Imperative thinking
  • Distrusting or dishonoring differences of opinion
  • Pressure to display loyalty 
  • An idealized group self-image 
  • Anger is only one wrong opinion away 

What all of these traits have in common is an emphasis on unity rather than harmony. Instead of seeking coexistence among people or factions with differing values (the “social good” that includes everyone), the in-group defines a set of priorities to which all others must adapt. There is one “correct way,” and anything outside it has no merit. There is no compromise of values. Collective narcissism is the psychology of the selfish collective. 

The Hidden Logic of Lockdown

Proponents of Covid restrictions and mandates have typically claimed they were motivated by social concern, while painting their opponents as antisocial menaces. But does this bear out? 

I have no doubt that a great many people, motivated by compassion and by civic duty, genuinely strove to serve the greater good through following these measures. But at its core, I argue that the pro-mandate case follows the logic of the selfish collective. 

The logic goes something like this: 

  1. SARS-CoV-2 is a dangerous virus. 
  2. Restrictions and mandates will “stop the spread” of the virus, thereby saving lives and shielding people from the harm it causes. 
  3. We have a moral duty as a society to shield people from harm wherever possible.
  4. Therefore, we have a moral duty to enact restrictions and mandates.

Never mind the veracity of any one of these claims, which has already been the subject of endless debate over the past two and a half years. Let’s instead focus on the logic. Let’s assume for a second that each of the three premises above were true: 

How dangerous would the virus have to be in order for the restrictions and mandates to be justified? Is any level of “dangerousness” enough? Or is there a threshold? Can this threshold be quantified, and if so, at what point do we meet it? 

Likewise, how many people would restrictions and mandates need to save or shield before they are considered to be worthwhile measures, and what level of collateral damage from the measures is considered acceptable? Can we quantify these thresholds either? 

What other “socially beneficial outcomes” are desirable, and from whose perspective? What other social priorities exist for various factions within the collective? What logic do we use to weigh these priorities against each other? How can we respect priorities that may weigh a lot to their respective advocates, but which directly compete or clash with the “socially beneficial outcome” of eliminating the virus?

The answers to these questions would help us organize our priorities within a larger, more complex social landscape. No one social issue exists in a vacuum; “Responding to SARS-CoV-2” is one possible social priority out of millions. What gives this priority in particular precedence over any of the others? Why does it get to be the top and only priority? 

To date I have never seen a satisfactory answer to any of the above questions from proponents of mandates. What I have seen are abundant logical fallacies used to justify their preferred course of action, attempts to exclude or minimize all other concerns, rejection of or silence regarding inconvenient data, dismissal of alternative opinions, and an insistence that there is one “correct” path forward to which all others must conform. 

The reason for this, I would argue, is that the answers don’t matter. It doesn’t matter how dangerous the virus is, it doesn’t matter how much collateral damage is done, it doesn’t matter how many people might die or be saved, it doesn’t matter what other “socially beneficial outcomes” we might strive for, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else might prioritize or value. 

In the logic of the selfish collective, the needs and desires of others are afterthoughts, to be attended if, and only if, there is something left over once they get their way. 

This particular collective has made “responding to SARS-CoV-2” their top priority. And in pursuit of that priority, all others can be sacrificed. This one priority has been granted carte blanche to invade all other aspects of social life, simply because the selfish collective has decided it is important. And in pursuit of this goal, increasingly trivial sub-priorities that are deemed relevant can now take precedence over increasingly higher-level priorities of other social factions.

The end result of this is the absurd micromanagement of other people’s lives, and the simultaneous cruel dismissal of their deepest loves and needs. People were forbidden from saying goodbye to dying parents and relatives; romantic partners were separated from each other; and cancer patients died because they were denied access to treatment, just to name a few of these cruelties. Why were these people told their concerns didn’t matter? Why did they have to be the ones to sacrifice? 

The argument of the selfish collective is that individual freedom must end as soon as it risks negatively impacting the group. But this is a smokescreen: there is no unified collective perceiving “negative impacts” in a homogeneous way. The “collective” is a group of individuals, each with different sets of priorities and value systems, only some of whom have coalesced around a specific issue. 

At the root of this entire discussion lies the following question: How, on a macro scale, should society allocate importance to the diverse, competing priorities held by the individuals that make it up? 

The selfish collective, which represents a particular faction, attempts to obscure the nuance of this question by trying to conflate themselves with the entire group. They try to make it seem as if their own priorities are the only factors under consideration, while dismissing other elements of the debate. It is a fallacy of composition mixed with a fallacy of suppressed evidence.

By magnifying their own concerns and generalizing them to the whole group, the selfish collective makes it seem as if their goals reflect “the good of everyone.” This has a reinforcing effect because the more they focus attention on their own priorities relative to others, the more others will come to believe those priorities are worthy of attention, adding to the impression that “everyone” supports them. Those with different value systems are gradually subsumed into a collective unity, or erased. 

This does not strike me as prosocial behavior — it is deception, egotism, and tyranny.

A truly prosocial approach would not shut out all other goals and insist on one way forward. It would take into account the different priorities and viewpoints of various factions or individuals, approach them with respect, and ask how to best facilitate some sort of harmony among their needs. Instead of prescribing behavior onto others it would advocate for dialogue and open debate, and it would celebrate differences of opinion. 

A prosocial approach doesn’t elevate some nebulous, abstract, and misleading image of a “collective” above the humanity and diversity of the individuals who make it up. 

A prosocial approach makes space for freedom.

Author

  • Haley Kynefin

    Haley Kynefin is a writer and independent social theorist with a background in behavioral psychology. She left academia to pursue her own path integrating the analytical, the artistic and the realm of myth. Her work explores the history and sociocultural dynamics of power.


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