Home On the Agenda Why We Need a Countervailing Ethic

Why We Need a Countervailing Ethic

October 14, 2014

Without a more empathetic countervailing ethic, the American individualism is distorting our institutions, argues Dan Yankelovich.

The irrationalities and dysfunctions I described in my last blog crept up on us largely undetected. In earlier blogs I theorized that they are mainly traceable to a psychosocial flaw, an unintended byproduct of our cult of the self.

I hasten to add that the American embrace of individualism has had many good consequences. Our culture has grown more pluralistic, more diverse, more tolerant, and less stifling and conformist than it was in the 1950s when I was coming of age. The flowering of individualism launched on the nation’s college campuses in the 1960s has enhanced our individual freedoms and enriched our life styles.

Liz West, Flickr

My concern is that, in seeking more space for self-expressiveness and individual rights, Americans have also grown more opinionated, willful and insistent that their voice be heard.

On the positive side, this outlook strengthens people’s sense of agency and reduces their feelings of helplessness. But if this form of entitlement is frustrated, it can fill people with resentment. And it can cause other values to be brushed aside without much thought to consequences.

The values that have suffered the most include an erosion of our communal ethics and our willingness to sacrifice for others, postpone gratification or place a high value on the well-being of the larger community.

The cult of self and the elevation of individual rights to the peak of our value hierarchy have pervaded all corners of American life. Deep elements of irrationality have dug their hooks into our institutions. It is as if individual willfulness has become so important that it trumps everything else.

The official mission of each of our institutions reflects the needs of the larger society, not the self-interest of those who manage them. Our political institutions are supposed to make our democracy work for all citizens, not just for some. Our economy is supposed to provide opportunities for all strata of the society, not just the top ones. Our criminal justice system, our K-12 education system, our colleges and universities are supposed to function for everyone.

Individualism always needs a countervailing ethic that insists that individual desires not violate the integrity of others.

For any institution to keep faith with its mission, however, requires that those who manage it follow an ethic that subordinates their own selfish interests to its larger purpose. Otherwise distortions quickly follow.

When the VA hospital system found itself deluged with ailing veterans requiring immediate attention, instead of addressing the problem directly, those running the show gamed the system, cheating and lying about waiting times. For some of the neglected veterans, the consequences were deadly.

Those who managed our most successful and trusted banks helped to bring on the great recession of 2008 by their irresponsible lending practices. These were designed to enrich the bank’s executives, not to serve the public good. Indeed, they severely undermined the health of the nation’s economy.

Individualism always requires constraints. The main problem with glorifying individualism is not its emphasis on the needs and desires of the self. Individualism is a core value of our society, and there is every reason to celebrate it. But individualism always needs a countervailing ethic that insists that individual desires not violate the integrity of others.

There is no contradiction between these two ethics. On the contrary, they reinforce one another.

What happened to America in the past four decades is that the cult of the self lost all sense of proportionality. It so thoroughly absorbed all the ethical oxygen that countervailing ethics have been unable to thrive.

We arrive then at one of the main conclusions of this series of blogs on Rebooting Democracy. I have concluded that the public’s suspicions that our nation is careening down “the wrong track” are sound. The resulting problem fits the definition of a “wicked problem.” Conventional strategies are too superficial to solve deep cultural problems. New laws, new technical fixes, throwing money at the problem—none of these will suffice. A deeper, more fundamental strategy is required.

Our culture currently lacks a countervailing ethic to restrain the dynamism of untrammeled individualism. Without such an ethic, rampant individualism creates all manner of distorting irrationalities in our institutions.

In future blogs, I will specify what such a countervailing ethic might look like and how it can be solidly grounded in America’s long ethical tradition.