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29.6.06

Collectivism, Aggregism, and Egoism

Matt Yglesias has been accused of "fascism" for claiming that people ought to consider the broader impacts of their actions on others, rather than only their narrow self-interest. The accusation raises a common false dilemma, of collectivism versus individualism. In reality there are three positions, of which Yglesias was taking the middle one -- collectivism, aggregism, and egoism*.

Egoism we're all familiar with -- it's the claim that you should do what's best for you, and the heck with everybody else. Collectivism -- for which "fascism" is a disparaging term -- is the claim that you should do what's best for the collective. Collectivism must be distinguished from aggregism (philosophers probably have a better sounding name), which claims that you should do what's best for all individuals added together. The distinction between collectivism and aggregism is what Jeremy Bentham and Margaret Thatcher were each getting at in their denials that there is such a thing as "society."** A collectivist or fascist seeks the good of the collective as a system (even if that requires hurting the individuals making it up), whereas the aggregist seeks the good of the members of the system (even if that requires destroying the system and organizing the relationships of the members in a quite different way). Yglesias's argument is the aggregist claim that egoistic actions by individual women will lead to greater harms to other individual women, not the collectivist concern that the collectivity "women" will be harmed (I happen to be an aggregist, as I see no justifiable way of attributing a "good" or "interests" to any entity -- including collectivities -- that lacks subjectivity.)

Of course, hybrids of these positions are common. On the one hand, there are "compatabilist" hybrids, which argue that since (due to the way the world works) the goals are not fundamentally in conflict, pursuing the favored one will lead to satisfaction of the others. Nearly all egoist theories are compatabilist to at least some degree -- even Ayn Rand assures us that rampant pursuit of selfishness will ultimately work out pretty well for the population as a whole. Meanwhile, some variants of Deep Ecology claim that pursuit of the collective good will be ultimately the most fulfilling course of action for the individual.

On the other hand are pluralist hybrids, which admit that conflicts between interests are inevitable but must be balanced. Liberal political theories (e.g. Mill or Rawls, and afaik Yglesias) tend to balance egoism and aggregism by carving out a protected private sphere for the former. Most contemporary holistic environmental ethics are hybrids of collectivism and aggregism.

As I see it, "fascism" refers to an excessive, or even exclusive, emphasis on collectivism (or perhaps more narrowly to excessive collectivism implemented through the use of force). But not all theories that incorporate some collectivism are fascist, and aggregism is a different beast.

*There is theoretically a fourth possibility -- asceticism, the claim that you should do what's best for others without any regard to yourself.

**Unfortunately these denials took a legitimate claim about what entities have moral standing, and phrased it as a false ontological claim about what entities exist. There is a social system, but its value lies only in its instrumental effects on the interests of the people organized by it.

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