Wikipedia says: “Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual.” I’m not quite sure what that means – does that mean ethical egoism, i.e., individuals ought act in their own self interest? Or does that simply mean we should care about the rights of individuals? In that case, how does it contrast to collectivism, which says we should care about groups and emphasize the moral worth of groups – aren’t “groups” just collections of individuals?

What are some examples of where individualism and collectivism might disagree? Is utilitarianism individualistic or collectivistic—it cares about the pleasure and suffering of “individuals,” but prioritizes “many individuals” (groups) over “fewer ones.”

  • More on the social/economic aspects... Primacy on individual freedom and rights (liberalism) vs the rights and benefits of the society (the collective, or part of it). Jan 15, 2020 at 8:42

1 Answer 1


One of the core problematics of political philosophy and social theory is the dynamic relationship between the individual and the community. Almost everyone will agree that the aim of a community is to protect and foster the rights and liberties of its individual members; almost everyone will agree that individuals have certain obligations and responsibilities towards their community as a whole. But the question of what that relationship should look like — how it works in practice — is highly contentious and endlessly disputed.

Generally speaking, 'individualism' refers to any theory that focuses on promoting or defending the rights and liberties of individuals, and minimizes the obligations and responsibilities of citizens to the community. The guiding principle of all individualist theories is that individuals should be free from constraint to pursue their interests, with the only caveats being the obstruction of the freedom of other individuals, and so individualist theories generally shy away from institutional structures in favor of voluntary (often contractual) obligations between individuals. Individualist theories can be Leftist or Rightist: from Marxism to syndicalism to Right-libertarianism to anarcho-capitalism.

By contrast, 'collectivism' generally refers to any theory that focuses on the needs and interests of the community as a whole, and in particular theories that try to structure a 'good society' within which individuals can flourish. Collectivism is almost always institutional, relying on laws, policies, governmental bodies, practices like voting and deliberation, etc, to moderate the actions of individuals in the interests of the society. Collectivist theories can also be Leftist or Rightist: from communism to socialism to aristocracy or theocracy.

The norm in most places over the last century or so has been some variation of representative democracy in the form of a republic: middle-of-the-road theorizing that (ideally) strikes a balance between collectivism and individualism. Unfortunately, representative democracies are generally erratic, unstable, and vulnerable to extremism, and often collapse in to autocratic forms of government.

  • How can we have "Individualist theories can be Leftist or Rightist: from Marxism to syndicalism" and "Collectivist theories can also be Leftist or Rightist: from communism to socialism" ?
    – Starckman
    Mar 16, 2023 at 9:17
  • 1
    @Starckman: I'm not entirely sure I understand your question, but judging from the words you put in bold I'm going to guess that you don't grok the differences in Marxist thought. Pure Marxism — Marx's (utopian) classless society — is quite similar to Adam Smith's (utopian) Free Market society. Both contain unconstrained individuals acquiring what they want by offering their skills to others. Communism and socialism are intermediary stages where the capitalist class is replaced by (respectively) the community or the state, making a 'mock' capitalist class that (ostensibly) serves everyone. Mar 16, 2023 at 14:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .