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The conflict between the interests of an individual and those of a group/society plays on many levels:

  • Economic relations It can be framed as a conflict between liberalism/individualism and socialism. E.g., Ayn Rand presents an extremely individualist view, where even honesty, generosity and love are treated as the ultimate expression of self-interest (do unto others as you would have them do unto you, self-expression via happiness of a fellow human being etc.). Marxist philosophy and its offshoots, on the other hand, represent social relations in purely class terms, where the interests of an individual are inferior to those of their economic class. Theory of social contract might be an attempt to reconcile these, but I am not aware of its modern reincarnations.
  • Military conflicts Here the support for a just cause easily comes in conflict with the interests of individuals who die for this cause. The conflict in Ukraine can serve as an example here, with the extreme view reflected by the concepts of just war and naïve pacifism/non-resistance (see Pacifist position on Ukraine).
  • Individual sphere Freud has explored this theme as a conflict between the ego (the self-interest) and the super-ego (conformity to the values imposed by the society), which was claimed to be the root of many psychological disorders. He however does not go beyond bringing to surface the conflicts specific to each individual, assuming that, once aware of it, the individual can negotiate a rational middle path between the two.

I am looking for the proper terminology, (modern) schools of thought, and possible references (preferably not too specialized).

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2 Answers 2

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Can you narrow that down a little?

The thing is forming groups has major benefits for the individual. Due to synergy effects it usually enables them to get more done, with less effort and yield bigger returns.

If you had to literally live in the wild and do everything by yourself you'd be occupied with survival 24/7 and would get nothing else done. We can witness that in animals who live like that. If you just take turns guarding your group and getting a good rest you've already accomplished a lot. Same for sharing experiences and not having to make them yourself and so on. Seriously it's probably a major factor in our species' success story that we managed to form and maintain social groups. And up to a certain point it's something of "the more the merrier".

The downside for the individual is that instead of having to do everything by yourself and being the master of your fate, even if that fate is painful death at a young age, is that you're now stripped of some of that agency over yourself and are forced to deal with other people. You've got to establish trust and to a certain point accept or work around dependencies (one-way, co- and interdependencies and whatnot). And whether that's worth it kinda depends on how far you could keep up for yourself without society.

Which for the young, old or most people isn't all to great of an option. Not to mention that we're at a point where "outside of society" is almost impossible and would only mean "illegal" which is still being part of society, though in an antagonistic way. So for better or worse societies aren't going away and for the most part they are also incredibly useful to the individual despite the price.

Which prompts the question how you'd organize them. Who does what, who gets what, how should people spend their time, how much would you want to interfere with other people's time and how much do you want other people to interfere with your time and so on.

Now ideally they would contribute according to their abilities and receive according to their needs, they would live sustainable and not damage the environment beyond repair and ideally that would only take a few hours each day so that they can use the rest of the time getting along with each other, figuring things out politically and spending time as they enjoy it.

However beyond a certain size it gets complicated. It's still largely the more the merrier, but the specialization and de-generalization means that you form different social groups that don't necessarily readily understand the perspective of each other and when times become dire, maybe even have to adopt a certain ignorance towards other people in society to sustain their individual survival. At the same time society is still the best option for survival. As the survival rate of the individuals in a group is still much higher than compared to a single individual. So sacrificing individuals and small groups to save the rest could still be floated as an option. In which case society becomes vital for some and hostile to others.

So the relationship between the individual and society gets different depending on who "the individual" is. However even to those within the group that does the sacrificing that probably still leaves some trauma and fears as to whether they could be sacrificed in a similar event.

Another point is that the production within societies and the dependencies that result from that, are themselves factors that shape society beyond individual influences. So idk if it takes lets say 2500m² to feed one person then the size of (farm-)land in your country has to match that or someone is going to starve or you're relying on food imports. Now you can take different approaches as to who's it going to be or whether everyone eats less then the prescribed amount or if they take turns or whatnot. But no matter how you slice that cake it's not enough.

So that someone is going to starve is not the result of individual decisions it's the consequence of the material reality. And I think in that regard you're getting Marxism wrong. Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on Marxism. But the point is not that the individual's interests are inferior to the group (economic classes). It's rather that Marx tried to describe society through the lens of materialism and argued that classes are an inevitable result of the way we organize production and distribution. So the "working class" does not mean "poor people" or referred to a fixed social group but rather to the concept that there are people who have to work for a living. While "capitalists" can make an income from hiring people and letting them do work for them. So a working class person getting rich and opening a business where he's hiring employees would become a capitalist while a capitalist losing their business and having to work for a living would turn working class. It's not a description of the individual or an ideology it's simply a description of what they do.

And it's not a value judgement either, Marx was, as far as I am aware, not arguing that capitalists are individually evil or that it is a problem of individually evil capitalists. He rather identified it a as a problem within society. So in order to change the system it's not sufficient to individually overcome your class but to change the way we produce things. Like for example make everyone a capitalist and a worker by having the means of production be public utilities rather than individual money printers.

So. Enough of a wall of text for now :)

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  • The question is not about living alone vs. living in a group: capitalism or Randian individualism still assume people living in the group - what is different is the relations within a group. E.g., how much control an individual can have of their property, their body and physical health, their time, etc.
    – Roger V.
    Jul 26, 2022 at 14:45
  • Are they? I often get the impression that their inherent lack to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences that they have towards society at large stem from the idea that they don't think of themselves as living in a group, but rather as seeing everybody around them as black box with whom they interact rather than with whom they are connected. I mean they still live within a group and none of their businesses or even the idea of property itself would function without the existence of a group, but I'm not sure they are fully aware of that.
    – haxor789
    Jul 26, 2022 at 18:17
  • I can definitely upvote the first line of this answer. Jul 27, 2022 at 14:28
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No references, just plain logic:

In case of conflict, the interest of many will prime over the interest of a single one...

...(mechanism ruled by the law of the strongest, many are stronger than a single one).

So, individual interests are secondary in comparison to social interests. If you like killing, society will kill you.

Ergo, you can only survive if your interests are not in conflict with social interests. In case of conflict, there is no reconciliation, it is a conflict, and the group will statistically tend to win.

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  • a) Individuals may have different power - a dictator is arguably stronger than many of his subjects. b) Each of the "many" has their own self-interest, and over the course of history we have seen the rights of an individual growing and becoming protected by the same "many".
    – Roger V.
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:05
  • @RogerVadim You seem to assume that societies show no tendency to remove dictators. No argument against such claim, history books show the answer.
    – RodolfoAP
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:06
  • I have completed my comment, your answer seems a bit off.
    – Roger V.
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:07
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    As for references, Rousseau in The Social Contract makes a strong argument about why Might is Right is not a valid position.
    – armand
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:34
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    @RodolfoAP Rousseau and I basically agree with you. Chill, dude.
    – armand
    Jul 26, 2022 at 13:42

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