Individuals vs. Systems: An underlying philosophy for this blog

by Alan Cohen


The posts on this blog have been, and will continue to be, on a variety of topics, but there are a few underlying principles that infuse my outlook, and will thus infuse many of the posts. Perhaps the most important of these principles is that systems are more important than individuals, and this post is meant to explore that principle and some of its ramifications.

Modern Americans have built their national identity around the philosophy of individualism, and it seeps into American thinking in many ways. The core American values of Democracy, Charity, Capitalism, and Liberty/Freedom are all centered around individualism in one way or another. The most obvious is Freedom, which is interpreted in a modern context as the freedom of individuals to do what they want, regardless of governmental or societal norms. (It’s worth noting that this was not always the case. David Hackett Fischer, in his excellent book Paul Revere’s Ride, makes a strong argument that liberty and freedom for communities was a much stronger value in Revolutionary times. There’s also a growing literature on how too much freedom and choice can paralyze us – see, for example, this great TED talk.)

Democracy, Capitalism, and Charity are less obviously individualistic, but they have each become strongly associated with the idea that many individuals, each acting in self-interest, will produce the best possible outcome for the greater good, and thus that acting in ones individual self-interest (free of regulations and constraints) is good for society. Democracy does this by votes: vote your interest and we will have a society that reflects the average interest of all. Capitalism does this by allocating money where our individual interests lie, and it is taken as an article of faith for most Americans that a free market system is the best. These are each subjects that I will explore in more detail in subsequent posts.

Charity’s relationship to individualism is the least obvious, but becomes apparent when we consider how little culture of charitable giving there is in other countries. (I’m thinking specifically of Japan, which I know, but imagine it’s the same in the rest of Asia and probably Europe too. And this doesn’t mean that Japanese people are cold or uncaring, just that they don’t see charity as the role of the individual.)  The basic individualistic principle of charity is: if you donate money or time where your values lie, we will achieve a just society that corresponds to our values. It is this principle that leads Americans to the unique conceit that they can change the world: that if someone is dying of hunger in Africa, it’s because we Americans haven’t donated or volunteered enough. (Whether this attitude is necessary, productive, generous, imperialistic, racist, naive, or all of the above is a subject for another post.) The key point is that, in the American worldview, it is the responsibility of individuals to act if we want to save the poor starving Africans (or whoever else) – the system won’t do it for us.

The majority of Americans who have never spent serious time abroad may even be unaware that there is any alternative to this individualist perspective, but I imagine readers who know other cultures well will immediately recognize this particularity of the American perspective (only partly shared by my new compatriots here in Canada). And there are certainly elements of truth to this worldview: some free market is generally a bad thing, government that is too far away from democracy is usually a disaster, and it seems unlikely that “the system” or some government is about to save the world’s poor anytime soon.

However, a key aspect of my outlook on life is that systems are also critically important. For example, I recently explored how the filibuster in the US senate contributes to a dysfunctional political culture regardless of the good intentions of many individual senators. I explored how the structure of rules surrounding funding for medical research helps or hinders individual scientists in achieving honest, important research. And I wrote about how changing patent rules and funding for pharmaceutical research could aid us in developing new drugs.

All these posts are based on an understanding about how a set of rules (“the system”) shapes and constrains the behavior of individuals. These rules come in many forms. In the case of political systems, they can be laws but also cultural norms, expectations, available technology, and the funding of the media. In traffic systems they include the structure of roads, the signaling used, the culture of driving in the area, and so forth. In biological/evolutionary systems, the rules are things like the system of genetic inheritance, functional constraints for how organisms must operate in their environment, developmental constraints, and so forth.

The point is that lots of different rules operate in different systems, and these can be rules of nature, rules of law, rules of human nature, and the physical structure of the world, all interacting with each other in complex ways. Once you understand the key rules of a system, you can often predict its outcome, and in many cases no amount of good (or bad) will on the part of the actors within it can change that. In other cases, the structure of the system ensures that the outcome does depend on individual actors within it – and that is also part of the system!

For example, some of the rules of the system controlling the outcome of elections is the fact that human nature makes us manipulable by TV advertising, TV advertising is possible (we have the technology), TV advertising is expensive (and more so in some places than others), and there is a certain culture of how TV advertising is used in political campaigns that gets transmitted among consultants. These factors are among the many “rules” that constraint and structure “the system” of political elections. Certainly the role for money in politics, the sorts of people who can get elected, and so forth are all controlled to a large extent by these system rules.

Two key aspects of many systems are (1) that they involve some sort of pressure or driving force (competition in economics, natural selection in evolution, the desire to win in politics, the desire of drivers to arrive at a destination in traffic systems) and (2) that there are many constraints that limit these driving forces (cultural traditions in economics, genetic structure in evolution, campaign finance laws in politics, and traffic signals in traffic systems).

It is my contention that driving forces are often explored in lots of depth, and the constraints are often ignored. Again, this is a cultural bias: the driving forces are usually produced by the cumulation of individual efforts (to get rich, to survive, etc), whereas the constraints are limiting factors on the individuals. Americans are thus predisposed to think more about the forces (individualistic) than the constraints, although both are critical to understand how a system operates. One of the key goals of this blog will thus be to explore how constraints limit the possible outcomes of different systems.