Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The collective of individuals as ‘we’ is a fallacy in society.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In the moral and political climate of not only today, but also throughout human history, it is all too common that the possibility of action and moral duty is attributed to collectives in society without any thought given to the possibility of this being true. The first person plural is thrown around liberally throughout social discourse in catchy slogans like “We must protect American jobs”, and “We must help the poor,” but almost never the author or speakers actually define what this “We” is. Of course it is easy to become numb to this use of “We” due to how innocent it appears, but this complacency is dangerous since it downplays the importance of the individual in society. Indeed, this error, the fallacy of we, is false because it ignores the fact that only individuals can act, be the objects of duty, and are therefore the sole unit of human society.

The foundation of the fallacy of we is the failure to properly understand the individual nature of the human being, and the failure to realize that collectives are not actors, but are nothing but an agglomeration of the actions of individuals.

Of all the branches of human knowledge, economics has, not surprisingly, been the one to most poignantly elucidate this fundamental fact through the concept of methodological individualism. In his magnum opus, Human Action, Ludwig von Mises provides a seminal defense of individualism by arguing that it is tautologically true that only individuals can act (he formalized the definition of action to mean the application of means to acquire desired ends), and that a collective operates always through the intermediary of the actions of more than one individual. Since collectives, whether it be a corporation or the state that may be given recognition as a single entity in day-to-day affairs, cannot apply means to ends, but only individuals can it follows that it cannot be true that collectives exist outside of their actions.

Despite how simply this truth may appear, there has never been a shortage of politicians, public intellectuals and scholars throughout history who have challenged the soundness of individualism. Whether they claim that it is false because the human being is a social animal who is born into a society or that society is merely a battleground of classes in which the individual is bound to his interests as a member of a certain class, the arguments against the individualist understanding of the social order are manifold.

Nevertheless, it is certainly peculiar that the case for a collectivist view of society is always made by individuals who have been able to formulate arguments by the creative process of their own interpretations of the world. Never has der Volk ever dictated a diatribe that asserts individuals are nothing but citizens of a state, never has the Proletariat ever written a polemical that proclaims it has discovered that history can be boiled down to class conflict in which individuals are little more than puppets of machines. To the contrary, it was always an individual to do each, and it is only an individual who can ever create a new idea or put pen to paper in order to record it. Ergo, just as it would be absurd to say that a collective could do either of those actions, so it is absurd to assert that individualism is false, and therefore it follows that the fallacy of we is indeed a fallacy.

However, not only is the fallacy of we a misrepresentation of the nature of society, but it is also contrary to the values of a free society because not only does it erroneously attribute reality to collectives outside of the actions of its constituent individuals, but it also encourages the centralization of moral duty to this entity, hence reducing the role of the individual in society. By claiming that there is a social unit above the individual, it is natural for the collectivist to assert that it is only right for the higher unit should take as much responsibility for society as possible in representation of those below it. Indeed, it is impossible to speak of so many social duties today without invoking the fallacy of “we”.

For instance, take the widely-accepted duty that one should help the less fortunate, it seems that whenever individuals’ exercise of this duty is perceived as lacking that the question is posed as “What can I/ one individual do more to help the less fortunate?” Instead, the question seems to be always be posed as “What can we do to help the less fortunate,” and what this implies is not individuals’ redoubling of their efforts in respect of this obligation, but always what can be done to centralize more of this moral obligation in the government without much regard for how can individuals act in order to fulfill their duty.

Indeed, there is even support these days for centralizing much of the individual’s responsibilities for their own health and well-bring to the government with the government regulating indoor smoking, and voices heard asserting that it should also regulate the nutritional content of certain foods and outright banning certain sweeteners like corn-syrup. While much of this may seem innocuous, the tendency towards the centralization of social responsibility brought on by the conception of society and the depreciation of the individual by the alienation of responsibility from him.

An individual who is not responsible for his actions, whether positive or negative, is not a meaningful member of society because their actions have no effect therefore they play no social role and the non-existence of these individuals would scarcely be noticed. A society where the individual is nil can be given no other name than totalitarian, and therefore it must be concluded that the fallacy of we encourages a totalitarian perspective of society in which collectives, the “We”, is held above that of the individual.

In the end, the fallacy of “we” is false because it wrongly characterizes the nature of the social order by implying that collectively, the “we” can be an actor while in reality it is nothing more than an aggregate of all the individual actions within it. Furthermore, by encouraging such collectivist thinking, it is anathema to a society of free individuals because it encourages the centralization of responsibility from the individual to a higher entity within a fictional social hierarchy hence reducing his role, and therefore value in society.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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  • A

    A brain cooperating with a handOct 4, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    You know, I don’t think you go far enough. An individual human being is, after all, composed of cells and organs. How can you say that people act, when it is clear that all human actions are in fact the actions of nerves and muscles? It is a fallacy to say that this collective entity known as the human body can be an actor, while in reality it is nothing more than an aggregate of all the individual organs within it.

    Down with collectivist thinking! Long live free organs!

    …hmm, you know, maybe you should actually go even further and extol the virtues of free atoms and molecules.

  • C

    chesterfieldOct 1, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Many run-on sentences here. Searles is bursting at his Seams.

  • D

    David Hunt '90Oct 1, 2010 at 8:39 am


    There is another danger: the desire to help people – admirable – leads collectivists to COMPEL others to help out in their cause. Thus, from A, B, and C. we have A and B agreeing on some course of action, and through the tyranny of the majority compelling C to contribute to said cause.

    To help others is admirable. To force others to do what you want is tantamount to slavery.