The True Basis of Individualism

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The True Basis of Individualism.

In No. 148, Comrade Yarros, with whose logic I usually agree, asserts: "The true basis of Individualism is not any natural individual right, for nature knows nought but might, but a broad Utilitarianism, social expediency." Now I have nothing to say against "a broad Utilitarianism," or "social expediency," but, with an respect for Mr. Yarros, I consider this statement of out basis as misleading. It has always seemed to me only a piece of common sense to look for the basis of individualism in the individual himself, as far back as might be, and I found It, to my own satisfaction at least, where I looked for it. The true basis of Individualism is egoism, self-benefit,—the natural right, or rightness, of every man's attending solely to his own good. That, where there is sufficient knowledge and mental development, the exercise of egoism will lead naturally to a broad utilitarianism and social expediency I have always claimed, but that is very far front admitting their basic importance.

My happiness is the basic thing, and happiness is a natural right; that is to say, in the very nature of my organism it is so arranged that every thing goes right only when happy, only when in a state of normal gratification. And my natural right is not in the least dependent upon my natural might; I have the natural might to cut off a forefinger, but it would very naturally be wrong for me to do so; it is naturally right for me to have all my teeth, but I have lost some, and it is naturally impossible for me to get them back.

That which the "laws" of nature require us to do, the actual conditions of nature too frequently forbid.

Does "nature know nought but might"? Effort, struggle, labor, might, for nothing at all, is foolishness, and nature is not such a fool. She uses her might for a purpose, and therefore knows something before and after might. Preservation of life, development, pleasure, in the service of these she uses her might, and whatsoever makes for these is right.

Here is natural right—that which is beneficial to the individual; here is our basis. Shall we then say: "Might is right"? In a certain sense yes, and in another sense no. Might is perhaps right in intention, i. e., always intended to benefit the user; it is often by reason of ignorance very wrong in its results. A man slew his best friend by mistake, supposing him his deadliest enemy. He was acquitted of wrong as one who acted in self-defence, and his own conscience was clear. He acted in self-defence, and it is right to act in self-defence, therefore he did right. Did he not also do wrong? Assuredly it is wrong to make mistakes; from the standpoint of the slain it was wrong to be slain, and from the standpoint of the slayer it was wrong to kill one's friend.

It becomes evident then that there are natural rights and natural wrongs (that is, that there are intentions, acts, and rotations that in the course of nature benefit self, and intentions, acts, and relations that In the course of nature injure self), and also that the same act may at the same time be both right and wrong. To a certain extent a given relation may be beneficial, and beyond that an injury. Recognizing this, we have all learned that good and evil are comparative terms, and the habit has become world-wide of calling those things that benefit more than they injure right and good, and those that injure more than they benefit wrong and evil. When the moralist speaks of right be always means, whether he is conscious of it or not, that which, in his opinion, in the long run and the wide circle, will return the most pleasure. It seems to me that all the varying uses of the word right clearly base themselves here.

Observe. To many those things only are right that are decreed by God. Everything believed to have the divine sanction is called right. To the theological mind God is the fountain of benefits. To antagonize God is, in the long run and the wide circle, to bring ruin upon sell, to obey is in the greatest possible degree to benefit self. Therefore the decrees of God are tight, and obedience to them right. Could anything be more egoistic? And even such monstrous doctrines as predestination and infant damnation were applauded from fear of the divine vengeance, which is egoism in another form, or from a persuasion that those doctrines were mysteries which would finally be revealed as human benefits.

The use of the term right as synonymous with privilege evidently had a similar origin. Men did not look to scientific relation of cause and effect; they took theological views of everything. Whatever God did or permitted was right, but the devil gave him the slip pretty, often, and then things were done that were wrong. How the devil he did this was a knotty question, but anyway God was for men, and the devil man's enemy, therefore God was good, and Satan bad. Rulers being "ordained of God" (it was very unsafe to doubt this), the agents and sub-agents of his will, having "a divine right," it followed that all their privileges were divinely right, and beneficial to everybody. To rebel was to rebel against God, to ultimately ruin self, and, on the other hand, to do what God through the ruler permitted not be wrong, however it might look to the natural man; at any rate, it was the safest and most fashionable to call it right. Therefore all privileges become rights. And the old idea of self-benefit through it all.

Read the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, substituting the word benefit or benefits for the right and rights wherever they occur, and it will be found that the author's idea is fully preserved. A Deist, he reasoned from nature to God, — that is, whatever he found of beneficial nature he referred to God as its author.

Believing in a deity who could do no wrong, also believing, as we do, in equal liberty as beneficial, it was to him self-evident men were equal by creative intent. To substitute privileges, or any such term signifying might, for "rights," will not thus express his meaning. This is clearly shown by his reference to "inalienable rights." He did not intend to convey the idea that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," were mere arbitrary privileges, conferred by God or the government, or he would not have called them "inalienable."

As privileges and powers he knew they were continually being alienated, but as "rights" they were in his view inalienable —that is, it would always be beneficial to the Individual to live, be free, and seek happiness, whether able to do so or not. A man might voluntarily become a slave, but he could not thereby alienate his right to freedom, could not alter the fact that it would be better to be free.

Even the most useful hand, because the most beneficial, is called the right hand. And so I might go on indefinitely, but I have illustrated sufficiently, I trust, to prove my point.

Thus it appears that in nature all acts and relations are to some extent beneficial, somewhat right, but to avoid inconveniently nice distinctions human language has divided all into two classes;

Right, Good = More beneficial than injurious

Wrong, Evil = More injurious than beneficial

and this from the standpoint of the speaker.

While by right, in a special sense, have always been meant those conditions, actions, or privileges supposed to be superlatively beneficial, such as liberty, security, labor, compensation, suffrage, etc. Finding that humanity has based its entire nomenclature of right on an egoistic basis, I, as an egoist, make haste to adopt it, and dissent sharply from those few philosophers who assert "might is right," meaning thereby that whatever nature permits is right. To view of the basic meaning of the word, and of the fact that nature permits all sorts of self-injury, I deny it.

Nothing is clearer to me than that those who use "nature-right" as a watchword, mean, and have always meant, those conditions and actions which in the very nature of man and his relations are in the highest degree necessary to his development, perfection, and happiness as an individual.

Our basis is the natural Individual right to happiness; our method, the natural social right of equal-freedom. Therefore we are In our desires, actions, hopes, altogether based on natural right, and the "Individualist" need not hasten to haul down its standard.

How can Comrade Yarros say, "there is nothing whatever in nature to interdict such a policy" as the endeavor of one man to tyrannize over another? If that be so, let him rest assured he is a fool for interdicting it himself. Is, then, our protest against tyranny based upon supernaturalism? Are we left without an inch of solid ground to stand on?

Into such folly does the advocacy of might as right lead us. Nature indeed permits tyranny between man and man, but she none the less forbids it by all the pains and penalties of Individual undevelopment and social disorder. Nor do I agree that "all" men's "rights are natural social rights" (if they are, they are confessedly natural rights), but deny that there is "no liberty without society," and maintain that, if I were the only man living, I would still have rights, could still be free. My social rights are only a part of my rights, and include all those interrelations of conduct between myself and my fellows necessary to secure my greatest social benefit. Outside of these lie all my right relations to self, and to that nature which is not human. Whether in or out of society, for instance, my right of free access to nature's materials remains unchanged. Does Mr. Yarros really believe that: "Civilization does not modify men's natural rights; it creates them. In the absence of civil society individual rights are inconceivable"? To me such a statement appears absurd, and worse. Which, then, was first, civilization, or primitive nature? Was it not the working out of the perception of natural rights by the primitive savage that produced the little civilization that we have? Because the primitive savage will not associate with us, have we a right to outrage him? Is it inconceivable that he has a right to his life, liberty, happiness? As it would not be difficult to prove that we have as yet no "civil society" worthy of the name, is it inconceivable that we have rights,—are they still uncreated?

Now the truth is that natural rights are not created at all, but are inherent in the nature of things—individual rights in the nature of the Individual, social rights in the nature of society; and nature is self-existent.

It is true, however, that, as a man alone could not be invaded by other men, our contention as Anarchists is chiefly for the natural social right of equal liberty, but our demand for that is prompted altogether by our belief that its realization will in the highest degree satisfy our natural individual right to a perfect personality—which is our true basis.

"The hope and strength of our cause lies in the great verity that, as men gain in enlightenment and refinement, they come to realize more and more that not stern military discipline, but trust in the spontaneous unfoldment of individuality, not force and repression, but liberty and sympathy, should be depended upon for the working out of a harmonious social order." True, O prophet!— and that because "liberty and sympathy" are natural rights. If humanity had to wait until its "harmonious social order" had "created" its liberty and sympathy, in order that its liberty and sympathy could work out its harmonious social order, it would be in a very dizzy and hopeless condition of chasing its own tail.

J. Wm. Lloyd.

  • J. William Lloyd, “The True Basis of Individualism,” Liberty 6, no. 20 (September 7, 1889): 6-7.