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The Problem With Individualism

Category Articles
Date September 8, 2006

In sixth form, my friends and I discovered the nineteenth century writer JS Mill, and in particular his famous slogan; “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. How wise, insightful and civilized, we thought.

In the last few years, however, I have become rather less keen on Mr. Mill and his oh-so-rational individualism. As a basis for a moral system absolute autonomy is troublesome, and it is causing all sorts of problems when it comes to life issues.

I don’t know what Mill thought about assisted suicide. But I suspect that had he been at the House of Lords on May 12th this year he would have nodded approvingly as speaker after speaker stood up and argued in favour of euthanasia on the grounds of personal autonomy.

In the field of bioethics, this argument is ubiquitous. Whether it is the “right to die”, the “right to choose” or “patient choice” over IVF, embryo screening and selection, Mill’s words are on everybody’s lips. Everyone wants to exercise their personal freedom, unrestricted by any kind of external objective authority. We are a nation of autonomy junkies, and the only permissible caveat is that we mustn’t cause harm to others. In effect, morality has been privatised.

There are, however, some big problems with the notion of autonomy. Chief among these is the fact that the criterion of “harm to others” is hopelessly ambiguous. Harm is incredibly hard to quantify. If I punch someone in the face, that is obviously harmful to them. But let’s say that I have a fully consensual one-night stand with a woman, but a few days later she feels used, hurt and confused because of our actions. Is that harm? Am I morally responsible for her suffering? How about if I unintentionally pass on an STI, which renders her infertile? Is that harm?

When life issues are concerned, the debate over “harm to others” becomes especially confused. Take abortion. Is it really just a personal decision? The implications of abortion are social, rather than merely personal. As well as the mother, it involves the unborn child (obviously), the father, the family and the clinicians involved in the abortion, not to mention having implications for the whole of British society because of the “demographic timebomb”. Besides, in 2005, 84% of all abortions in England and Wales were funded by the NHS i.e. by public money. That amounts to well over 150,000 terminations per year paid for by you and me.

The same applies to euthanasia. Contrary to the protestations of its advocates, the decision to request – and receive – assistance to die is not simply a personal decision, the exercise of a “right” which has no effect on anyone else. The legalization of euthanasia would further undermine our society’s already rather patchy respect for human life, placing at risk thousands of the most vulnerable people in society. It would also involve doctors, medical staff and family members in intentional killing. It is pure fantasy to suppose that legal assisted suicide really involves no “harm to others”.

The privatisation of morality also explains why people can come up with such masterpieces of illogic as “I don’t agree with abortion myself, but I think a woman should have the right to choose.” This is seen as the sophisticated, modern and – above all – “tolerant” answer.

But I have never heard someone say, when asked about racism, “Well, I personally wouldn’t want to beat a man to death because or the colour or his skin, but if someone else feels that they need to do so, that’s up to them.” It’s an obvious absurdity.

So why do people end up in such a muddle? The problem is that we are constantly being given the message that morality is little more than a personal inclination. We are terrified of being seen as judgmental. So what we think are our moral judgments are often expressed simply as aesthetic preferences, hemmed in and prefaced with all sorts of qualifications to avoid “giving offence.”

The “personally opposed, but . . .” argument – a favourite with fence-sitting politicians – is a feeble and illogical piece of bad thinking. What it amounts to is an attempt to avoid an explicit moral judgment. Nevertheless, it demands an implicit moral judgment i.e. abortion is right in some circumstances! Surely abortion is either wrong, or it isn’t. People mustn’t get confused between thinking abortion is basically OK, even though they wouldn’t have one themselves, and thinking that it is actually objectively immoral and that no-one should have one. Those are two quite different moral positions.

That is why clarity from pro-lifers is so important. Yes, it is important to be sensitive and savvy in the way that we present our message. But by the very act of standing up for an unpopular truth, we will occasionally cause controversy, and even offence, and we should not fear this.

[Taken with permission from LIFENEWS Autumn 2006, Issue 50, the magazine of the UK’s leading pro-life charity. Further copies available from]

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