Thursday, 23 September 2021

"Society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort."

"Individual man is born into a socially organised environment. In this sense alone we may accept the saying that society is--logically or historically--antecedent to the individual. In every other sense this dictum is either empty or nonsensical. The individual lives and acts within society. But society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society's autonomous and independent existence, of its life, its soul, and its actions is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors.
    "The questions whether society or the individual is to be considered as the ultimate end, and whether the interests of society should be subordinated to those of the individuals or the interests of the individuals to those of society are fruitless. Action is always action of individual men. The social or societal element is a certain orientation of the actions of individual men. The category end makes sense only when applied to action....
    "Within the frame of social cooperation there can emerge between members of society feelings of sympathy and friendship and a sense of belonging together. These feelings are the source of man's most delightful and most sublime experiences. They are the most precious adornment of life; they lift the animal species man to the heights of a really human existence. However, they are not, as some have asserted, the agents that have brought about social relationships. They are fruits of social cooperation, they thrive only within its frame; they did not precede the establishment of social relations and are not the seed from which they spring.
    "The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilisation and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man's reason is capable of recognising this truth. But for these facts men would have forever remained deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature. Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors. No sympathy could possibly develop under such a state of affairs."
          ~ Ludwig Von Mises, from 'Human Cooperation,' in his book Human Action


  1. This is a truly brilliant piece of writing. It captures so much: that society is just the actions of individuals, that the ‘collective good’ is really just the interests of those who define it, and that the division of labour (under capitalism) is the engine of human improvement. Gosh, he was clever.

  2. I don't wish to detract from the great man's achievements, and I agree entirely with the first 3 paragraphs - but my recent readings in evolutionary psychology leads me to beg to differ with aspects of the 4th paragraph. (On this topic and more, I highly recommend 'The Ape that Understood the Universe').

    I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that cooperation between individuals was predominant well before the division of labour. It exists in most non-human animals too. The most extreme example being worker bees who will defend the queen by stinging an invader which leads to their death. This provides the best example that evolution properly understood is not primarily about survival of the individual, or even survival of the species, but survival of the genes that give rise to that instinctual behavior - with the queen being the origin of the genes of all the bees in the nest. Richard Dawkins first explained this idea with his concept of the 'selfish gene'.

    The fact that mankind requires cooperation to survive, even more so than the other animals is likely a major contributor to the evolution of language many many years ago.

    It's implausible that humans, who evolved from animals lost this instinctual behavior at some point, and then only regained it with changes in culture and the discovery of the benefits of the division of labour.

    If anything, I think most humans have an evolved desire to be part of a group, because it was even more important for survival in our evolutionary past. However the culture has changed so quickly, that our innate tendencies are somewhat mismatched to the requirement of modern living. With the benefits of civilisation and the rule of law, we no longer are going to get cast out on our own to die, or clubbed over the head for non-conformance. If anything our prosperity now requires original thinking. But evolution hasn't had time to catch up with that reality. In the same way our evolved desire for sweet foods hasn't had time to catch up with the easy availability of sugar in our modern diet.


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