Are you in danger of being used, or of using others? In the context of social and economic life, individualism translates as the economic survival of the fittest. That represents a kind of diminishment, not only for those at the bottom of the heap, but also for those who put them there.
People are thought of as “units” in the industrial process, a kind of “human capital”. They are thought of as producers and consumers, to be factored in or factored out depending on the needs of the market. The consequences can be shattering for people’s sense of self-worth, their marriage and family. The joy of living can be crushed out of them. It is dehumanising because
… there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their nature cannot and must not be sold.
(Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus)
There are subtle ways of giving things priority over persons - ways that already infiltrate society’s thinking. For example, those who contribute their labor to an enterprise are putting into it something genuinely personal. Those who contribute financial capital, perhaps through a broker, are providing something impersonal. Yet it is commonly assumed that those who provide financial capital are entitled to a greater say in the management of industry and to a greater share in its profits than those who provide their labour!
Solidarity...means that you are incomplete so long as others are incomplete.Whenever persons are subordinated to other values it is through failure to recognise that persons have a worth and dignity that transcends their usefulness and their circumstances. This transcendent value of each person is ultimately based on how much each person matters to God. God’s own statement on how much each person matters is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Every person is sacred to God from the first moment of their existence, in all the situations of their life, through their dying, and forever. This includes the person that others call “you”.
If there were no transcendent basis for human dignity, then the well-being of persons would depend on their resourcefulness and their circumstances and on how much society can do to protect them. And if religious faith is a purely “private” affair, then it can’t help them either. This is why the
… split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.
(Second Vatican Council, Church in the World)
The connection between religious faith and the rest of life is implicitly acknowledged by those who want to keep “religion” inside the Church so that it doesn’t get in the way of their social and economic agendas.
Of course, religious faith does not substitute for the proper dynamics of social and economic planning. But it is religious faith that gives us the reason why persons are meant to be the goal of social and economic planning and not a mere means to other goals.
I would like to invite economists and financial professionals, as well as political leaders, to recognise the urgency of the need to ensure that economic practices and related political policies have as their aim the good of every person and of the whole person. This is not only a demand of ethics but also of a sound economy. Experience seems to confirm that economic success is increasingly dependent on a more genuine appreciation of individuals and their abilities, on their fuller participation, on their increased and improved knowledge and information, on a stronger solidarity.
(Pope John Paul II, message on the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2000)
The opposite of individualism is solidarity. It means accepting that the well-being of each is connected with the well-being of all. It means that you are incomplete so long as others are incomplete. It can also mean that if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. You become your true self through your being in some way “for others.”
Is it just a coincidence that those who are most universally admired - regardless of particular beliefs - are those who have transcended themselves - “losing” their lives for others?
The law of the Lord is perfect,
it revives the soul.
The rule of the Lord is trustworthy,
it gives wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
they gladden the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear,
it gives light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is holy,
abiding for ever.
The decrees of the Lord are true,
all of them just.