Philosophy Weekend: The Collective Self

The psychologist Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious, a source of deep common understanding and knowledge that every person seems to somehow draw from. I’ve always liked this concept, and I’ve often thought we could take this further and consider the concept of the collective self. While Jung’s collective unconscious is present in our lives as a source of awareness and feeling, the collective self is something else: it’s the source of our shared willfulness, our common motivation, our us.

I like to introduce the concept of the collective self into ethical arguments to help explain how human beings can be self-interested and concerned for the well-being of other individuals at the same time. It’s often said that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, but if we examine the goals that truly drive us in our everyday lives, the things that we care about and work hard for, we quickly see that we tend to be motivated not by private benefit but, more often, by public benefit of one kind or another.

Our concern and desire for the well-being of other members of the social groups to which we belong, or the well-being of humanity as a whole, is not a derived element, not a projection of individual self-interest mapped according to utilitarian needs onto others. Rather, our concern and desire for the well-being of numerous collective groups to which we belong is a primary instinct. We care about us. Us, it turns out, is no less a strong glue than me.

Of course, we humans like to see ourselves as a fiercely individualistic species. Hah! The evidence has never supported this belief. We’re highly territorial, and ornery and violent too. But in terms of the motivations that bind us we are no less driven by the “hive mind” than any pack of bees. Our minds are naturally wired for groupthink (indeed, this is why we can be so susceptible to mass-oriented political movements like communism and fascism, which take the collective self in dangerous directions). At every level of our lives, from politics to religion to education to sports and arts and entertainment, we tend to align our thoughts with those of our loved ones, family members, neighbors, co-workers, associates and friends. We align our feelings with them too. We think and feel together. The countless conflicts we get into often have less to do with clashes of individual self-interest, and more to do with clashes of collective self-interest.

I find that I can think much more clearly about questions of morality and ethics when I think about the collective self. In last weekend’s installment, Socrates asked how a person could ever wish to do evil to others. This ethical question and many like it often devolve into confusion over subjectivity, or private interest, of who’s doing what to who? What if something that’s good to me is evil to you? Human beings are, some moral philosophers will inevitably declare, ultimately selfish above all else. Morality itself is at stake when this point in the philosophical debate is reached. If we are all looking out only for ourselves, then morality is a sham.

Too many philosophical discussions have ended at this point. I’m surprised there isn’t a more general awareness — I can’t possibly be the first person who has thought of this! and yet the idea often goes unsaid — that “self-interest” does not have to equate to individual self-interest. Our concern for our families, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, those who share anything with us, indeed for everyone in the world, is a primary thing. When somebody calls somebody else selfish, the discussion should not end there. Instead it should lead to the question: which self? We all belong to several.

The misconception that we live only for ourselves, that we seek only to maximize our individual happiness, helps to encourage the sickness of hedonism, gluttony, greed. The irony of our selfish age — back in the 1970s, Tom Wolfe coined the term “the Me Decade”, and many might say the Me Decade never ended — is that many people would probably be more generous, more loving, less suspicious, and therefore much happier if they only felt they were permitted to be so. We all yearn to commune with the collective self. All too often this is the most difficult yearning of all to satisfy.

13 Responses

  1. good morning…although our
    good morning…although our constant selfish instincts are impossible to ignore, they are instincts of the flesh and can be overcome at times by the soul. i think of people that exhibit unselfishness as soulful. however, even if these soulful acts are just an act, they are responsible for good in the world. luther wrote of sinning bravely as an awareness of our constant sin. embrace it, overcome it at times, and you will contribute to the common good without the guilt and self destruction associated with much of our culture’s religious obsession with self fulfillment through good works. good works should be compelled, not forced. once the compelled good work is done, we can get back to the sinning. so as we celebrate martin luther king jr on monday, consider the reformer that originally bore the name. keep the piety on the shelf. be a soulman.

  2. A very thoughtful piece this
    A very thoughtful piece this weekend.
    What struck me was your conclusion; the permission of others to be more generous, more loving, less suspicious.
    The possibility of accepting the ‘hive’ as an innate intention for humanimals, and the success of the individual as the mordent flaw.
    Robert W

  3. Bill, why do you say that? I
    Bill, why do you say that? I don’t think of this as Ayn Rand territory, and I’ve never been attracted to her ideas.

    I was trying to be venturing into Carl Jung territory, or maybe Emile Durkheim territory. I don’t see the similarity.

  4. Bill, though I usually agree
    Bill, though I usually agree with you, I’m surprised to read your response to this post as well. Ayn Rand’s objectivism is all about an extreme form of individualism. What Levi is proposing seems to me to be the opposite of that. More Durkheim than Jung, I would say, since it’s a more pragmatic take on taking into account the group, not just the self, in ethical decisions.

  5. I was simply suggesting that
    I was simply suggesting that Levi should include a mention of how self-interest, as he defines it, differs from Ayn Rand’s concept of self-interest. But maybe I didn’t read the article carefully enough, because looking back, I now see the part in the next-to-the-last paragraph “that ‘self-interest’ does not have to equate to individual self-interest.”

    I’m not a proponent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, either. Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, however, is of great interest to me.

  6. I’m interested in the idea,
    I’m interested in the idea, which I may have read in Douglas Rushkoff, that individualism is just the flip side of the coin of corporate power.

    The only real alternative to the increasing omnipotence of the multinational corporations is not individualism, but, as you imply, communities of citizens….

  7. When you write that we ought
    When you write that we ought to ask “which self”, I am inclined to pose the questions “which we” are we or you referring to when you say that it is human nature to care for a collective “we?” If there is any utopian impulse (nothing wrong with that) in the way you’ve framed the question of the self and the collective, I’ll have to say it is precisely in not accounting for one thing. That the “which self” and “which we” questions make up the crux of the matter. That it is precisely the political and historical difficulties both of posing and finding answers to these questions that creates all the misunderstandings.

  8. “That the “which self” and
    “That the “which self” and “which we” questions make up the crux of the matter. ”

    This is a good point. I don’t think Levi’s original post can be fairly construed as Ayn Rand-like in character because her thinking (and I have to admit I’m relying on secondary material here: book reviews, etc.) suggests an “invisible hand of the market place of ethics” that will somehow transform unrestrained greed into something socially beneficial. It seems to me rather that Levi’s idea is quite different: a balancing of self-interest with common good (an idea I agree with). Nevertheless, there is a potential slippery slope to the argument, and defining the Self and the We is critical if this argument is going to have a real-world application.

  9. Thanks for all these
    Thanks for all these comments. I agree that it’s a good point that even the question “which self are we?” assumes a subjective “we” that can be further questioned. This is where the inquiry into self can become circular, a snake eating its own tail, looping infinitely further into itself. (And there’s that word “self” again!).

    At the same time that I recognize and respect this side of the discussion, I also think it’s important to realize that we are talking about practical ethics, about how to live our lives and be happier and more at peace with each other — so, when the metaphysical whirlpool of infinite reflection beckons, I suggest we resist. As Finn correctly says, the real question here has to do with the relationship between individual good and common good, and I think there’s a lot of important ground to cover here.

    I am very encouraged that this post has generated comments, gotten a few “shares” and a lot of traffic, and therefore must have struck a chord with others besides myself (there’s that word “self” again!). I definitely plan to write more along these lines, and look forward to more conversation on this topic.

  10. Hive-mind is great if you
    Hive-mind is great if you want to build a hive, or an ant-hill of gray, lumpy termite mound. Not so great for the human structures that any of us are in now.

    Groupthink ( is actually something bad. Perhaps you meant a different word, but groupthink was coined to identify the operating procedure which resulted in several disasters such as Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs.

    It has also been shown to be the cause of several airline accidents in which no one took “ownership” of flying the plain. In one that I recall, the flight crew were all assisting each other in changing a lightbulb in the instrument panel while the plane descended and flew into the side of a mountain. The conversation was recovered from the flight data recorder.

    A newer term of a similar concept is “groupness”.

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