One of the core ideas of the West is that the proper unit of consciousness is the individual, but people have forgotten what this even means, let alone how to defend it. This is an essay primarily about why this deeply-ingrained concept is a historically novel idea. The counterpoint, which feels foreign even to formulate, is the idea that human beings are built to be part of something larger than themselves, and insofar as they agree to such a compact to live as a part of a whole they deserve to be treated as such.
A Bit of Perspective
As time goes on, the proper unit of consciousness shrinks. In the beginning, people lived Hobbesian lives filled with drudgery and nothing could be accomplished by an individual. Work was done collectively by the tribe, the civilization, at very least the entire family unit. Identity was shared collectively by family or class or race. Things went slow and people died fast, so to consider human beings as proper individuals was properly preposterous. I think this is a genuinely important perspective that partially answers questions like “why was slavery OK back then but not OK now?” and “why was capital punishment more common and accepted back then?” with answers that are not simple-minded moral relativism.
The construction of the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy began in 1290 and lasted until 1607. Although the time frame was long, it was not unheard of. Notre Dame in Paris took nearly two hundred years to finish. Meanwhile, a European born in the 1200 might expect to live to 40, at best. That means that someone planned the Orvieto Cathedral, then people worked on it for 300 years, and finally ten generations later those plans came to fruition. Meanwhile, even the largest and worst-planned architectural nightmares today take maybe a decade or two to finish, something like a fifth of a human lifespan. We live to see our work completed, and are still young enough to enjoy its fruits.
In 1200, you don’t live to see your cathedral completed, and yet you start working on it anyway. In what sense are you a unit of consciousness? The community lives to see its work completed. The community lives long enough to enjoy the fruits of its labor. Is it not more reasonable then to compare a human engineer today with a whole community of people in 1200?
The essential difference between a human being today and a human being in 1200 is the massive difference in effective lifespan. That we live more than twice as long only scratches the surface of this gap. The invention of comfortable electric lighting doubles the amount of time we can be productively awake. Improvements in health and medicine mean most of that time is not spent in a permanent invalid state of half-life. There is a sense in which wider access to literature and media allow us to live entire gut-wrenching virtual lives in the span of hours. Most importantly, massive technological advances have probably increased the average available leisure time of the homo sapiens by at least an order of magnitude. These same technological advances have multiplied the effective power of individuals a thousandfold, whenever they deign to get out of bed to do something. Of course, it’s quite a big problem that most people have absolutely no idea what to do with this amount of leisure, a symptom of the biological incompatibility of the human being with individual personhood. Nevertheless, among the rare leaders with a combination of personality traits and luck we see what the rest of us could be: a single human being who can do the work required of an entire civilization a few centuries ago.
In Orwell’s A Road to Wigan Pier, he describes the harsh reality of life in the coal mines of industrial England, at least for all but the upper class. Every day, a coal miner’s commute consists of scurrying hunched over in dark, waist-height tunnels for several miles just to get to their posts. The work consisted of an entire day of back-breaking shoveling on their knees, because again there isn’t enough space to stand in those tunnels. The whole time they were covered from head to toe in a thick layer of coal ash that probably contributed to their untimely deaths. The staunchest libertarian today would be singing Lenin’s praises if they lived in Orwell’s England.
So this is the frame of mind: that at one point in time human beings functioned like organs or cogs – and usually willingly to the extent that organs and cogs can be willing – in families or clans or tribes or social classes, and that a great disintegration or break in history occurred when it was finally noticed that human beings had reached a point in our development where a single individual could have by herself all the rights, knowledge, and power of a collective and should therefore be immediately weaned off that overbearing teat. It is closely related to the centuries-old struggle between collectivism and individualism but supersedes, or at least clarifies, it. To flesh out this idea we tackle it from a number of open-ended directions in no particular order.
The culture clash I am privy to is the one between the Chinese way of thought and the American. The primary unit of consciousness, I would say, in the traditional Chinese way of thought is the family.
The family has a head and functions as a unit. Children are usually expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps or plans, and usually do. Men and women have fixed roles in the household that are usually followed and celebrated by all parties. The Chinese character 娶 for “marriage” combines the characters 女 for “woman” and 取 for “take”- even the sight of this character still bothers me.
Parents have the right to derive pride from the success of their children, and humble-brag of their achievements as if they were their own. In turn, Chinese children can expect much more to be done for them throughout life – everything from tuition to houses and cars to be bought for them, and to shamelessly be waited on hand and foot by their parents as long as they are healthy enough to do so. Decisions from spouses to purchases to career paths are made communally in traditional families. The family can have loves and needs and personality traits that do not derive from any individual within.
To ask a traditional Chinese family what necessitates all these duties and traditions is akin to asking someone what necessitates the tendons and ligaments that connect his bones – why not let your arms and legs walk away of their own accord? If people live together, and share everything, and depend completely on each other, are they not the same being? If the halves of your brain wanted a divorce via corpus callosotomy because the left brain was too anal-retentive, and the right brain too artsy-fartsy, would you allow it?
I am reminded of an article from the Atlantic, about a slave Lola that an immigrant family brought with them in secret from the Philippines and kept with them all her life. It was impossible for the younger generation, brought up with Western values, to forgive their parents for keeping Lola, and simultaneously to understand her when she decided past all obligations to continue to serve, and that she would grow physically ill when she was forced away from her self-imposed drudgery.
Slavery was the default at one point in time – the word itself derives from an entire ethnic group that was summarily enslaved – and however many unwilling victims there were surely the case of Lola is unlikely to be pathological.
I have always felt that if one believes in human rights, above them all must first be the right to waive your rights. That is to say if you have the right to live then you must have the right to suicide, if you have the right to speak you must have the right to be silent, if you have the right to publicly protest atrocity you must also have the right to silently condone it. And perhaps in the very beginning one must have the right to waive one’s personhood entirely, if one wishes as is commonly the case to less an individual and more a part of something greater than oneself. It is akin to the Chinese idea of 出家, cutting all ties to one’s family to live an ascetic life as a Buddhist or Taoist monk.
All around the world and all throughout time there are people who choose to identify primarily not as individuals but as part of a whole, as slave to a family or master or religion or ideology, and this seems to me to be an exercise in the right to waive your rights. And what is to be done about such people? If someone asked you respectfully to treat them without basic human decency would that be required of you, out of basic human decency?
What is a human being? A modern sophisticate might say that a human being is a certain pattern of neural activity, and that the brain is merely the substrate for the software. But we also know that human beings are capable of empathy and their brains have specially designed mirror neurons to model the behaviors and internal cognition of others.
A man is giving a speech to a crowd of a thousand. Every brain in that crowd has a little piece running a simulation of the man. If the person is the pattern of neural activity, and there is more of that pattern of neural activity being simulated among the crowd of thousands than within the body of the “original” – what is the man? Does he still reside in “his” body? Or is he now a disembodied spirit that possesses a bit of each person in that auditorium?
I hope these are not merely word games. It has been a long and difficult journey for the West, after many false starts and mistimed revolutions, to settle on the idea that the individual human being is the proper locus of consciousness. That when even a single individual’s freedom is sacrificed for the rights of the family or the state or the collective, something sacred is irrevocably lost. But the fight is not over, and it is certainly no rout: there are plenty of other models of consciousness that have held sway over people over thousands of years and require more than an up-turned nose to properly refute.