Countryman on modern individualism

One of the main reasons we can’t simply apply the “Biblical” sexual ethic (or ethics!) to our contemporary world, argues Countryman in Dirt, Greed & Sex (see the previous post), is that we have gone from a family-centered society to an individual-centered one. The property ethic that governed sexual relations in the ancient world existed to uphold the importance of the patriarchal family; given that this state of affairs no longer exists (at least in much of the world), we can’t assume the applicability of that ethic to our world.

A refreshing thing about Countryman is that he’s willing to look at both the pros and cons of modern Western individualism, instead of embracing it or rejecting it wholesale. Here’s a representative passage:

The individualization of modern American society is a social fact, an aspect of the environment in which we make ethical decisions, not an ethical principle itself. As such, it is neither good nor bad. It represents some losses as against earlier, family-structured eras and also some gains. If the human being now lacks the kind of inevitable links with a social continuum that the earlier society afforded, that loss must be balanced against the fact that individualization has gone hand in hand with–and is probably the condition for–what progress this century has made toward genuine equality of races, nationalities, and the sexes. The ability of modern people to choose for themselves with regard to education, work, living place, life-partner, religion, or politics became conceivable only as the family ceased to be the basic unit of society and was replaced by the individual. (p. 231)

And yet, we need to distinguish between relatively benign and more objectionable forms of ethical individualism:

Individuality can become an ethical principle in two ways. Philosophically speaking, it may become so by a recognition that my individuality is intelligible only as an expression of the principle which renders every other human being an individual, too. This principle was already being expressed in late antiquity in the Golden Rule; respect for my individuality implies respect for that of others. As such, it enters into Christian ethics, but it is by no means the crowning element in them. It could not, for example, have generated the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross or the witness of the martyrs, which require the further principles of love, faith, and hope for their understanding. On the other hand, individuality can also become an ethical principle in the form of individualism–an idolatry of the self, which treats the self as its own source and end. Such individualism has been a pervasive ethical influence in the modern West, enshrined in certain forms of capitalist ideology as the image of the “self-made” person–that is, the person who has chosen to forget the role others played in his fashioning and rise and who regards with interest only those people and things that contribute to his own aggrandizement. This individualism, like any other idolatry is utterly inconsistent with the gospel. (p. 231)

It’s common to hear denunciations of “individualism” from theological quarters, but some critics aren’t as careful as Countryman in making these distinctions. The individualism that has been the precondition of much social progress is different than the idolatry of the self that Countryman (rightly, I should think) says is incompatible with the gospel. This new individualistic context will play a significant role in assessing the sexual property ethic and its relevance for our time.

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