Bioethics Forum Essay
Rugged American Individualism is a Myth, and It’s Killing Us
The starkest picture of rugged American individualism is one we learned in school. A family moves West to settle the land and struggles with the elements. Yet, even in these depictions, settlers needed help to raise a barn or harvest crops. They drew on the help of others and reciprocated in return. In the 21st century few Americans live in any way close to this largely self-sustaining lifestyle. Yet, the myth of rugged individualism is strong and persistent.
The reality for all of us is that none survive or flourish without the help of others. Whether it is within a family, peer group, school, religious institution, or wider community, all of us have been helped by others. Someone somewhere encouraged us, gave us a break or an opportunity, however small. Some have experienced random acts of kindness from strangers. The myth of rugged individualism, which often means “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” is outdated, was never completely accurate, and is harming us.
Holding tightly to this myth leads to the misperception that an individual can do (or not do) whatever they want in society and no person or, perhaps especially, government entity can tell them otherwise. People say, “As long as my choice doesn’t harm anyone else, I should be able to do what I want.” How they know their action does not harm anyone else is unclear and there are examples from the pandemic where personal choice does harm others. In bioethics we recognize this view as an expression of individual autonomy; the freedom to govern oneself. Yet, such blinkered views of individual autonomy are misguided and inaccurate. Everyone’s autonomy is limited in society to avoid harm to the self or others. We enforce seatbelt and drunk driving laws to these ends. Moreover, that we rely on others to function in society has been made very clear during the pandemic. We need others to provide food and education, collect our garbage, and conduct the scientific research that informs our knowledge of the virus. These contributions support the common good.
We have seen rugged individualism on full display during the coronavirus pandemic. It can lead to a disregard for the worth and value of others. While many people observed public health restrictions and guidelines, others, including some elected officials, refused to wear masks and are now refusing vaccination. Those who cling to their individualism seem to view such restrictions as unnecessary or unacceptable, an infringement on their individual rights and freedoms. They are not willing to sacrifice a degree of their freedom to protect themselves or others. The result has been 33,264,650 cases and 594,568 deaths in the United States and counting.
Where have we gone wrong as a society? Where have we failed to help all members of our society understand and appreciate what it means to be good members of society? Of course, a bioethicist who talks about “good” persons inevitably draws on the virtues. Being a good member of society can also draw on religious and humanistic values. Aristotle’s cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, courage/fortitude, and temperance. It is hard to argue that our society would be worse off emphasizing these rather than rugged individualism.
Perhaps one place to begin is with critical dialogue about the myth of American individualism, highlighting where people needed, received, and gave help to others. Such dialogue could take place through public deliberation, focus groups, and in our education system at all levels. Personal stories and narratives are powerful and can draw out our common humanity. We can use social media to start a “View the Virtues” campaign where people post about someone exhibiting a virtue or nominate others when they are kind or courageous or just. We should consider developing stronger elements of service to others as part of our education system and career advancement.
We should educate people more robustly that rights and freedoms are not free. Not only did many people fight for our democratic freedoms, but they have always come with correlative responsibilities and obligations. If I have a right someone has the responsibility to uphold and protect it. Simply claiming something is a right or an entitlement does not make it true and too often it is shorthand for an individual’s demands.
The pandemic is an opportunity to reflect critically on our society while recognizing that our freedoms have been curtailed to protect others and ourselves from this nefarious virus. Viruses are smart. The coronavirus will continue to alter to survive. It’s time to place less emphasis on the myth of rugged American individualism, which so easily turns to self-centeredness. To flourish as individuals and a society we must dispel the myth of rugged individualism and acknowledge frankly that we have not survived and cannot survive without one another.
Katherine Wasson, PhD, MPH, HEC-C (@kwasson2), is an associate professor in the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at Loyola University Chicago.