Elijah Cutler Behunin Cabin a Frontier Settler Cabin in Capitol Reef National Park listed on the National Register of Historic Places

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 The myth of rugged individualism, which often means “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” is outdated, was never completely accurate, and is harming us.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.

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  1. The picture Ms. Wasson paints of “rugged individualism” is not the picture that I grew up with. I am 79 years old, left home at age 13 to pay my own way through high school, married, had a family, then a career in finance. To say I did it totally alone is not true but neither is is true that thinking for myself and choosing my life path is wrong or can be assigned the title of “rugged indivualism”. I understand she is asking for trust in the institutions that provide guidance and she chooses to think that by not doing so we are endangering ourselves and others. I totally disagree that it is “rugged individualism” that causes the disagreement. I read white papers on health, on testing, on the vaccine. I am making an informed decision regarding my health. I happen to agree with the 700,00+ Frontline doctors, not based on being a rugged individual but by being a person who has a basis for my decisions that in no way contribute to the death any other person.

    1. From your account you were independent at a young age. You also acknowledge that you did not achieve all you have totally alone. We need to emphasize how and when we do help others or receive help from others, not the myth of rugged individualism as some type of ideal. This myth contributes to a misperception that we make choices in society that do not impact others and vice versa. During the pandemic individual choices did contribute to the spread of Covid-19 and continue so to do. I agree that thinking critically is different than believing in the myth of rugged individualism. Thanks.

    2. The myth of “rugged individualism” I perceive Dr. Wasson referring to is the myth that was sold to us on the tails of the “bro economy.” Everything being tailored to what is still considered to be a major economic driver in the US (men, generally those under the sphere of influence of Joe Rogan and similar) is rugged, alpha, and bent toward the individual functioning alone as a manifestation of self-actualization. It’s a marketing tool and political ploy.

      This myth sells because the implication is, “Go ahead and do what you want. Don’t be a chump by considering the impact your selfish actions will have on others because it’s your inherent right as an American.” The myth as it is sold now includes a free pass to act impulsively and excuses the lack of cognitive effort that is mandatory when behaving as a considerate, contributing member of society. It is doubtful that you would have been a functioning, independent citizen at the age of 13 had this myth been as accepted and pervasive as it is now. The evidence that priorities and work ethic were different then is evidenced in that you were willing to put forth the effort to research and critically think about your position regarding the pandemic. Few people are willing to do so in earnest short of regurgitating something posted on Facebook.

  2. Well done, and increasingly important as we face the moral crises of the Anthropocene.

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