07 August 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Team vs Individualism

Short essay

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Team vs Individualism.

A discussion on teams and individualism is always a challenging debate.
And in an economic and confidence crisis we happen to be in at the
moment the situation might even be more pressing; should we go it alone
and try to survive or should we all team up to clean up the mess?

But the question is not only easier said than done, but more complex
than we can imagine, as I try to show in my very short essay.

Take care see you Sunday



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Team vs individualism

In an analysis of team work and individual enterprise we are faced with
a dichotomy of the following nature: although there are only individuals
in the world, people like you and me, most of our survival needs are
totally dependent on team work. Another term for team work would be
society although these two terms are neither synonyms nor the same system.

Like many issues in philosophy the problem we are considering involved a
language factor. In our debate I feel that language problem comes down
to the meaning of survival. We might easily interpret survival to mean
something like living on our wits when we don't have access to goods and
services generally available in our society. We might call this the
Robinson Croeso survival meaning.

One of the meanings of survival in thefreedictionary.com/survival is:
The act or process of surviving. Although the Robinson Croeso meaning of
survival is an extreme case, it is not, in my opinion, a representative
meaning of what we normally mean by survival, especially in philosophy.
So what ought we to mean by survival in a philosophical context?

To begin with there is the biological process of survival. Not only do
we need such things as food to survive as biological systems but also,
medical attention, shelter (i.e. housing), clothes, and personal safety
and security. Without a steady supply of these elements during our life
time we wouldn't make much progress as a biological entity. But all
these activities today, and maybe from day one, are the product of team
work. And it is thanks to this team endeavour that today we expect to
survive biologically into our eighties if not nineties. The fact that I
can write these few lines and you can read them later is one hundred
percent the effort of team work.

The meaning of survival is therefore more complex than the Robinson
Croeso meaning. In a way we are the product of team work right from the
start whether we have natural parents or the result of a technological

We can safely assume that whatever we achieve as individuals we do so
with a great deal of support from others; irrespective if that support
was provided directly or indirectly.

However, this might give the impression that the individual is
insignificant or irrelevant. The issue is not whether the individual is
relevant or not, but rather what is the role of the individual in all this?

So far I have argued that the individual needs a team effort to survive
thus giving the impression that there is only a one way process. Of
course, as individuals we also have to contribute to some team effort.
And many, if not most people do contribute to some team effort, so it is
not simply a one way process.

But before looking into the role of the individual in the context of
team effort and a world where teams or societies dominate, there is also
the question of the role of teams.

We can also interpret this question as whether teams are there to
benefit individuals or the team?

There is a difference between a team benefitting individuals and an
individual. For example, a free health service would be a team to
benefit individuals, but, say, a business whose only objective is to
enrich its owner would be a team that benefits an individual. The
ethical issue is whether in the process on enrich him or her self the
business owner also offers fair and reasonable conditions for the

It is, however, more common for a small group of people to exploit a
larger number of people, political dictators are very good at this
strategy. Although teams are necessary institutions, some of them might
not benefit many individuals and some are a real threat to individuals.

Finally, what is the role of the individual? At the simple level the
role of the individual is precisely to be that, an individual. But this
is easier said than done. Many political or social groups openly
discourage individualism. Whilst at the same time it is self evident
that what individualism means. Individualism cannot be to do what we
like irrespective of the consequences to others. This will not do. It
cannot mean excluding ourselves from people who share our interests and
convictions. To deny associating with like minded people would be to
deny the fact that people already associate with like minded people and
have done since there have been living cells.

Maybe the meaning of what is an individual is not to be had by a
semantic analysis but by looking at the way the world is.

One necessary condition for individualism is opportunity.

Without opportunities we are nothing. Now, whether we should strive to
create our opportunities or have them given to us is of course a rather
side issue. Nor is it that relevant in discussing the question of
meaning of individualism whether we ought to take advantage of any
opportunities presented to us. But once we settle the issue of meaning
of individuals these issues do become somewhat relevant.

One of those opportunities that really matters for an individual is to
develop one's talents. But this is not easy, consider this article from
the Law.com on a report published recently in the UK on social mobility:
The report, compiled by a panel chaired by former cabinet minister Alan
Milburn, calls on occupations such as lawyers and doctors to widen
access to their professions after becoming increasingly more exclusive
in recent decades. (U.K. Government Report Labels Legal Profession as
'Socially Exclusive', by Jeremy Hodges, July 22, 2009:
One reason for this exclusivity is that companies or institutions do not
pay trainees to work in their chosen profession thus that either have to
borrow a lot of money or be financed by the family.

The Law.com article is very disquieting, but that's maybe because we, as
individuals, recognize the unfairness and injustice of this state of
affairs. But there is nothing more disquieting than those societies that
forcefully disapprove of any individual expression.

Ironically, in my opinion, a debate on team vs individualism, the key
fact is that it is individuals that make up the team. To imagine that
somehow a team inherits some sort of property that is not present in the
individual is to make a categorical mistake, in the same way that the
mind is not something different from the body. And of course, the reason
why some teams work well is because individuals cooperate with each
other; nothing more magical than that.

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Team vs Individualism

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