Why Groups Don’t Exist

by Dominic Blackwell

The title of this post and its content constitute one of the trickiest things I’ve tried to put into words. It is something I’ve always at the gut level believed but have struggled to express. As far as I can see it is pretty much the opposite of conventional wisdom. And yet I personally believe that is both very important and true.

It touches on two of the great questions of life: what is good? and what is true? (it doesn’t really the third big question, what is beautiful? unless you really stretch a point). But when I talk about these questions, I mean the genuine, urgent versions of these questions asked and answered by the actions of real people living in the real world, not the abstract, sterile debates beloved of academic philosophy.

To illustrate what I am talking about, when Margaret Thatcher died, there was a lot of discussion about her claim that “there is no such thing as society”. This statement became infamous. I remember my A level politics used to tell us “That was a damn silly thing to say, even for her”. Many on the left despise this notion, seeing it as a license for selfishness. David Cameron felt compelled to say that there was such a thing as society but it was not the same thing as the state when he used idea of the Big Society to rebrand the Conservative party. But despite all these objections, I think the statement is essentially true.

Does this mean I am some libertarian monster, a paid-up member of the cult of laissez-faire fundamentalism, worshipping at the temple of greed? Not at all. Denying the existence of societies, groups and communities takes away none of the good in the world. And it removes a lot of confusion and prejudice as a side effect.

Take the opposite of selfishness, altruism. Altruism is when an individual person chooses of their own free will to do something good for someone else. Not when they forced to. Not when they are legally compelled to. Not when they are guilt-tripped by others. True altruism only exists when an individual sees the good in helping someone else and does it.

A good way of seeing why groups don’t really exist is to look at case of the hacking collective Anonymous. Journalists and other commentators have tied themselves in knots trying to work out their ideology. Are they homophobic or on the side of gay rights? Are they anarchists? Are they opponents of globalisation? Are they libertarians? The more insightful commentators have realised that actually, they are all and none of these things. They are individuals who declare themselves to be part of the ‘organisation’, who have carried out a range of illegal activities motivated by a huge range of personal and ideological beliefs. I think this is actually a particularly clear exampls of the group fallacy at work.

And the fallacy certainly rears its ludicrous head when communities come into it. The working class white community. The Muslim community. The gay community. Let’s denote a random community as x, because none of them really exist and journalists make up new ones all the time. Journalists love to pretend these things exist because they can write about splits within the x community, debate within the x community and the reaction of the x community. Then, when they want someone to interview they name someone as a leader in the x community and use their comments as ‘what the x community thinks’. But these so-called communities are actually lots of individual human beings, with different experiences of life, different and changing opinions and different fundamental beliefs. And pretending that they are part of a community dehumanises these people, while not helping other people understand anything meaningful about them.

OK then, if all of this is true then why do people think groups exist? Groups can be legally defined. Economists study ‘economies’ and talk about the effect of this or that policy on this or that social group. Sociology as a field is predicated on something I don’t believe exists. How does that work?

When it comes to academic study, I am highly sceptical about the use of formal methods to study people. The study of economies and societies is not the same thing as the study of atoms or cells. Even if a researcher’s methods are impeccable, their use of statistics flawless and their deployment of logical argument unimpeachable the scientific study of people doesn’t in general fly. And the reason is very simple. People don’t follow universal laws.

Now if you are honest about the fact you are using a shorthand, there is no problem using the idea of a group when doing academic study. A common useful example, ‘the economy’ is just an aggregation of the economic activity of large numbers of individuals. ‘Social groups’ are just subsets of aggregated data which ultimately comes from the collection of facts about the lives of real individual people. And back in the real world there can be practical merit in temporarily pretending that groups exist. I am not proposing that supermarkets enter into an individual negotiation on the price of every individual item in their basket with every individual shopper.

But societies, communities, groups and so on are at best useful fictions. The law recognises this. Although there are exceptions, such as for children, for the mentally ill and those acting under duress, the fundamental idea underpinning any meaningful legal system is that individuals are responsible for their own actions. ‘Society did it’ is not a valid defence when you are accused of a crime, and you can’t sue or prosecute society for any of its alleged failings.

But this post isn’t really about politics or abstract philosophy. It is about the challenge of living real life.

It is about morality because only an individual can make moral choices.

It is about love, because only individuals can love each other.

It is about goodness and truth, because only when we see the truth that other people are individuals too can we truly connect with them and behave towards them in a good way.

So, there is no such thing as society. There are no communities and groups. There are just individual human beings who struggle and suffer and yet continue to hope and keep putting effort into improving their lives. There are just people who make hard moral choices with imperfect information and then live with the consequences. So groups don’t exist. But human beings do. And I prefer to share the world with real, honest, flesh-and blood human beings than with faceless, abstract and ultimately illusory groups.

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