My fridge is an inanimate object. It doesn’t desire anything. It doesn’t have any preferences or interests. It is entirely non-sentient. If I slowly and sadistically hammered a nine-inch nail right through the side of my fridge, or even nailed it to a cross, it wouldn’t matter morally at all. It wouldn’t feel a thing.
Mind you, if you hammered a nail into my fridge, it would matter morally, because it’s my fridge, and I don’t want you to do that. I’d prefer it if you didn’t do that, and it would harm me if you did. But the harm would be done to me as a sentient individual rather than to the fridge which feels nothing, cares for nothing, and deserves nothing.
See the difference? On the one side, something that isn’t sentient and doesn’t deserve moral respect. On the other side, something that is sentient and so does deserve moral respect.
What about my society or my community? – Groupings of individuals are composed of individuals who are sentient and so do deserve moral respect, but the groupings themselves are as non-sentient as my fridge. Like a triangular arrangement of non-triangular dots (∴), the parts have a property that the whole doesn’t have. The mistake of assuming the whole has a property that the parts have is called the “fallacy of composition”. (The converse error of assuming the parts have a property of the whole is called the “fallacy of division”.) The important thing to see is that it is a mistake.
‘Individualist’ is an obvious word for someone who thinks sentient individuals deserve moral respect but thinks inanimate, non-sentient objects like fridges or society do not deserve moral respect. Please note that an individualist so understood would not normally be someone who “lacks compassion”. Why not? – Such an individualist would normally think that since individuals count, individuals have responsibilities to look after each other and to respect each other’s interests. “People matter” – in fact only individual people matter. This sort of individualist wouldn’t normally have compassion for inanimate, non-sentient objects such as fridges or society, because why should they?
But evidently, the word ‘individualist’ is also used in a pejorative sense to mean someone who “lacks compassion” like that. Presumably, this second sort of individualist thinks society should be run along the lines of “every man for himself”, with each individual protecting his or her own interests and not caring about other individuals. Philosophers often distinguish between the two sorts of individualism by labeling the first “liberalism” and the second “rugged individualism”. I hope you can see why traditionally, liberalism was associated with the left wing of politics rather than the right wing, and why the word ‘liberal’ is sometimes used in a sloppy way to mean “left wing”.
When Margaret Thatcher’s critics berate her for “not caring about society”, what do they mean? – Usually they mean that she didn’t do enough to protect the interests of weak individuals from the selfish greed of strong individuals. That strikes me as a perfectly legitimate criticism.
But some of her critics seem to mean that she was wrong to care about individual people instead of caring about an inanimate, non-sentient object called “society”. It strikes me as inhumane to care about non-sentient “collectives” of people such as nations or races instead of sentient individual people. That way lies fascistic nonsense about “destiny” and collective culpability. So I think this second sort of criticism is illegitimate and conceptually confused.
I don’t expect non-specialists to be familiar with technical philosophical terms, but I do hope that people of average intelligence can grasp the difference just discussed, and not get carried away by a rather everyday sort of ambiguity. (Such seems to have been the fate of current Irish president Michael D Higgins.)
In the hope of bringing a little bit more “harmony” where there was “discord”, let’s use language clearly!