Is the "Right to Exit" sufficient to protect individuals from the abuses of groups?

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The "right of exit" that Kwame Anthony Appiah mentions in The Ethics of Individualism is the escape valve for any abuse identified as being caused by a group. It is a "workhorse" because it is trotted out frequently as the primary protection individuals have against abusive groups in moral schemes where groups are given wide privileges over their members. If the group asks you to do something you not comfortable with, all you have to do is exit the group and its mandates morally no longer apply to you. Appiah further identified the practical difficulties with exercising this right, since we all depend on society to some degree or other, so exit is not always easy or even possible.

The "right of exit" workhorse is only necessary if you're trying to reconcile the rights of groups with the rights of individuals. But to me that's like trying to compare apples and oranges. A group is not an entity directly comparable to an individual. A group is an entirely different class of moral object from an individual. Groups have a lot of characteristics, and one characteristic of groups as an entity is that their characteristics are always hard to define, hard to pin down. If you want to define an ethics that is applicable with clarity, then it is best to work with clearly defined entities. The individual is such a clear and unambiguous entity. "The group" is a really fuzzy entity.

Whether the group is punk rock fans, or metalheads, or rappers, or other culturally defined affiliation groups upon which people in our society can build their identity, or whether it is something more ancestral, an identity built around an ancient religion or regional practices that have substantially greater weight of tradition behind them, it is always hard to find the boundaries, or even the core, of what makes that group distinctive. And the dilemma of the individual who must reconcile conflicting demands resulting from simultaneous membership in different groups is the basis of much great literature. In ancient Roman the conflict between the demands of family loyalty and those of citizenship that was a frequent source of moral commentary. In 17th-century Japan such a conflict with manifested between the demands of the code of the samurai and the new civil authority of the Emperor, as reflected in the 47 Ronin incident. And plenty of teenagers experiences in high school when friends in one clique make demands on your loyalty that conflict with those of friends in a different clique.

So it is almost the very nature of group identities that, one, individuals possess multiple identities, and two, that these identities will at some point conflict with each other. Thus groups will never have exclusive possession of any one individual. They might claim it, but they don't actually have it. And if groups can't speak exclusively and totally on behalf of all their members, to me that indicates again that groups are a different order of moral entities. That is why I can't conceive of an ethics that places the rights of groups (whichever group that ethics chooses to privilege) on the same level as the rights of individuals.

If we recognize groups and group identity as a secondary characteristic of human beings, and don't create moral rights based on obligations to groups as an entity (obligations to other individuals, who may form groups, may certainly be recognized, but not to the group as such) then the "right of exit" as such is actually unnecessary. The practical right to exit would instead be derived from other basic human rights that apply to all individuals.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel Hindes published on February 18, 2008 8:25 PM.

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Should individuals be required to sacrifice for the greater good? is the next entry in this blog.

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