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  • Against Individualism, For Relationalism:Toward an Ideal of Human Becoming Committed to Relational Justice
  • Peter D. Hershock (bio)

Henry Rosemont's Against Individualism is a critical meditation on the need to rethink the nature of human becoming in the pursuit of social justice as "the essence of a flourishing human culture" (Rosemont 2015, p. 7). It analytically disputes the modern ideology of the independent, rationally self-interested, rights-bearing individual and presents an alternative: a contemporary Confucian ideal of the interdependent, responsibility-focused, role-bearing person.

The guiding premise of Against Individualism is that the great challenges of the twenty-first century—climate change and persistent hunger in a world of excess food production among them—cannot be resolved within the "confines of a capitalist economic system" (Rosemont 2015, p. x). Its conclusion is twofold: descriptively, the individual self is a fiction; prescriptively, individualism is a hindrance rather than a help in securing greater social justice. Rosemont's own prescriptive alternative to individualism grows out of a [End Page 29] relational conception of personhood and a roles-based ethics rooted in the tenor and textures of daily social life: an ethics in which social justice is seen as an exemplary outgrowth or extension of familial roles rather than as a product of abstract reasoning about human rights and responsibilities.

Rosemont is a realist when it comes to family dynamics and is remarkably open-minded about the need to extend the horizons of what counts as familial. Although his arguments are rooted in the traditional Confucianism of the Analects, the conception of family by means of which he fleshes out Confucian relationality is thoroughly contemporary. Welcoming pluralism in the form of family relations, Rosemont insists only that family be understood as an institution that is enacted across generations. Family implies lineage. But lineage here has nothing necessarily to do with genetic transmission. It consists, instead, in role-defined patterns of relational continuity and is more crucially social and emotional than biological.

Rosemont is avowedly idealist when it comes to the prospects of institutionally embodying a relational conception of personhood—an idealism I regard as necessary. But he is equally idealistic regarding the process of enacting a roles-based ethics, and this idealism is in need, I think, of being tempered with keen-eyed realism about the structuring of social dynamics today. If Rosemont is correct in arguing that we learn roles in the way we learned our native language—by immersion in relations with others who exemplified the use of that language as a medium for expressively elaborating shared experience—then I would argue that enacting role ethics now and in the near future is going to require substantial readiness to engage in what Chan master Linji (d. 866) described as "facing the world, going crosswise."

In what follows, I want first briefly to characterize the technologically driven emergence of structural conditions that have the potential to dramatically reshape the relational dynamics of the human experience in ways that have significant implications for the work of achieving social justice. Following this, and building on Rosemont's relational account of personhood, a case will be made for taking into critical account the ironic consequences—especially in these emerging structural conditions—of conceptions of justice wedded to the primacy of the individual human being. Finally, Buddhist resources will be used to extend Rosemont's relational conception of justice, drawing out its implications for socially just pursuits of both freedom and equity.

The Contemporary Liability of Individualism

The great achievement of modernity has been our liberation, as individual human beings, from the tyranny of traditionally ascribed identities. This has meant a transformative expansion of freedoms-from premodern conceptions of gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as freedoms-to enter the educational, [End Page 30] economic, and political spheres as full participants. Yet, emancipation from the premodern constraints of the birth family, traditional customs, and inherited community has been inseparable from society's disciplinary crafting of the kinds of citizens, workers, and consumers needed to further the modern agendas of nation-building, industrialization, and marketization. That is, the progressive extension of our individual reach in society or who we can choose to be has been...


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pp. 29-39
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