Self-reliance is a word reflecting a virtue emphasized as a key quality to aspire to for conservatives.  Yet this emphasis is critiqued as overly individualistic by liberals.Underlying this disagreement are different notions about the factors that determine an individual’s success in our society. Those who emphasize self-reliance would argue that a self-reliant individual can find success and fulfillment regardless of their circumstances. Those who critique this emphasis weigh societal determinants of success more heavily. They would argue that self-reliance is not always enough to overcome barriers associated with race, socioeconomic status, and one’s general starting position in life.

Another way of approaching this disagreement is the degree to which different sides think the focus on self-reliance is empowering to individuals. A conservative might acknowledge that societal factors are very important to an individual’s success but argue that focusing too much on those factors allows individuals to make excuses for themselves, and therefore, those individuals will not be as likely to strive to overcome the barriers they face. To conservatives, a focus on self-reliance is empowering. Liberals, however, are more likely to argue that ignoring social determinants of success leads individuals to blame themselves for failures that were actually dictated by status, race, etc.; and this is ultimately disempowering to the individual.

Yet another critique of this term is that no one is a ‘self’ alone.  We are all, as Rene Girard said, interdividuals.  We are always responses to our social environments from the womb forward.  We can get nothing done in society by ourselves.  Drawing on science (quantum physics) and anthropology (“it takes a village to raise a child”) some people argue that interconnection and interdependence are the more natural state than notions of self-contained bubbles and individual autonomy; the “shrinking” of the globe through technology and the movement of people are also seen as heightening this reality.  

Still others see a kind of irreducible mystery here, namely, that we are both largely autonomous individuals and largely interdependent:  i.e. we are “individuals-in-community”.  Self-reliance, in this case, is seen as one of many important values (cooperation being another) which promotes healthy individuals and healthy communities.


-Do you see self-reliance as an overall good thing to emphasize - or an overall negative thing?

-Can self-reliance be emphasized alongside interdependency - or does it contradict these interconnections?  

-How can people talk about personal initiative without insinuating people are independent and not reliant on anything or anyone else?



Charlie Wisoff, Mary Jacksteit, Jacob Hess

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