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Individualism and Collectivism

Szasz is an individualist. This is his opinion about himself. His work also reflects it. Above (2.2) we saw that the concept of collective freedom is only meaningful when it functions as a foundation for individual freedom. The concept of autonomy only makes sense when applied to the development of the individual. It implies among other things that it is the duty of the individual to struggle to free himself from social frameworks and forces that seek to control him and restrict his freedom. Individual freedom as a core value implies individualism.

From a social-philosophical point of view Szasz sees the individual as a nucleus, the unit around which all of society revolves. He considers personal autonomy, historically, a relatively recent development in human existence. This development was made possible and advanced by a number of factors: the advancement of technology in the realm of food production and industry; the advancement of medicine; and the opportunities for education. The massive attainability of a certain measure of personal autonomy – that, for example, in the eighteenth century was achievable for only a happy few, the wealthy, who could have others care for their needs – has posed new and large problems. Life in fixed role patterns, following a group identity, is much simpler than having to constantly negotiate compromises and having to live with a large measure of pluralism and interpersonal diversity. Perhaps that is why in our modern society both socialization and desocialization processes occur.

On the one hand having more and more specialized skills makes man increasingly independent in the realm of his own specialty. This underscores his individuality so strongly that it can even lead to his alienation. On the other hand, the increasing specialization increases his dependence on others. According to Szasz, society curbs too much autonomy, for instance as expressed by sexual morality. Whoever travels the lone road more often than others will soon be considered deviant and pathological. However, it is “Moral Man’s” duty to reflect skeptically on the value of all moral rules and principles, not to accept them uncritically. Here Szasz quotes Reichenbach, “The power of reason must be sought … in the ability to free ourselves from any kind of rules to which we have been conditioned through experience and tradition.”

Szasz’s emphasis on individualism causes him constant preoccupation with the question: for whom are psychiatry and psychotherapy designated (or ought they be) and at whom are they (or ought they be) aimed? To Szasz, psychiatry as a helping profession, like medicine in general, should be molded in the ethical context of voluntariness and should benefit the person seeking help. Szasz considers it the obligation of psychiatry to refuse to participate in pressuring an individual into allowing himself to be treated when he does not want to be. Where there is a conflict of interest between the person asking for help and the group (family, employer, society), the psychiatrist is duty-bound to let the interests of his client prevail.

As to his social-economic and social-political ideas, Szasz can be characterized as an individualist as well, as we shall see in the following section.
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