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Why Selfishness Is Not a Virtue

June 29, 2012, 1:59 PM

What's the Latest Development?

In sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, figures get in the way of assessing the value of important cultural mores, explains Benjamin Schwartz. Based on data explaining that people living alone make up 28% of US households, a historical record which makes the loner more numerous than the nuclear family, Klineberg says: "living alone is an individual choice that’s as valid as the choice to get married or live with a domestic partner. ...it’s a collective achievement—which is why it’s common in developed nations but not in poor ones.”

What's the Big Idea?

Facts and figures seem to rule our social lives: Quarterly earnings reports and monthly unemployment figures determine our assessment of our culture's worth. This misstep, which glosses over non-quantifiable values, is what allows individualism to be mistaken as a virtue. In reality, says Schwartz: "The values of expressive individualism guarantee that the values of future generations will be more or less up for grabs for the simple reason that expressive individualists have a difficult time replicating (the demographic data don’t lie) and an even more difficult time socializing a child."

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