Self-sufficiency is a mostly political idea that an individual needs little or no assistance from outside sources in order to live the life they have. What often gets added to this idea is that when an outside source (like a government agency or other people within the community) attempts to offer, prescribe, or mandate assistance, it becomes a violation of that individual’s sovereignty.
Most claims to self-sufficiency manifest obliquely—that is, not as overt, positive claims of total independence but as negative claims denying the need for external advice or help. To complicate matters, ideas about self-sufficiency tend to get mixed up in claims about individual rights.
But let’s not get distracted by the thorny issue of rights since self-sufficiency seems by and large to be underwriting the talk of rights. No help is needed, so don’t impose it or coerce me.
At first glance, this rendition of self-sufficiency is a bit odd given that no organism can be entirely self-sufficient due to how it relies on other organisms and the environment to persist.
So what is going on politically with this idea?
It seems that self-sufficiency arises as a result of a process in which an individual reaches a certain level of sustainability in their lives, usually arrived at by way of conventional means (e.g. working, learning, etc.). Such an individual would therefore draw no more from others than is necessary or unwarranted.
If this correct, then sufficiency means that the self can persist and get along as things stand; and therefore, there is little to no justification for an outside source to interfere with this mode of existential and economic equilibrium.
I can imagine a scenario where someone will eventually say when rejecting external advice or aid,
“The only people who need help are those who need help.”
However, even this account suffers from a severe philosophical blind spot, which involves the failure to see how any mode of existence can never break ties with those antecedent and ongoing relations that have in fact enabled the way of life one lives.
In short, the problem seems to be a short-term historical memory of how one was and continues to be dependent on other people and other factors outside oneself.
Pay It Back
A quick glance at three domains of our existence will help to illustrate my claim about short-term historical memory. Each one of us has personal, economic, and biological ways of being indebted. Let’s call these existential debts which can never be paid back because as the things and people on which we have relied, they make up (constitute) what we have become and who we are.
You have heard the truism before: Humans are social animals and need companionship to flourish.
Needing companionship speaks to our human fragility. The life of a human being begins with a complete dependency on the nurturing provided by our parents. Throughout our development, we rely on the help of others when we are in need—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. As we age, we rely on others to provide love, medicine, and assistance.
According to the grand sweep of life, there is very little physical, emotional, and intellectual self-sufficiency involved (unless one were a Kantian moral saint!). Inter-dependency seems a much better way of describing the conditions of human existence, conditions which can never be dissolved unless we cease to be human.
Imagine conjuring a smart phone out of thin air. Or better yet, imagine designing its necessary components and technology by yourself. Even allowing that you have all the materials to hand to do so, you’d probably have a better chance making sense of IKEA assembly instructions after they had been partially torn, burnt, and stained with red wine.
This is because the products we often take for granted are the result of years and generations of social and intellectual effort which have accumulated and been transferred from one domain of research to others.
Furthermore, intellectual know-how is not enough. If you knew precisely how a car operated and what was necessary to assemble one, who would fabricate the materials? You’d find that you would have to know about a lot of other things besides assembling the car parts in the right fashion.
Within the economic domain, the idea of self-sufficiency ignores the debt owed to the division of labor, the division of expertise and research programs, existing and emerging social and intellectual capital, and economies of scale that make the things we desire more readily available.
But perhaps the notion of Robinson Crusoe is a counter-example? Although fictious, the story of Crusoe is about an individual surviving by himself on a desert island. Self-sufficient? Maybe. Shipwrecked? Certainly.
Crusoe is living a life that I am willing to bet very few of us would tolerate. Think about trying an experiment where you live, not even like Crusoe, but as someone who is able to consume much less than the average American. If you could tolerate such an existence, you’d also find that you would be dependent on the immediate and global economy to make such things possible—e.g. access to public transportation, cities and urban spaces designed for local consumption and services, etc.
And let us not forget, Crusoe is no self-tutored hero. He was shipwrecked and relied on the knowledge he gained from being a member of human society to survive. Crusoe acknowledges at one point:
I owe to the integrity and honesty of my friend the captain; under whom also I got a competent knowledge of the mathematics and the rules of navigation, learned how to keep an account of the ship’s course, take an observation, and, in short, to understand some things that were needful to be understood by a sailor.
Even from an informed lay perspective, the idea that an individual (of a species) can be self-sufficient contradicts how life attempts to endure and persist over time. Individual survival is a function of the relation of the species to which an individual belongs and how it fits within its environment. An individual is therefore a product of a series of mutations that happen to fit the environment in which its species persists.
So the idea of “the survival of the fittest”, according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, is a species-environment relation, not a description of a supremely excellent individual who persists self-sufficiently. (Thus, being fit evolution-wise is not solely how fit a species is, but how well it fits with the existing environment . . . which changes.)
Taken to extreme length, if one were to insist on individuality as a virtue, one might be disappointed to find that biologically humans pale in comparison to genes and the way in which their persistence centers on the transmission of its DNA. As Adam Rutherford summarizes Richard Dawkins’ pioneering work on genes,
“genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes.”
Of course, holding up a gene as a paragon of virtue may seem attractive in terms of pure function and survival, but it misses out on the higher bits of life that we tend to privilege and associate with a flourishing life—things such as, love, happiness, companionship, and storytelling.
Bound to a Wheel of Fire
So what happens when one or more of these existential debts are not recognized? The possibilities are probably endless, but focusing on a recent controversy might help to illustrate.
If a refusal to take advice from outside sources derives from the idea that one is self-sufficient biologically, this might involve a mistaken sense of biological fitness which outside sources like a body of professional scientists and physicians would be better placed to correct.
Such a refusal to admit outside sources into the space of one’s reasoning might result in a rejection of advice or a denial of a certain state of affairs that might threaten or challenge one’s self-conception of biological fitness.
Psychologists might attribute this stubbornness to a confirmation bias, where information and evidence that might rival or even contradict one’s view either are ignored in favor of information and evidence that one prefers, or are rationalized to the point where it fits with the existing picture one prefers.
So, for example, an individual might believe that the pandemic can’t be that bad. This person might further rationalize that although people may be dying from Covid, the way the media and government portray what is occurring grossly exaggerates the reality. By those lights, anything involving human death can be made to look nationally or even globally threatening.
What is wrongheaded about this view is the unwillingness to consider information and evidence that might contradict and correct one’s perspective. True, we all suffer from this given our fallible nature. Furthermore, it seems to be the case that information and evidence by themselves are not enough to correct misinformed views. We forget, in other words, how convictions, biases, and prior allegiances play a more dominant role in how we make decisions and evaluations and how we process statistical data.
So, then, perhaps the best way to release ourselves from this wheel of fire is to be more attentive to our biases?
There is one trick that might help—remembering how we rely on others.
Pay It Back to Ancient Athens
Given the incoherency of the modern idea of self-sufficiency, it may be worthwhile casting our gaze back to Aristotle (384-322 BC), for whom self-sufficiency was a virtue and an aim.
Yet for Aristotle, self-sufficiency was primarily a feature of the community (or polis) that in turn allowed for the freedom of individuals to pursue what they reasoned to be the best. To be sure, this freedom was limited to a certain class and sex of people (male Athenian citizens who were educated). But as recent philosophers have demonstrated, much of Aristotle’s political and ethical philosophy (the good bits) can be adopted without having to adopt also those practices that we find morally problematic or even reprehensible.
What we can learn from Aristotle, and Plato for that matter, is how they understood that the flourishing of individuals necessarily presupposes the integrity of the community, without which there would be no real place in which humans could actually exist as humans.
What would remain instead is something closer to a state of nature in which each individual sees the other as a competitor who is a potential or actual threat to one’s own persistence. Or, to put this another way:
In a world in which each individual believed strongly in their own self-sufficiency, there is little room for genuine cooperation, only the fear that one self-sufficient being might be a threat to another.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1697) aptly referred to this as a state of “a war of all against all”.
Dr Todd Mei is a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. He runs a podcast called Living Philosophy. Todd was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, he is also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, he can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.