concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2010


By 'group' here is meant social relationships between human beings of all sorts, by which we condition one another. Middle Way philosophy is concerned with the relationship between groups and individuality, particularly with regard to the justification of our beliefs. Since human beings are social creatures, it is not surprising that groups have a huge effect on the formation of our beliefs. However, if we are motivated by the desire to be accepted by a group into adopting particular beliefs, then to the extent that our motives are social those beliefs become immune to critical examination in the light of experience. Beliefs motivated by group thinking are described elsewhere on this website as metaphysical beliefs and/or as dualistic beliefs (see dualism).

It is only critical consciousness gained through the development of individual awareness that provides any alternative to the overwhelming weight of group-thinking in our lives. To the extent that we are individually aware we can actually examine internal and external experience without the distorting influence of group-thinking. On the other hand the metaphysical view propagated by a group provides an immediate incentive for constantly interpreting experience in the light of that view, rather than being open to any challenge of it. An obvious example of this is the social pressure exerted on religious believers to interpret all experience in terms of religious belief, such as the idea that all experience is guided by divine benevolence. However, it is not just religions that create such groups - they could also be political, professional, cultural, or merely social. Marxists interpret all experience in terms supported by the Marxist grouping and ensuring its approval; similarly scientific materialists, or social conservatives who want to stress individual responsibility. These metaphysical views are not necessarily wholly wrong, but are certainly partial, because the social commitment behind them impedes further investigation or real consideration of opposing views.

Groups themselves do not necessarily create group thinking (and indeed some groups, such as, say, a critical thinking class, may have the expressed aim of undermining it). Group thinking is created by the anxiety of the individual who wants to be accepted by a group, not by the mere fact that people are organised in a group. It is only through the development of individuality that individuals can be given the resources to address this anxiety and reduce its influence over their judgements.

The moral role of group thinking has often been remarked. For example, the famous Milgram experiments provide psychological evidence of how widespread is a tendency for group-based authority to override individual judgement, even when that individual judgement is concerned with matters of important moral principle. Some of the most obvious cases of the moral injuriousness of group-thinking are to be found in, say, Nazi Germany. However, its injuriousness is not limited to such examples but is found in varying degress throughout human experience. To avoid metaphysics is to undermine the power of group-thinking.

The dualistic nature of group-thinking can also be seen in its tendency to create false opposites which actually perpetuate the same type of thinking. 'Individualism' can often take the form of rejection of the majority or established group-views in a particular context, but this tends to create identification with a counter-culture or alternative group instead. For example, punk rock was a clearly rebellious rejection of dominant group-thinking in Western society, but instead of overcoming the tendency towards group-thinking by supporting individuality, punk rock just created counter-cultural group norms instead. Individuality is not developed by the rejection of a particular dominant group, but rather by the avoidance of the metaphysical views that support all group-thinking and the development of critical awareness.

Further discussion

Individual (concept page)

The individual and the group (scroll down to section d)



Return to concepts index page

Return to home page