Individualism is a way of thinking that values the individual higher than groups of individuals. Individualism is not the same as selfishness; it must respect the individuality of others as well as its own: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Individualism respects the unique character of every person.
Collectivism is its opposite, valuing the group as a whole above any of its components. Thus the value of an individual is secondary (or worse) compared to the value of the collective, whether it be family, clan, tribe, or nation; religion or clique or corporation or any other group.
When we value the collective more than the individual, we demand that the individual submit to the collective, sacrifice for the sake of the collective, bend its will to the collective. This can seem noble: I sacrifice for my country; I sacrifice for my family; I sacrifice for my employing corporation. This actually demeans the individual and sets an atmosphere where abuse of individuals is perfectly acceptable, so long as the collective is served. From this attitude comes justification of torture (waterboarding, the Inquisition), violation of conscience through the Draft, violation of the rights of minorities (ethnic, religious, political, et cetera) … anyone who does not conform to the will of the collective.
The individual that sacrifices for another individual, however, does behave nobly. He sacrifices out of love and respect for another person, another sentient being, and that person’s individuality. Thus I sacrifice not for “my family”, but for my wife and each of my children, out of respect for them as individuals. I sacrifice not for my corporate employer, but for my boss who’s a swell guy and will respect me personally for it (and compensate me accordingly). I sacrifice not for my country, but for my next-door neighbours.
If I value the individual, I cannot behave in ways that harm any individual without violating my own personal values. But if I value the collective higher than the individual, there is no limit whatsoever to the evil I can justify doing to any person in the name of “the greater good”. This collectivist philosophy is behind the worst evils of society, past and present. Not even selfishness is as pervasively evil. The selfish person will do evil to others out of disregard for their individuality, believing that they are unworthy of attention. The collectivist will do evil to others and believe that he is doing something noble, which is by far the greater evil.
More on the subject from P.J. O’Rourke who totally coincidentally turned 60 today.
Also see The Danger of Collectivism by George Smith.