Most mornings at 6 a.m., I exit my house to run. I run two miles through my neighborhood streets to reach the Colorado River that winds through central Austin and then I run along the Ann and Roy Butler Trail, a wide dirt trail for pedestrians and bikers that goes for many miles on the north and south sides of the river. I run early because the streets and trails are quiet, and I enjoy seeing the morning sunrise.
When the pandemic stay-at-home rules were imposed in March, residents were allowed to exercise outside, and the Butler Trail was a welcome sight after being cooped up in the house all day. My wife and I took a late morning March walk by the river and observed that the trail’s two-way traffic made social distancing problematic. In a few days, the city imposed a one-way clockwise trail route and placed directional signs along the trail. This meant that my Saturday long runs were even longer as I had to cross the Colorado River and run along the south side, then cross the river again to return home. This change was designed to protect our community and still allows Austinites to enjoy the outdoors.
While there are less people out during early mornings, I did notice that about 20% of the people using the Butler Trail did not comply with the city’s one-way rule. There were many signs posted showing the correct direction to travel and many signs telling people not to travel in the other direction, both in English and Spanish. I pondered during my run: Why do people not follow social distancing rules designed to protect our community?
In 1985, five sociologists (Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton) published a national bestselling book on individualism titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2008). Written 35 years ago with two later reprintings, their findings are still relevant today. “The main purpose of this book is to deepen our understanding of the resources our tradition provides – and fails to provide – for enabling us to think about the kinds of moral problems we are currently facing as Americans.” (page 21)
The authors define four modes of individualism. The first mode is utilitarian individualism which “sees human life as an effort by individuals to maximize their self-interest. … [It] views society as arising from a contract that individuals enter into only in order to advance their self-interest.” (page 336) An example of the utilitarian mode are individuals who are “single-mindedly devoted to career success, sacrificing everything to attainment of that goal.” (page 27) Nothing else matters but successfully achieving their self-interest. The world exists for them to grasp.
The second mode is expressive individualism which stands opposite to utilitarian. It “holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized … [and] is related to the phenomenon of romanticism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American culture.” (page 334) Devotion is not focused on a specific utilitarian goal but towards the enjoyment of life – music, books, relationships, art, theater, etc. These pursuits are still individualistic because the focus remains on self-interest expressive achievements. The world exists for them to enjoy.
The third mode is the biblical tradition, primarily associated with Jewish and Christian communities. America was established by Puritans during the Colonial period. During the industrial period, Catholics and Jewish immigrants expanded the diversity of this mode. “Their fundamental criterion of success was not material wealth but the creation of a community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.” (page 29) Individual freedoms were established that contributed to self-interest but resided within a biblical community that adhered to biblical truths.
The fourth mode is the republican tradition rooted in classical Greece and Rome. “It presupposes that the citizens of a republic are motivated by civic virtue as well as self-interest. It views public participation as a form of moral education and sees its purposes as the attainment of justice and the public good. (page 335) Individual self-interests must be balanced by secular community justice.
As I ran along the river, I struggled with individualism in the midst of community pandemic suffering. Were those violating the community rules utilitarian or expressive individuals? Were their travels a single-minded goal or expressing their self-interest in seeing the trail from the opposite direction? For the 20%, self-interests were seemingly more important to them than consideration of the other 80% abiding by the city’s ordinance. My Christian biblical tradition teaches that we are to love our neighbors and my city’s republican tradition established the one-way trail route for the public good. I plan on running one-way around the beautiful Butler Trail until the city lifts the restrictions.