It’s not uncommon to hear someone propose the ethical injunction to “treat people like individuals.” It’s mostly used in reference to the complicated ethico-political problem of negotiating intersecting group dynamics: ages, genders, sexes, races, classes, ethnicities, religions, abilities, capabilities. What does it actually mean?
It basically goes like this. Treat people like individuals; don’t reduce individuals to their composite parts (e.g., genes, hormones, neurons, sex), and don’t reduce them to sociocultural contexts (e.g., race, class, gender, religion). The individual is caught somewhere between its composite parts and its encompassing contexts. What it means to “treat” someone like an individual could mean just about anything. The status of the individual isn’t defined beyond saying that it’s not its parts of contexts, and the idea of “treating” doesn’t directly address any ethico-political problems (respect, responsibility, rules, hospitality, competing priorities, etc.). Maybe treating someone like an individual means treating someone like an irreducible Other, like Levinas suggests. Maybe it means treating someone like a tabula rasa, like Locke suggests. Maybe it means treating someone like a unit of bare life without qualities, which is what biopolitical control society is all about. It would not be out of line to think that the phrase “treat people like individuals” seems to have little meaning aside from a reactionary stance against the idea of belonging, that is, the idea of treating people like parts of a whole, members of a community, moments in a history, etc.
Perhaps the “treating” is the least of anyone’s problems, since the idea of an “individual” is so hastily defined. I’m an individual, composed of parts, connected to contexts. Ok. Isn’t each part an individual too? And isn’t each whole an individual? Considering what the “treat people like individuals” mantra is responding to (i.e., heterogeneous group dynamics), it’s especially important to consider that second question. Aren’t groups also individuals? In other words, don’t individuals exist at multiple scales, such that I am an individual person and Ghana is an individual country and Confucianism is an individual religion? Maybe religions and countries are social constructs and therefore not “real” groups (although that begs the question of why artifacts aren’t real), so the question could be posed in terms of natural kinds, such as species. Are species real? Or is the species nothing but individual organisms? To say that the group isn’t a real individual is to fall into the general/particular dualism that underlies old nominalism/realism debates (e.g., species is just a social convention or name or it is real as a general category). If groups are categories, than I guess I’m a nominalist who thinks groups are just constructs. But groups aren’t categories as opposed to particulars.
I agree with object-oriented ontologies and Deleuzian ontologies, for which individuals exist at multiple scales, such that a human person is an individual and so is the human species. This renders the injunction to “treat people like individuals” rather meaningless, since people are individuals, composed of individuals, embedded in contexts of other individuals. This is neither nominalism nor realism in the classical sense of those terms. We can trade out the general/particular dichotomy for a more nuanced distinction between two kinds of singularity: universal-singulars and individual-singulars.
Here’s Manuel DeLanda sketching this point.
The crucial relation here is one of class membership, a set of particulars belonging to a given class or category if they share a common core of properties. Deleuze replaces the relation between the general and the particular with that between the universal and the singular. Or more exactly, general types (such as animal species) are replaced with larger spatio-temporal individuals, so that a given species is as singular, as unique, as historically contingent as the organisms that belong to it. Indeed, even the last expression needs to be corrected since the relation between organisms and species is not one of tokens belonging to types, but one of wholes and parts: singular individual organisms are the component working parts of (larger) singular individual species. Or what amounts to the same thing, larger scale individual entities emerge from the causal interactions of a population of smaller scale individuals. On the other hand, general laws and the particular events or processes that obey them, are replaced by universal singularities. […]
In short, in place of the relation between the general and the particular Deleuze puts the universal-singular and the individual-singular, a much more radical maneuver than the simple nominalist move of disregarding general classes and sticking to particulars. Similarly, his proposal is more radical than the conventionalist maneuver of simply declaring general categories to be “social constructions”. No doubt, there are many categories which do not pick out a real larger-scale individual in the world (the category “schizophrenia”, for example, may actually group together several different mental conditions) and to that extent these are mere constructions. But it would be wrong to argue that every category is like this and that not to view all general categories as mere conventions is to espouse a form of essentialism. In fact, the opposite is true: to simply replace essences with social conventions quickly degenerates in a form of “social essentialism”. Essences and general categories (not to mention general laws) are very hard to get rid of and simple nominalist or conventionalist maneuvers do not achieve the desired goal. I will spend the rest of this essay sketching how Deleuze proposes to perform this difficult feat, but in a nut shell it boils down to this: the identity of each individual entity (as well as any resemblances among the individuals belonging to a given population) needs to be accounted for by the details of the individuation process that historically generated the entity in question; and any regularities in the processes themselves (especially regular or recurrent features in different processes) must be accounted for in terms of an immanent (non-transcendent) abstract structure.