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Help me w/ an argument against "group rights"?

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I am writing an honors thesis on the topic of independent versus dependent rights schemes. I try to prove that only independent rights schemes are valid, and that dependent rights cannot exist. I defined independent rights as the moral power to execute your will over your body. There was a law professor I was discussing this with who asked me why there are only individual rights and not group rights. He wanted to know the origin of these individual rights/what they are based on, and I said that the original right is the right to life, and all subsequent rights are traceable back to that right; since life is an attribute of the individual, only individuals can have rights. He brought up an interesting objection, and I wanted to know if anyone here has a response.

He argued that the value of life is cumulative/exponential, that each additional day increases the total value of the life (that each day is not equally valuable, but the fact that each day is built upon the previous day makes that new day more valuable). When people come together in groups to create institutions such as states and markets, their lives are enabled to be much longer then they would have been in a Hobbesian state of nature; in anarchy or total solitude. He argued that all the days each individual in the group lives longer than they would have lived without the group are not traceable back to those individuals. He said that the group creates these new days, and the group appropriates the life that it creates. In this way, the group has its own life, untraceable back to the individuals who constitute the group, and this life gives the group a basis for rights just as individuals gain the basis for their rights from their lives.

I have a counterargument but I want to see what interesting responses this group might have to his argument.

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I think the major problem with that argument is a misunderstading of the concept of value. The fact that life is an ultimate value is derived from our human nature, not the material benefits of living in a rational society. What we value can certainly contribute to our lives cumulatively (and in fact that best way to live is that all that one values contributes to one's life). But the fact that our life is the ultimate value never changes (unless under certain conditions).

The other major problem with the argument is the idea that a group can exist independently of the individuals that make up that group. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand criticizes political scientists for creating their science around a collective base. They say absolutely nothing about individual man but rather how resources are allocated in a given society. As she puts it, it is like studying astronomy without paying attention to any individual star.

The benefits that exist in a rational society in which there is a divison of labor to mutual benefit is no doubt beneficial. But is is beneficial to each individual person, not this non-entity referred to as a group.

I hope that helped. :)

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I think the problem I see comes from the fact that although a group is undoubtedly a mere collection of individuals, the value created in virtue of those individuals coming together in a group is not by or of any single one of those individuals. It is cumulative. It wouldn't exist unless there were exactly that many individuals in the group doing what they are doing and contributing what they are contributing. Without their status as "group," they wouldn't have the benefits they are receiving, but more then that, they wouldn't have the life they are living. The life designated after some point (possible flaw in his argument: where do you draw the line? Where is an individual's life their own?) would not exist but for the group. That "extra" life, that life which the group created BY BEING a group, belongs to the group and no one individual within the group. Do you see why I am stuck here?

Also, what is the exact meaning of "human life as the ultimate value," because I am (obviously) inclined to agree with you, but I get questions like this:

What about the human life makes it the ultimate value?

Are fetuses human? What about the mentally disabled? What about murderers and rapists? What about human life being the ultimate value makes rights necessary?

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I think we have one main misunderstanding here: It is a man's life, which is the highest value, not human life.

Being grouped together cannot create "group" value, because the standard of value is different for each individual in the group (specifically, it is his own life).

What about the human life makes it the ultimate value?
I have not studied this in too much depth so I will keep my answer simple in hopes that someone who has will take the reigns here. But I will say this: Man's life is what makes all other values possible. Man is the valuer, and without him, values cannot exist.

Are fetuses human? What about the mentally disabled? What about murderers and rapists?

Are they volitional beings, or do they live by default. If the former, yes, they are human; otherwise, no.

What about human life being the ultimate value makes rights necessary?

As for this: Rights are neccessary in order for man to maintain his life. Do you need me to elaborate?

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It's still a reification of the group. The benefits of being in a civilization don't come from "society", but from one's interactions with other individuals. My life is extended by good foods, good medicine, etc. Putting aside government interventions and welfarism, I pay for what I get; I reimburse those who produce values with my own values, through mutually beneficial trades. The only rights are those of individuals.

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Dependent rights. Hmmm....

When you get into a car to drive somewhere, do you have faith in some God that you will get there safely? Or are you depending on the quality and talent of the guy who designed your brakes? If it's the latter, then you're also depending on the skill of other drivers on the road. If not, you'd never get into a car. Your values (although, not all) are dependent upon human nature. The above statement proves it as such. It also proves that dependent rights do in fact exist. You have a right to respect your own rights. You have a right to respect everyone else's. I suggest that you do both if you value your life.

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« each additional day increases the total value of the life »

The value of life is: life. One cannot quantify it except in relation to itself, since it the standard of value, the unit of measure. As such, life cannot become more valuable in terms of itself, because it is itself. A is A; A is not A x 2.

« When people come together in groups to create institutions such as states and markets, their lives are enabled to be much longer then they would have been in a Hobbesian state of nature; in anarchy or total solitude. »

That (the "necessarily implies") is patently untrue. Firstly, length of life is not the standard of value; one's life itself is the standard of value. Mixing these two up is a fallacy (the stolen concept: the length of one's life being of value depends on the fundamental value, one's life). Secondly, it is mutually voluntary and mutually beneficial trade of value for value which enhances the lives of the traders (read: is of value to); it is entering into relationships, not entering into societies, that is of value. Necessarily, trade is only possible to the extent that freedom from aggression (initiation of force or the threat of such) is guaranteed to be absent; that is the purpose of society and the state: to guarantee a ban on force. It is often seen as a good thing because people have a good expectation of living reasonably well with the ability to pursue many values in society; but holding societey above freedom is ignoring reality.

« all the days each individual in the group lives longer than they would have lived without the group are not traceable back to those individuals »

All of the services alleged to make society of value - they were provided by somebody. I have yet to see somebody have a better life simply by virtue of transporting his house (with much free air conditioning and water) from the Sahara to NYC, without changing his actions in the slightest: A is, again as always, A. Rather, he would better his life by exchanging values with others.

« the group creates these new days, and the group appropriates the life that it creates »

"The group creates and destroys with one stroke" - in which case no-one's life is lengthened at the end of the day! Could that be an argument (evasion) why one cannot observe this extra life that the group creates?

« this way, the group has its own life, untraceable back to the individuals who constitute the group, and this life gives the group a basis for rights just as individuals gain the basis for their rights from their lives. »

False - individuals never gain the basis for right from theft! Yet that is how he claims society gains the basis for right: from theft.

And last of all, he ignores (evades) the fact that the group is nothing more than a collection of individuals (A and B does not become A and B and C in reality, no matter how far one stretches the imagination); if he posits that stealing from each other is the basis for the right of stealing from each other, that is only a further hallucination.

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The argument was that a collection acquires life for its own from its individuals, and that therefore has the rights that derive from life. By obviousness, the premise is false, to say nothing of the conclusion.

Capitalism Forever states explicitly and in general terms something that I hinted at (or would like to think that I did). Society having rights necessarily means depriving individuals of rights; moreover, the law professor's argument is that society has rights by depriving individuals of rights. However, to have rights necessarily means not to deprive others of rights, meaning society having rights is a contradiction in terms; moreover, the instant one deprives another of rights, one loses one's own, and this applies equally to societies, meaning the law professor's assertion is equally a contradiction.

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"the instant one deprives another of rights, one loses one's own, and this applies equally to societies" - y feldblum

This isn't true; right here in the US prisoners, convicted guilty of violating others rights, retain many rights, including the right not to be cruelly and unusually punished, so really the fact of being capable of violating the rights of others doesn't mean that you yourself are not capable of having rights. In effect, the mere fact that groups have a great capacity for violating the rights of individuals does not preclude them from being capable of having rights. The question is, what does?"There can be no right that conflicts with another person's rights."

Yes, group rights inevitably lead to conflict with individual rights. The question posed is: why are "persons" the only ones who have rights? It is obvious to me why you cannot have conflicting rights, if not for the only reason that the only way to settle "conflicting rights" would be through some arbitrary power deciding whose right is more convincing or convenient and using force to distribute the right accordingly. However, if groups have rights rather than individuals having rights, or if it is merely assumed that group rights trump individual rights because groups enable those individuals to be alive when they otherwise wouldn't be, then there is not conflict. The problem is, I am trying to prove that only individuals can have rights!

This is where it gets interesting for me, because that's my whole purpose. And by the way, LucentBrave, you misunderstand what I mean when I say dependent rights. An example of a dependent right is the idea of the right to education, or healthcare, or food. The idea of a right to something produced by another human hand (another human mind). I argue that this is nothing but forced labor. This is the idea of a right that can only exist when the other person is there to provide you with your right. Independent rights are, however, possible as long as that human being is possible. It exists as he exists, it is as inseperable from him as his mind.

The people on this forum, all the answers I've gotten, frighten me in the same way I was frightened when I was first faced with the professor, but in a completely different way (obviously). It's as though I can see on both sides of a wall and I am scared for both sides. No one here can even conceive of his argument, but I literally had no defense to it on his terms. His arguments trouble me because I can see his kind of logic, but you didn't. Let me try to explain it better, because I honestly don't think any of the arguments posted (although I agree with almost everything I read) really answer him.

Yes, each individual has value, and his own life is the standard of that value. But when many of these individuals get together to form groups, there is a value created that could not have existed but for their joining together in the group, and because of this fact, that greater value is not traceable back to any specific individual. And forget about governments, focus on simple voluntary associations like the order of the Elk and the Ronald McDonald house and flea markets. That value is not stolen, as y feldblum suspects. It would not exist without those individuals, so it is dependent on them existing for it to exist. However, when they do get together and it (this value) is brought into being, it is a value that is not of any one individual in the group. If a man's life is a value, and that value is the basis of rights, then this new value created by the existence of a group is the basis for the group's rights. The idea of value being the basis of right.

I don't know exactly how to answer this, and I don't see an answer in any posts yet that really negate his argument. If I am misreading or misapplying these arguments, please point out in what manner I am doing this. One thing that was really helpful (although I don't know if I can develop it into a trumping argument to the group rights theory) is that each man values his own life in a different way from any other man, and a "group" cannot value anything, since the act of "valueing" is a function of a mind, and a group cannot have a mind. But would this mean that the basis of rights is the ability to value? If it is, what about all the people who value the wrong things, or nothing at all, or the people who have mental disorders that make it impossible for them to value, or only to be able to value on the same level as animals, and what then--do we assume animals have the same rights as these people?

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Read my first post more carefully...

"Group value" cannot exist.

When a trade takes place, it is of mutual value. This does not mean that it is of shared value, but that it is of value to each participant seperately.

Try to find of an example of a value seperate from an individual human being. You won't be able to do it. Values do not exist apart from a valuer; man's life cannot exist apart from man.

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Right here in the US prisoners, convicted guilty of violating others rights, retain many rights, including the right not to be cruelly and unusually punished, so really the fact of being capable of violating the rights of others doesn't mean that you yourself are not capable of having rights.
Those are legal rights; rights without the prefix "legal" are moral principles. Though those who violate moral rights may retain legal rights, they forfeit their moral rights - by declaring that that which they violated is, by virtue of violating it, not an absolute. Rights are fraught, not with mercy, but with inexorable justice.

Why are "persons" the only ones who have rights?

Because "persons" are the only ones who have volition. Rights exist where volition exists, as rights are "moral principles defining freedom of action in a social context" (don't know if that's an accurate quote or close paraphrase, and don't remember of exactly what). There is no free action (ie, action by free will) without volition (ie, free will).

Yes, each individual has value, and his own life is the standard of that value.
Here, the law professor seems (or could be read) to be accepting Objectivist premises, but ... it could also be read as an endorsement of intrinsicism.

But when many of these individuals get together to form groups, there is a value created

And here he utterly rejects Objectivist premises in favor of ethical intrinsicism, the idea of absolute value, value that is not agent-relative, value independent of the mind. In truth, there is no value without the one who values; there is no value created without the one who values; and the one who values can only be an entity with life. A man's life is not a value in and of itself; a man's life is a value to him. The noun-concept value is utterly dependent epistemologically on the verb-concept to value. There must be one who values oneself, that one being oneself, in order for oneself to be a value to oneself (can read oneself as one's life).

A living thing can value, since life is the basis of value. The primary thing that life values is itself: life is a constant process of self-generated, self-sustaining action (you all know it's paraphrased from Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics"). That means life constantly acts to gain and keep itself - life. To value means to act to gain or keep; in short, life values itself. A value is that which an entity acts to gain or keep; life is a value. Moreover, life is the fundamental value which life values, since there is no other thing that life values as an end-in-itself, and since life can value itself indirectly by valuing subsidiary things. Eg, life can value itself indirectly by valuing food.

None of that makes sense if value is not relative to the valuer, if it intrinsic, abstract, absolute. In fact, to postulate intrinsic or absolute value is to assert the arbitrary, since there is no way to prove nor falsify the assertion, and whether it's true or not matters not one bit. Moreover, to postulate that is to assert that rights are arbitrary and meaningless, since they are based on value (specifically: life).

So ... who values (as an act of volition) this supposed value which the group's existence creates? If by necessity somebody values it, then it must be traceable back to his life. If not, then it is arbitrary, meaningless, utter nonsense. But it cannot be by necessity somebody, since, as the law professor asserted, it is not traceable back to his life.

If a man's life is a value, and that value is the basis of rights, then this new value created by the existence of a group is the basis for the group's rights. The idea of value being the basis of right.

The premise is false, since it depends on ethical intrinsicism being true; and the conclusion is false, since it depends on the premise being true. Ethical intrinsicism, in addition to being arbitrary and worthy only of being dismissed from discussion immediately, is sheer nonsense.

To answer the questions at the end of your post:

Each living entity values its own life. To value is necessarily objective: it necessarily implies that there is an entity doing the valuing (agent-relative) and that there is an entity (material like a house or spiritual like a relationship or checking account).

The act of valuing is a function of life. Only life can value, and the fundamental thing that life values is itself. All other things that life values - it values them because it values life.

Man acts by volition alone, and all his values are volitional. Man is the only animal that can commit suicide. The basis of rights is the ability to value volitionally. Rights are moral principles sanctifying certain values. The fundamental right is the right to life and all other rights derive from the right to life, just as the fundamental value is life and all other values derive from life. It is moral that man acts to prolong and enhance his own life, and it is moral that man acts to do those things which indirectly prolong and enhance his own life.

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A while ago I came across an online article, "Rights: A Functional Derivation and Definition". I have a copy on my computer, but I didn't save the author or the website. It's essentially a functional derivation and definition of rights, it's done rather well, and for the most part it's right on. I tried googling it just now, but I cannot find it; it seems to have disappeared. If anybody happens to know where to find it, pretty please post it here.

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Right here in the US prisoners, convicted guilty of violating others rights, retain many rights

As someone else partially addressed, this is a contradiction. By stealing or raping or killing, a man forfeits all of his rights. He should regard the fact the sentence isn't death as an act of mercy.

By nature, rights are not some kind of liquid (like milk) that one can have "some" or "more" or "less" of. Rights are all aspects of the same thing: man's nature as a rational and volitional (the two are aspects of the same thing) requires freedom to act in a social context, i.e. life, liberty and property. To negate one is to negate all of them.

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As someone else partially addressed, this is a contradiction. By stealing...a man forfeits all of his rights. He should regard the fact the sentence isn't death as an act of mercy.

Am I to understand that any violation of rights in any manner or form renders the violater completely right-less; that it negates his right to life? That instead of a 20 year sentence, the protagonist of Hugo's Les Mis should have received a death sentence?

I ask because I am inclined to agree that violating another's rights negates your own, but this concept has stopped me, and you seem absolutely certain of it, so please explain it to me. What must the basis of rights be if this is true? Is the basis of rights the fact that you respect other people's rights (in this scenario, that is what it seems to be)? You say it is "man's nature as a rational and volitional [being]." So does that mean that only people who are rational have rights? Or only people who act volitionally? Noone has as of yet answered the question of the mentally disabled, people who cannot act volitionally nor rationally, yet they are undoubtedly human. Some people settle this claim with the answer of "capacities" (i.e. mentally disabled people are still people and have the capacities of people, the capacity to be rational and volitional beings), but if this were true, we could use evolution to say that dogs have the potential, the capacity to develop into rational beings (since there is as much of a chance for them as for the mentally disabled) and therefore they should have the same rights as people. But this can't be true, so what is it about people that means they must have rights.

You are all using a definition of rights here that assumes a social context. But this in itself is a dependent definition. You are saying that the rights of the individual only exist in a social context (to enable freedom of action), but individuals are have freedom of action (and much more of it) when they are alone. Would individuals have rights in an island scenario, or are they only brought into being through social relationships? I assume that this is false, that once a single individual exists rights exist, but that those rights are only really interesting (and therefore visible) when other people exist. However, this doesn't mean they don't in fact exist. This is what is hard to prove. How do you prove they exist at all, in social circumstances or otherwise? Or are they just a tool to enable man's life. And if they are the latter, what would make group rights impossible? Groups enable mans life, therefore groups should have rights. That would be the argument. If that's the only basis of rights, then there is no counter argument, even the value-valuer argument. Because all the men in a group may value their lives differently, but without the group, that life would not exist. (The life created by the fact of their inclusion in a group, trading with and protecting each other.) Also, no matter how differently they each value the "extra" life the group has provided, the fact remains that it is that much more, that this life would not exist but for the group. That fact is not traceable to any single individual. No single one of them provided the benefit, the thing to be valued differently by each. That is the essential problem.

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Am I to understand that any violation of rights in any manner or form renders the violater completely right-less; that it negates his right to life?

Exactly. If someone is trying to rob your store, you have a right to shoot him in order to prevent the crime.

However, if the aggressor is lucky enough to get away without being killed, and to live in a society where thieves are sentenced to less than death, his rights will be restored and he will get another chance.

Also, no matter how differently they each value the "extra" life the group has provided, the fact remains that it is that much more, that this life would not exist but for the group.

My life would not exist without water molecules. Does that mean water molecules should have rights?

Clearly, a contribution to one's life is not the basis for rights. (Looking at it the other way: John doe has done nothing to contribute to my life--but that does not mean I can rightfully kill him.)

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Fanofayn,

The basis of rights is man's faculty of REASON. A "group" does NOT possess reason qua group. ONLY individual members do. And THAT is why only individuals have rights.

It is important to differentiate between the basis of ethics and the basis rights. The standard of value is man's life. The standard of value of any living being is its own life. But it is NOT basis of any right. If it were, then EVERY living being would have rights.

Let me reiterate: It is because man is a RATIONAL being that he--and ONLY he--has RIGHTS.

You should have checked you premises very carefully: a little bit of reading and discussion would have easily uncovered that mistaken premise that the value of man's life is the basis of his rights.

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  • 1 month later...

The non-sequitur in his argument is the idea that the values created by "grouping" are not traceable to the individuals. Where the hell does that come from? Has he ever heard of the division of labor? If I live longer because a doctor healed me, the value came from the doctor. No matter how complex a society may get, all that exist and are acting *in reality* are individuals. Even if one points out that one's life is much better with people in it, it is still those individuals who are the source of that value.

Since rights only become morally relevant in the context of society (because of the possibility of the use of force; your rights cannot be violated in solitude), they are the necessary organizing principle of any society. All rights that a society may claim for itself (such as national sovereignty) are merely delegations of said rights (e.g. law enforcement) and do not exist apart from them. At the point that any society attempts to override those rights, it has committed the fallacy of the stolen concept right there, and thereby wipes out its moral claim to exist. When that happens, what is actually happening is an attack by some individuals against the rights of others, and the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence apply.

Living in the state of society (i.e. associating with others) is a way of life that yields certain benefits. As such, it's a solution to a problem, a *method* (teamwork) of solving problems that are outside the reach of solitary men to resolve. I don't see how a state of association can acquire existence, let alone rights. Does my method of working acquire rights because of the benefits I reap from it?

The proof that rights are individual consists in the fact that only individuals *exist*. Individuals associate; associations do not individuate. The group has no existence apart from individuals, but individuals may exist apart from the group. Groups are existentially dependent upon individuals. Individuals *cause* groups.

And since morality IS reason and rights are a moral concept, none of this applies to non-sentient entities. A bear isn't violating your rights if he eats you, nor does a hurricane do so when it deposits your boat fifty miles inland. So, the whole issue pertains only to rational individuals interacting with one another, in a state of society.

As for the exceptions to that rule, e.g. mentally disabled individuals etc. well they are classified and dealt with as exceptions to the rule, of what Don Watkins calls "broken units"; as an issue they can be dealt with only after the basic principles have been defined by reference to human nature as such. Without the concept of rights, the question of the rights of the disabled makes no sense.

People who commit crimes forfeit their rights, but the principle of "let the punishment commit the crime" should guide society on which of those forfeited rights it can abrogate.

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He argued that the value of life is cumulative/exponential, that each additional day increases the total value of the life (that each day is not equally valuable, but the fact that each day is built upon the previous day makes that new day more valuable).  When people come together in groups to create institutions such as states and markets, their lives are enabled to be much longer then they would have been in a Hobbesian state of nature; in anarchy or total solitude.  He argued that all the days each individual in the group lives longer than they would have lived without the group are not traceable back to those individuals.  He said that the group creates these new days, and the group appropriates the life that it creates.  In this way, the group has its own life, untraceable back to the individuals who constitute the group, and this life gives the group a basis for rights just as individuals gain the basis for their rights from their lives.

The professor's argument is that the group has rights because it makes it possible to prolong the life of an individual who lives in that group? The group has life?

The problem with the professor's argument is that it equates the group with the individual. He says it has the property which can only be traceable back to a single individual - life. The group of people to him is a living organism. And therefore, the group has rights. The group has the right to its own life, the professor says, and what he doesn't say is that anyone leaving the group is killing the group, therefore he is violating the group's rights. It is unjust for an individual to leave because others have right to his services and he must sacrifice his interests for the group's needs.

As Ayn Rand stated, altruism is not a life loving philosophy, but "...a theory of ethics which holds death as its ultimate goal and standard of value." And that death refers to the individual, not a group - because a group objectively has no and can have no life of its own and because an individual is supposed to sacrifice for the group. No matter what an individual does and no matter what he "contributes to the community," all his efforts are useless to an altruist/collectivist unless he is willing to make that ultimate sacrifice of his own life for the sake of the collective he lives in. Only then will he be noticed and given all the second-hand honors that the world can give to a man.

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  • 3 weeks later...

In the June 1963 Objectivist Newsletter, in an article entitled “Collectivized Rights”, Rand writes: “Any group or ‘collective’, large or small, is a only a number of individuals. A group can have no rights other than the rights of its individual members. In a free society, the ‘rights’ of any group are derived from the rights of its members through their voluntary, individual choice and contractual agreement, and are merely the application of these individual rights to a specific undertaking…A group, as such, has no rights. A man can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations…Any group that does not recognize this principle is not an association, but a gang or a mob”.

You professor’s mistake is that he assumes associations take on a life of their own; that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Suppose a group of people come together to push a car. Clearly one individual can not do so, but a group of individuals can. The group pushing the car does not suddenly ‘morph’ into a ‘superhuman’ entity. The task is accomplished by combining the strength of the individuals. They do not transmogrify into a super entity. So it is with all groups they are simply equal to the sum of their parts. An association of geniuses will produce a different result, than an association of mental defectives every time when given the same task. No synergy or transformational magic that supposedly results from the ‘joining’ can overcome that fact.

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