Individual or society?
Individual or society?

Is it just me? Or is it someone else? Or something else?

We've all asked those questions when something goes wrong in our lives. Who or what is to blame? They are important questions to ask, because you can't fix a problem until you know who or what is responsible for it.

They are also important questions for debaters to ask. Many debate motions respond to an existing situation that is not as it should be, e.g. the ill health caused by rising rates of obesity; racism; poverty. We can all agree that ill health, racism and poverty are bad things. But there's much room for debate about how we should respond to these bad things. And our preferred response is likely to depend on who or what we believe to be responsible for these bad things.

Obesity is a major cause of ill health. That's beyond debate. But why do people get obese in the first place? Is it simply because they eat too much and don't take enough exercise? In that case, there is no point in the state intervening, other than to remind people of their personal responsibility to eat healthily and keep moving if they want to stay healthy. Or perhaps go even further in making people take responsibility for their actions by restricting treatment on the NHS for obesity-related conditions. Why should our taxes have to pay for the consequences of someone else's bad choices? But what if the reason people - predominantly people on lower incomes - become obese is because junk food is too cheap, while buying healthy food and accessing gyms, green spaces and sports clubs where they could exercise are too expensive? In that case, the state should intervene by taxing junk food and subsidising falafels and football pitches. Perhaps it should go further by restricting or even banning the sale of certain kinds of junk food.

How you respond to the obesity crisis comes down to a very fundamental point of clash. Do we have complete control over our own lives? Or are there wider social forces beyond our control? Or to put it even more simply: when there's a problem, do we need to fix ourselves, or fix the system? Which is more powerful: the individual or society? If we put the individual first, we'll be against taxes, subsidies or any other form of state intervention, as they will take away people's freedom of choice, and will make them less likely to practise the sort of self-discipline that promotes good health. If we put society first, we will want to intervene in the food and exercise market to make it easier for people to make healthy choices.

We can apply the individual / society split to other debate topics. That racism is a bad thing is, like the unhealthiness of obesity, beyond debate. But how should we tackle its continuing existence in society? If we put the individual first, then we will argue for coming down very hard on any individuals guilty of discriminatory behaviour, but leaving institutions like businesses, schools and parliament alone. This is because institutions are made up of individuals; fix the individuals and we fix the institutions. If we favour the influence of society, we will say that it's not enough to sack individuals who have behaved badly; we need to address the ways in which racism is embedded in institutions in a way that changes people's behaviour. To fix the institutions we might propose measures like introducing race-based quotas or making everyone undertake education and training to raise their awareness of racism.

Or take poverty. Everyone would like to make people more prosperous and less poor. But should we do this by reducing taxes and public spending to incentivise people to work harder, thus producing more wealth for everyone (focusing on fixing individuals)? Or should we tax rich people more severely and redistribute their wealth across society by spending on public goods like schools, hospitals and benefits for the sick and unemployed (focusing on fixing society)?

If you have to propose a motion which identifies a problem and seeks to fix the problem via a change, ask yourself: does the proposed change focus on fixing individuals or society? If the answer is individuals, then you will put more emphasis on ideas like freedom and responsibility; if the answer is society, then you will put more emphasis on ideas like fairness and the common good. And if you're the opposition, ask the same question, then make sure you take the opposite side to the proposition on the individual / society split.

Now, look at the motions below and decide in each case which is the proposition focused on fixing: individuals or society?

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would tax junk food.
2. This house would ban children from eating junk food.
3. This house would ban the advertising of junk food.
4. This house would refuse treatment on the NHS for obesity-related conditions.
5. This house would allow GPs to prescribe gym memberships, paid for by the NHS.
6. This house would oblige schools to appoint teachers who reflect the ethnic profile of the student body.
7. This house would reserve some constituencies for ethnic minority MPs only.
8. This house would make positive discrimination on grounds of race illegal.
9. This house would make it compulsory for all businesses employing more than 10 people to provide anti-racism training for their staff.
10. This house would introduce a maximum wage.
11. This house would cut benefits.
12. This house would tax ownership of land.
13. This house would make it compulsory for the highest paid employee in any business to earn no more than ten times the lowest paid employee.
14. This house would introduce a flat rate for income tax (that is, everyone would pay the same percentage of their income, unlike the current system where those who earn more pay a higher percentage).