Self-Interest Well-Understood: A Doctrine in Need of Revival

The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance of each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes …– Thucydides, Pericles’ funeral oration, 431 BCE

If one were to take a step back and observe the progression of American culture from its beginnings to modern day, a consistent trend of materialism, or more particularly individualism, would be evident. Certainly, there has always been a compulsion for Americans to become secluded into one’s own, focusing on their own interests, whether it be their careers, family, or wealth. Indeed, this phenomenon is not absent from American culture today. However, the recent rise of polarization across economic, political, and social spectrums in the United States, in tandem with this habitual individualism, is cause for alarm; turning inward and pursuing one’s own interests is now accompanied with perceptions of growing maliciousness towards those who remain outside of an immediate inner circle, like family or close friends. These outgroups could be distant and faceless individuals or even neighbors within a given community. With this growing tension between the private individual and their respective communities, it is essential to reexamine the value of individual and communal self-interests in order to find what is truly facilitating America’s divisive climate.

Before assessing American individualism with the contemporary trend of polarization, the social atmosphere of the United States at its founding should be examined; the population’s ancestral diversity and lack of roots formed communities that were particularly telling of the society’s unique sociological behavior. Through this behavior, Americans were an interesting breed to the rest of the world at the turn of the Nineteenth century. American citizens at this time wholly rejected the status quo of centralized rule and established their own colonies, social orders, and man-made institutions with the assistance of geographic isolation. Social assimilation was a spontaneous and organic process which was fueled by the diverse social climate. This contributed to the creation of a democracy that not only emphatically empowered the individual as the Framers envisioned but, also, attributed outstanding importance to communal associations. Moreover, there was a reluctance to willingly cede responsibility beyond these associations to governing authorities, due to the oppressive shadow that the British empire had left on the colonies as well as other driving factors like religious work ethic. These factors, among other influences such as the equal access to socioeconomic mobility, primed materialism to become imbued into the mores of American culture. It is here that materialism reveals itself as a motivating influence within American society; however, the sentiment of individualism has the potential to quickly follow and remains a looming threat to shared communal responsibilities.

There is perhaps no other thinker that has elaborated more on this topic than social and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. It was Tocqueville –  a Frenchman – who came to the United States in 1831 and marveled at America’s unique culture. His work, Democracy in America, although parsing many aspects of American democracy, observed the average township’s rejection of centralized authority as well as the culture’s emphasis on the individual, his interests, and the ability to accord it well with others. Tocqueville’s ideas are especially critical of the potential ill-effects of individualism, namely that of utter neglect for those outside of one’s immediate associations. He, more importantly, observed how Americans combatted these ill-effects with the idea of “la doctrine de l’intérêt bien entendu,” or the doctrine of self-interest well understood. This doctrine held that virtue – one of happiness and usefulness – need not be found entirely in one’s pursuit of their own interests, but rather finding where it overlaps with their neighbors in their own pursuits. It awakens elements of discipline and moderation while still pursuing one’s own personal interests.

Although Tocqueville remains rather abstract in describing this phenomenon, the doctrine of self-interest well understood has very practical applications. For instance, imagine a suburban neighborhood during a snowy winter. As snow begins to fall one morning, the members of a neighborhood put their shovels to good use. At first they prioritize their porches and driveways and gradually work toward the public sidewalks and streets. Each neighbor understands, and is obliged to uphold, their responsibility to the community, despite the sidewalks and streets being public domain. In turn, they commit their share of shoveling accordingly along with their fellow neighbors. Alternatively, each neighbor could shovel their own respective property, as one consumed with individualism would be inclined to do, and relinquish the shared responsibility of shoveling public sidewalks and streets to a governing authority – a dangerous potentiality that Tocqueville’s refers to as “soft despotism.” Although this example is exaggerated and in some sense romanticized, it captures the essence of what Tocqueville articulates in his writing. The shared responsibilities of neighbors, despite implying sacrifice, are useful to the individual and the community when faced with certain everyday obstacles, like unplowed rows. The result, in this case, is cleared sidewalks and streets for every community member to use. Yet, the threat of individualism continuously compels neighbors to delegate these shared responsibilities to government authorities, which has the potential to expand and even exploit these communal responsibilities – which is where one can understand American culture today.

The notion that contemporary American culture has succumbed to soft despotism is unsurprising, as Tocqueville understood this trend as characteristically organic to democracies. As time passed, Americans began to prefer having increasingly less public responsibilities, and consequently began to focus their efforts inward. Today, American society accepts that the government retains a sizable amount of responsibilities, such as public welfare and infrastructure. Despite this, the attributes of American society that Tocqueville notes in his travels are still relevant and impactful. His observations describe his understanding of American “social theory” extensively, isolating the qualities that establish America as “a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness a hundred times greater than ours [France’s] … How are they welded into one people? By a community of interests.” It is not outlandish to think this of America’s current culture, for it continues to embody a diversity of race, ethnicity, language, and opinion. The divergence from this social theory, however, is revealed as soft despotism overtakes communities. What Tocqueville failed to speculate was the potential influence that negative externalities can have within a modern democracy, most notably mass media and social media, each having the ability to penetrate the individual’s inner circle and warp their perception of his or her surroundings. These externalities typically enforce hollow stereotypes and heuristics that emphasize economic, political, and social differences for ratings, social agency, or even electoral backing.

In 2017 the reality of both mass media and social media’s influence cannot be dismissed, especially because it has the capability of altering individual’s social and political dispositions. This influence is more potent as the American sociopolitical climate continues to become polarized. According to the Pew Research Center’s polling, there is a growing division between left and right-leaning ideologies and their trust of specific media outlets. Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have come to be more trusted by individuals who self-identify as left-leaning, while outlets like Fox News and The Sean Hannity Show have come to be trusted by individuals who self-identify as right-leaning. As the majority of individuals continue to receive their news via television and cable, ideological and partisan skews in positions reinforce platforms that emphasize the differences of out-groups. As a result, individuals are less inclined to see the similarities of their neighbors in order to find common interests, as they are portrayed as irredeemably different on account of their perceived affiliations. On social media platforms, the autonomy of associating with others of like ideologies and dispositions eliminates the effort to find common interests with other community members. In a way, individuals form their own digital communities based on an understanding of common interests, like senses of humor, recreational activities, careers, and political ideas. Sorting associations by like political ideas, in particular, is especially noticeable on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as Pew Research notes that many conservative individuals friend only those with similar dispositions, while more liberal individuals unfriend those with differing political opinions. Social media, in this sense, can be understood as an incredibly powerful tool when utilized by political organizations and social causes, such as national and state parties and social causes. Subjugation to mass media and social media outlets implies that individuals are able to form perceptions of communities, demographics, and factions without ever physically interacting with them, which proves to be costly, as it only feeds the growing trend of polarization and divisive sentiment.

It is important to note that Tocqueville does acknowledge that it is within American mores to recognize the differences of our neighbors, a behavior he attributes to the “equality of conditions,” or the facility of socioeconomic mobility in early American society. Indeed, it was once an integral aspect of American culture for individuals recognize the differences of others, particularly in relation to wealth and affluence, as it was relatively easy to work towards this type of success. However, this is purely in an economic capacity; today, warped dispositions of individuals are primarily based on emphasizing political, ideological, or social differences. Unfortunately, as the responsibilities of governing institutions become consolidated and expanded upon as a result of the despotic nature of democracy, so too is the relevance of the elected officials, which creates an incentive for campaigns to use divisive rhetoric to garner a following. A recent example of this was during the 2016 election cycle, as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton sought to isolate her opponents’ following as “deplorable,” while Republican candidate Donald Trump contrasted elite Americans from “forgotten” Americans. As each candidates’ respective followings received this news through their preferred mass media or social media outlets, their perceptions of opposing were reinforced with malicious overtones, creating starker in-groups and out-groups.

Ideally, community members would understand each others’ fundamental differences and would focus on similarities and common interests – like being snowed in. Further, they would do this without forming preconceptions and make efforts to find some common ground even with knowledge of held differences. Although this simply is not the case today, Tocqueville’s proposed doctrine of self-interest well understood, while being a useful method of repudiating soft despotism, is also useful in nullifying the negative externalities that emphasize hollow and trivial differences. Tocqueville attributes great value to this doctrine in its modest achievability and its accommodation “to the weaknesses of man … [for] it personal interest against itself, and to direct the passions, it makes use of the spur that excites them.” In this context, the “weaknesses of man ” can be understood as the human impulse that drives individuals inward; the doctrine, however, makes use of motivation surrounding self-interests and projects it towards to community. Overcoming the negative influences of mass media and social media, which many mindlessly depend on as aspects of modern society, is essential to rediscover the unique aspects of early American society.

To clarify, Tocqueville’s message is not politically charged. He continuously mulls over the relationship between equality and liberty, believing that the former should not be pursued at the expense of the latter. Throughout Democracy in America, he warns of the possible sleepless complacency to soft despotism, tyranny of the majority, and communitarianism. He proposes ideas that, instead, are not “lofty,” but taken up with a certain willingness and gumption. As American society continues to stray further from Tocqueville’s observations of early American culture, his illustration of American society falling victim to individualism should be considered:

like a stranger to the destiny of all others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone.

This dark picture describes what is occurring in today’s social climate in an imperfect fashion, for it does not acknowledge the negative dispositions that individuals hold today over others with differences.   Individuals may essentially be strangers to all others, but they also hold contempt for those who are believed to hold differences in ideas, opinions, and in some cases language and race. The common neighbor, in this sense, does not only lack value to an individual’s self-interested pursuits, but now embodies everything that challenges those pursuits if a particularly skewed outlet isolates their differences as such.

If American society wishes to do away with its entrenching, divisive sentiment, Tocqueville’s doctrine of self-interest well understood is a critical starting point. It is not an incredibly high-minded feat to pursue and achieve, but it is rather one of humility that boasts the potential for a “regulated, temperate, moderate, [and] farsighted” society. Certainly, it is open for debate as to whether centralized governments should return much of the responsibilities that it has stripped, but the doctrine can indisputably bring the polar ends of the spectrum closer together, so as to realize their common similarities before their differences. Moving forward, Americans should be conscious of how media outlets portray those within perceived out-groups, and make a reasonable effort to understand not only their fellow neighbor’s common interests but how neglecting their position in the community on the basis of their differences serves only to divide further.


About Kevin Weil

Contributing Editor, Political Theory. | Dabbles in political science, Partisan to Reason. | Email: | Twitter: @KevMWeil