The Magazine

What Is Enlightenment?

From the November 29, 2004 issue: Gertrude Himmelfarb explores three paths to modern times.

Nov 29, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 11 • By DIANA SCHAUB
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There is another possible explanation for America's healthier civil society that Himmelfarb alludes to but does not pursue. In her final paragraphs, she mentions what Alexis de Tocqueville said about "self-interest properly understood"--that it was "of all philosophic theories the most appropriate to the needs of men in our time." She suggests, however, that we substitute "the moral sense" of the British Enlightenment for "self-interest properly understood." A social ethic grounded in compassion was, she writes, "most appropriate to the needs of men" in eighteenth-century Britain and twenty-first-century America.

And yet, by reminding us of Tocqueville's analysis of self-interest rightly understood, Himmelfarb perhaps undercuts her own argument. Tocqueville shows that you don't need Shaftesbury and company to understand or foster virtue in America. The American approach to civic virtue is traceable to Locke, not Shaftesbury. According to the doctrine of self-interest properly understood, it is in one's self-interest both to do the right thing (like tell the truth) and to do good things for others (like be kind and helpful).

This enlightened selfishness does not require altruism or compassion or humanitarian zeal to produce neighborly behavior and public-spirited action. What it requires is instruction in the coincidence of public and private good. Citizens must be taught the utility of virtue: "Honesty is the best policy," as James Madison liked to say.

In fact, America seems a compound of Locke and Christianity. Despite the presence of other streams of thought, these remain the dominant ones. Our virtue is usually grounded either in the calculations of self-interest or the love of God. (These can even be conflated, as Tocqueville shows, in a chapter revealingly entitled "How the Americans Apply the Doctrine of Self-Interest Well Understood in the Matter of Religion.")

BOTH OF THESE FOUNDATIONS of morality seem to me more efficacious than the sentiment of compassion, but then I may just be particularly unsentimental. Gertrude Himmelfarb is certainly right in The Roads to Modernity that the "politics of compassion," which used to be a left-wing specialty, is now (with the advent of "compassionate conservatism") bipartisan. A variety of public policy choices can bear the imprimatur of compassion. And if the rhetoric of compassion is now mandatory, it is incumbent on us to understand its intellectual genealogy.

But the hard work of instilling virtue doesn't take place on the political hustings; it takes place in families and churches and schools. And I suspect that the folks on the front lines will continue to rely on appeals to self-interest and salvation.

Diana Schaub teaches political science at Loyola College in Maryland.