The Doctrine of


According to Tocqueville, the aspects of individualism and materialism are inevitable in a democratic society. However, Americans acknowledge the effectiveness of abstract significance of virtues, which govern them. They also recognize the advantage of serving one another and doing well to all as this is for their private benefit. The principle of “self-interest well understood” helps in establishing virtuous behaviors among individuals (Tocqueville 2000). According to Tocqueville, the principle of “self-interest well understood” is not sufficient to combat individualism and materialism. However, he recognizes that it was extensively acknowledged in the American society as a remedy for generating virtuous habits. However, Tocqueville believes that the doctrine is not a widespread solution; thus, more remedies are necessitated to explore individualism and materialism. In order to argue this claim, the current paper provides an overview of individualism and materialism as presented by Tocqueville. It also offers an analysis of “self-interest well understood” with regard to the two aspects.

An Overview of Individualism

The term individualism suggests the uncertainty of democracy (Mélonio 2006). The principle of individual autonomy comprises both the self-centered individuals who lack the sense of collective responsibility, as well as the sovereign and politically involved lawgiver individuals. The former is a consequence of individualism that symbolizes suppressed democracy and devastating impact of civil life (Mitchell 2002). According to Ceaser (2011), individualism is a premeditated and diplomatic outlook that disposes every individual to detach himself from other people. Such a person establishes a miniature society convenient to him and deserts the entire society. Individualism is an aspect of an egalitarian social state wherein people are independent and accordingly autonomous of each other on the societal level. Individualism reflects the assertion of individuals concerning their self-sufficiency (Mansfield 2010b). It is a private focus of a democratic individual that results in a community of atomized people. Explaining individualism with regards to Descartes theoretical heritage, a democratic person rebuffs any responsibility that is not directed to individual inquisition.

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The idea of individualism, as explained by Tocqueville, has two facets. Firstly, individualism is entwined with the equality principle (Mansfield n.d). It signifies that every individual in a community distinguishes him/herself as a fundamental unit equivalent to the rest of the units. Secondly, the most important element of some democratic societies is individualism. In this, it suggests an atomistic society that consists of isolated individuals socially attached to others. Individuals who move away from the social responsibility and form their private world comprising themselves, their close family members and friends demonstrate an atomistic society. Tocqueville believes that the idea of individualism is detrimental to the society at large. By forming a private realm, the democratic person focuses on his welfare that dominates over the political responsibility. Such an act suggests a lack of concern to the well-being of society. According to Elster (2009), equality is an assumption of individualism since all people in spite of their identity or social standing reasons regard their concerns. Accordingly, Tocqueville believed that individualism should be eradicated to ensure the social welfare of all and make individuals dependent of one another.

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An Overview of Materialism

Materialism is considered a serious problem of the human mind. Although democracy supports material enjoyments among individuals, in case it becomes extreme, it disposes individuals to conclude that all is nothing but physical matter (Swedberg 2004). Consecutively, materialism directs humans towards such enjoyments creating a critical sphere where democratic countries are driven. The idealistic principle of a democratic society assumes that a person could only be delivered from the iniquities that belonged to the diversities of viewpoints by grounding social maxims on a doctrine that could not be denied by any individual (Welch 2006). Such would break out from oppositions and uncertainty for the reason that it would be founded on passion rather than on individual’s opinions. Such a universal passion is considered the preservation of people’s life in the most likely manner. The principle creates the way to seek a passion of welfare for people. While the aspiration of welfare is a universal aspect, it results in a great desire for materialism. The passion to acquire material welfare is basically a middle-class one that increases and widens within this particular class. Consequently, it becomes a societal problem as it goes down from the higher to the lower ranks.

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Tocqueville argument on materialism focuses on two aspects, the widespread quest for material interest and the invasive psychological impacts of the zeal for equity (Teofanovic 2004). According to Tocqueville, the obsession of welfare that exists in human societies has a social and cultural inclination in unparalleled democratic periods. He does not view the aspiration for material welfare as morally debasing or a noble condescension of proceeds. However, he cautions that in autonomous societies, materialism has a tendency to becoming the fundamental interest in the ladder of individual goals. It is worth noting that the aspect of materialism, as argued by Tocqueville, signifies more than the aspiration to acquire physical commodities (Tocqueville 2000). Instead, it has a metaphysical component indicating that only physical material subsists. This broadens into philosophical materialism, implying that materialism is an expected aspect of the Western democracy.

Self-Interest Well Understood” with regard to Individualism and Materialism

Tocqueville has explained the aspect of “self-interest well understood” in relation to individualism and materialism. Nevertheless, he maintains that the aspect, though acknowledged in the American society, is not enough to combat individualism and materialism. “Self-interest well understood” means that the interest of every individual is to be good (Tocqueville 2000). Through self-love, Americans are able to assist each other while sacrificing on their free will for the god of their country. They devote their time and material goods to achieve this. The doctrine combines private and public interests hence safeguarding the encouraging driver of personal interest while widening its goals. Tocqueville argues that the doctrine has ethical values and is universally acknowledged in the American society although it is not self-evident or complete. The doctrine is risky since it makes individuals recognize their needs and become more interested in them. Consequently, such individuals tend to focus wholly on achieving their needs. However, it helps in keeping individuals from becoming inundated by their desires and surrendering to the reliance of an administration that may be acknowledged as serving them.

Tocqueville starts by arguing that the applicability of individualism that consists of a collection of self-consciously and apprehensive persons seems delicate bearing in mind the genuine integration happening between people (Welch 2001). Tocqueville explains this assertion using the principle of “self-interest well understood”. It is worth noting that Americans are universally engaged through associations of economic, intellectual, social, and political dispositions. With regard to individualism, the doctrine argues that independent citizens should surrender a little of their private welfare in favor of public wellbeing (Schleifer 2012). Thus, individuals would withdraw much of the focus on their private welfare and place emphasis on the general wellbeing of the entire society. It means that individuals attach themselves to other people and put political and social responsibilities before personal interests. The underlying principle supporting the assertion is not a moral character of the people but the effectiveness concerning such associations. Americans acknowledge that virtue is an important factor, and its usefulness is proven during their daily lives. Tocqueville believes that the doctrine is well suited to egalitarian periods (Tocqueville 2000).

Tocqueville asserts that the principle of “self-interest well understood” fails to generate massive dedication. However, it recommends individuals to make diminutive sacrifices daily indicating that solely, the doctrine cannot make people become completely virtuous. Tocqueville argues that the doctrine helps is generating a mass of civilians who are moderate, regulated, intuitive, and masters of their life (Zunz & Kahan 2002). The doctrine leads to virtue through habits rather than will. Additionally, it does not produce unexpected virtues. It merely synchronizes with democracy considering it is in the reach of all and acts as a guide to reasoned actions that modifies personal and public interests. The search for self-interest among Americans through associations is beneficial to the entire society. Such a pursuit is steady in all democratic societies. The pursuit for material welfare is believed as being the fundamental motivation of democratic persons (Kimpell 2014). Therefore, forming associations acts as an effective principle in this case.

The blend between public and private interest was perceived by Tocqueville as being a multifaceted psychological and social relic (Tocqueville 2000). It was opposed to its view as the automatic outcome of pursuit for self-satisfaction among individuals. According to Welch (2001), the principle of self-interest investigated what makes individuals desire their lasting self-interest. The principle as well as its demands to the appropriate interest of an autonomous person is not an acknowledgment of the natural selfish individuals, as asserted by Hobbes (Wolin 2001). Tocqueville declares that in spite of the predictable impacts of materialism and individualism generated by democracy, they can be countered by various established remedies.

The amplifying equality of situations is deepening individual spirit in pursuit for what is beneficial while leaving others to cater for their needs. It implies that the aspect of individualism and the desire to search for material welfare will persist and surpass the doctrine. Tocqueville argues that there is a power in the universe that recognizes the way an individual comprehends his personal interest. The principle of “self-interest well understood” recommends human beings to divert some of their interests and take part in associations and self-governing groups (Schleifer 2000). It should be followed by generating a setting in which people recognize the usefulness of corporation and enhance their knowledge regarding the union that links public and private interest. In this case, the fate and interest of the entire society is dependent on the individual. According to Tocqueville, in spite of the social structure that surrounds a particular person, there is a likelihood of achieving one’s interests by means of the public sphere (Tocqueville 2000). Moreover, a self-governing individual is likely to comprehend the way the welfare of his country impacts his interest. It means that such a person would end up being interested in the success of the society he lives in, having discovered its usefulness. Thus, to some extent, participating in associations results in the growth of virtuous habits important for the wellbeing of the entire society.


Individualism and materialism are the aspects inevitable in a democratic society. The current paper has argued the claim that the principle of “self-interest well understood” is not sufficient to combat individualism and materialism as stated by Tocqueville. Although the doctrine has been found to play a key role in solving the issues, more remedies are necessary. Tocqueville argues that the doctrine does not help individuals become completely virtuous. However, through daily sacrifices, they can attain equilibrium between their interests and those of the society in general. 

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