Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

Enlightened Self-Interest

By James B. Steenbergen

Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University


Enlightened self-interest was a concept that Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in his work Democracy in America. The notion he held was that Americans voluntarily join together in associations to further the interests of the group and, thereby, to serve their own interests. Using "self-Interest rightly understood" (Tocqueville 1835) to describe this concept, he combined the right of association with the virtue to do what was right. The following passage from Democracy in America sums up the concept of enlightened self-interest:

The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state. (Ibid., 647)

Enlightened self-Interest poses the question of whether or not it is to the advantage of a person to work for the good of all. Murphy asserts that it is not a natural inclination to do so, but learned through practice (2002). Yet, the answer may lie in the evidence that the virtue of working together is useful to those involved.

Historic Roots

To understand the significance of enlightened self-interest, one must look at the political and social atmosphere that existed in France during Tocqueville's time period. Tocqueville grew up and was educated in a period of French history marked by revolutions, political turmoil, and centralized rule. His maternal grandfather and an aunt had been guillotined and his parents imprisoned by the time of the French Revolution (Hutchins and Adler 1964).

In writing about the concept of enlightened self-interest, Tocqueville aimed at a better explanation of the uniqueness of America and its institutions. He also aimed at critiquing the popular philosophical and political notions of his French contemporaries. As a concept, enlightened self-interest was a response to egoism, individualism, and the prohibition of political associations. French aristocracy and the political elite viewed political associations as dangerous to the state. In America, local liberties prevailed; they often took the shape of political associations. Local liberty encouraged individuals to participate together in defining and addressing their needs and aspirations (Kincaid 1999). French aristocracy prohibited their existence under the auspices that creating these associations would encourage insurrection against leadership.

Yet, this same leadership encouraged civil associations. The aristocracy believed that encouraging individuals to participate in civil associations would take their mind off the political ills of the time. Aristocracy believed that encouraging these types of associations would make citizenry more apt to concern themselves with worldly pursuits. Tocqueville considered this to be a reflection of the popular philosophical sentiment of the time: egoism. He described this concept as individualism that had no bounds (Elazar 1999). However, Tocqueville's contention was that, without freedom to participate in both types of associations, people would be hesitant to join in association with each other. As a result, the civil society would not flourish.


The importance of Tocqueville defining this concept cannot be weighed lightly. Simultaneously, he accurately described the current philanthropic attitude of Americans and he criticized the current political reality of France. He attacked some of the key claims of the French aristocracy by asserting that freedom to form political dissent groups would actually encourage national stability by re-enforcing notions of democracy. Furthermore, Tocqueville's concept of enlightened self-interest helped to provide an accurate description of the foundational history of the nonprofit sector in America.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The nonprofit sector flourishes today because of the concept that people working together can not only serve their own interest, but can also serve the community as a whole. In addition, much of today's corporate philanthropy rests upon a base of enlightened self-interest. For example, corporations give contributions to scholarship programs. They do this to educate their future workers. These same corporations may also support cultural programs in the cities where their corporate headquarters are located; one motivation for their doing so may be to make those cities more attractive to the people they are recruiting to work for them.

Key Related Ideas

  • Civil society

  • Classic liberalism: a philosophy that espouses the belief that in a good society there is freedom for all; this individual freedom leads to prosperity. Classic liberal American document is the Bill of Rights.

  • Egalitarianism: A belief that all people are equal by nature.

  • Local liberty

  • Self-interest rightly understood

Important People Related to the Topic

Tocqueville's travel to America was commissioned by Louis Philippe, called the "citizen king" because he was enthroned as a result of the Revolution. He was to be accompanied by Gustave de Beaumont, a close friend, to study the prison system in America.

Upon returning from America, he wrote Democracy in America. A leading British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, considered Tocqueville one of the premier thinkers of the time.

Tocqueville ascribed to the philosophy of classic liberalism. Other thinkers, notable classic liberal philosophers of the time included: John Locke, Adam Smith, and Friedrich von Hayek.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (visit at http://www.adti.net) serves as a modern platform for many of the concepts to which Tocqueville prescribed. It has "studied the spread and perfection of democracy around the world." The institution believes in the "basic goodness, perfectibility, and nobility of mankind and of the human community" (Alexis de Tocqueville Institution 2002).

Related Web Sites

The mission of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is "to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles" (Acton Institute 2003). The Institute Web site, at http://www.acton.org, presents information on its programs, research, publications, and public policy positions.

The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour Exploring Democracy in America Web site, at http://www.tocqueville.org/ gives extensive coverage of Tocqueville's life, world, and his travels in America; his most famous passages from Democracy in America are found on the site.

The Alexis de Tocqueville Society Web site gives information on membership, awards, events, and benefits reserved for contributors who donate $10,000 or more, annually, to the United Way (http://national.unitedway.org/tocqueville/).

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. About the Acton Institute. [cited 9 January 2003]. Available from http://www.acton.org/about/.

Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. Mission Statement. [updated September 2002; cited 29 September 2002]. Available from http://www.adti.net/mission.html.

Elazar, Daniel (1999, June) "Tocqueville and the cultural basis of American Democracy." Political Science and Politics. [updated June, 1999; cited 22 September 2002]. Available from http://www.findarticles.com.

Hutchins, Robert M. and Mortimer J. Adler. The Great Ideas of Today. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Press, 1964.

Kincaid, John (1999, June) "Federal Democracy and Liberty." Political Science & Politics. [updated June 1999; cited 22 September 2002]. Available from http://www.findarticles.com.

Murphy, Tom. "An Anger and A Brute: Self Interest and Individualism in Tocqueville's America." [updated 22 September 2002; cited 29 September 2002]. Available from http://www.brtom.org.

Salamon, Lester [cited 13 January 2003]. Available from http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0198/ijde/salamon.htm.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. (Originally published 1835). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN: 0226805328.