Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tocqueville: Liberty Over Equality in the Happy Society

My annual Theory Camp is reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

I chose Tocqueville with an eye to including his great work in the course on "The Happy Society" that I am developing. We would read it after Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. Aristotle says happiness is the end of human life. Mill says that society should be organized to promote the greatest collective pleasure. Both Aristotle and Mill think that some pleasures are higher than others.

Tocqueville does not say that happiness is the end of human life. He does not say that happiness is the end of social life. So why is this text useful for “The Happy Society”? Tocqueville argues that Americans have a passion for equality. They value it highly. Its rewards are immediate. They had a revolution to get equality and defend the social arrangements that make it possible. Equality is at least the analogue of what Aristotle and the utilitarians say happiness means to people.

Tocqueville’s concern does not end with equality, but is even more interested in liberty. He shows how Americans promote equal liberty – equality as the basis for each individual to have a fair chance to exercise liberty. Yet Tocqueville believes that the masses tend to value equality too much – even to the point of sacrificing liberty to keep equality. Only the enlightened and far-seeing appreciate the true value of liberty as the more precious of the two core values of modernity. I read Tocqueville as saying that liberty is a higher pleasure than equality. This is at least analogous to Mill’s argument about higher and lower pleasures. It may also be analogous to Aristotle’s contention that contemplation is a higher happiness than action.

2 comments:

ceemac said...

An idea for something to include in your "Happy Society" course.

I have read that all the church related colleges in the 19th century had a capstone course for seniors in Moral Philosophy. It was always taught by the college president who was a minister. Thought the term may not have been used it would seem that these courses would touch on the nature of a happy society.

If you had access to any of the works (books, sermons, notes) of early Centre presidents it could be interesting to include their thoughts on the topic.

gruntled said...

I am with you, ceemac - from the first moment I thought of this course, I wished it to have the place in students' lives of the old "Moral Philosophy" course.