Reducing religion & morality to what is “useful”

Reducing religion & morality to what is “useful” January 10, 2014

More from Daniel Schwindt on de Tocqueville, this time about how Americans–because of their rationalism and individualism–tend to see both religion and morality in terms of what is “useful.”  (Again, thanks to Daniel Broaddus.)

From Daniel Schwindt, Refuting Tocqueville by Way of Tocqueville – Ethika Politika:

Elsewhere Tocqueville daringly elaborates that religious notions, under this sort of regime, come sooner or later to be reduced to only those which are most obvious and undeniable; and even then, spiritual doctrines are only embraced insofar as they are practical—never as a matter of doctrinal or traditional truth. Then, having taken to judging the true by the standard of utility, religion undergoes a transformation. In America, says Tocqueville, “the beauty of virtue is almost never promoted.” Virtue is preached by American clergymen, he says, but only as something useful to oneself. American moralists do not appeal to any higher sensibilities when exhorting men to serve one another; they only suggest that “such sacrifices are as necessary to the man who makes them as to those gaining from them.” Thus, virtue and morality are again reduced to their “use value”—and this sort of “value” must always be understood in temporal terms. (The reader should at this point be anticipating the egoistic philosophy of Ayn Rand.) Tocqueville concludes that no one is willing to “deny that every man can pursue his own self-interest but they turn themselves inside out to prove that it is in each man’s interest to be virtuous.”

In the new dispensation, Christian behavior is not taught as “right” because it is “good,” but is taught as “good” because it is profitable. This leads to a mentality by which Americans “are delighted to explain almost all the acts of their life in the light of self-interest.”—which is to say, egoism. So delighted are they in this philosophy that they even do themselves an injustice by it “because sometimes, in the United States as elsewhere, citizens yield to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses natural to man.” In short, Americans show love to one another simply because they are good and loving people. “But Americans rarely admit that they are giving way to such kinds of emotions; they prefer to attribute the credit to their philosophy than to themselves.” Thus they deny the existence of selfless love even where it exists, preferring to give homage only to the rationalistic philosophy of egoism.

Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors but also hides their descendants and keeps them apart from their fellows. It constantly brings them back to themselves and threatens in the end to imprison them in the isolation of their own hearts.

It should be obvious to the reader that, although these observations are not specifically of the religious order, they will inevitably wreak havoc there. Again, we leave it to Tocqueville to explain this danger, wherein rationalism and individualism reach their final end, which is a profound spiritual atrophy, or materialism:

…while man takes delight in this honest and lawful pursuit of his own well-being, it is to be apprehended that in the end he may lose the use of his sublimest faculties, and that while he is busied in improving all around him, he may at length degrade himself.

And this he follows with a most surprising assertion:

It should therefore be the unceasing object of the legislators of democracies and of all the virtuous and enlightened men who live there to raise the souls of their fellow citizens and keep them lifted up towards heaven…If among the opinions of a democratic people any of those pernicious theories exist which tend to inculcate that all perishes with the body, let men by whom such theories are professed be marked as the natural foes of the whole people.


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