Ralph Raico’s doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of F.A. Hayek, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, September 1970: The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton.
The most fundamental similarity among the three thinkers has to do with the ethical coloration of their liberalism. For all of them, liberty was to be valued chiefly as a means t o the end of human excellence, whether this is conceived of as consisting of perfect obedience to conscience, in such qualities as energy, passion and a taste for grandeur, or (as with Constant) in something of a combination of these.
Accordingly, Constant and Acton condemned utilitarianism, the former devoting a good deal of effort to the enterprise. For both thinkers, egoism furnished an inadequate foundation for liberty: for Acton, this conclusion was tied to his basic philosophical rationale for rights, which were seen as proceeding from one’s duties to one’s neighbors. Constant’s dread of the modern emphasis on egoism, on the other hand, stemmed from his view of the social conditions required for a liberal order.
Tocqueville followed Constant closely in his identification of egoistic individualism and the quest for personal enjoyment as a prime modern threat to freedom. (Indeed, the parallels between their thought in this whole area are so many–although unexplored by any scholar, to my knowledge–that a strong influence by Constant on Tocqueville must be presumed.) He appears at first to disagree with Constant in asserting that, given certain conditions, egoistic hedonism is an acceptable basis for ethics in the democratic age, faute de mieux. Ultimately, however, he finds that it is insufficient for the creation of the minimally necessary of human character, and must be supplemented by religion, by the cultivation of the sense of glory, etc. In fact, in the end, he grows silent concerning the potentiality of even religious faith to stem the modern attitude, and places his hopes rather in the practice of political democracy.
The recognition of the inadequacy of the ethical and metaphysical bases of eighteenth-century liberalism and the currents in nineteenth-century liberal thought that flowed from it, may be cited as the distinguishing mark of the three men whose ideas we have examined; of all of them, and not of Tocqueville alone, it may be said that “they were liberals of a new type.”