The Value of Victorian Virtues

Article excerpt

When Margaret Thatcher, during the British election campaign of 1983, raised the issue of "Victorian values," she said that she was grateful to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother who taught her such values as hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, cleanliness, neighborliness and pride in country. "All of these things," she said, "are Victorian values. They are also perennial values."

Well, not quite. Thatcher's grandmother would not have spoken of them as "values." She would have spoken of them as "virtues." Moreover, they were not "perennial" virtues. Certainly the virtues celebrated by classical philosophers such as Aristotle - wisdom, justice, temperance, courage - do not appear in the litany of Thatcher's grandmother. Nor were the Victorian virtues the Christian ones - faith, hope and charity - although the Victorians would not have belittled these virtues.

The Victorian virtues were more domesticated than the classical ones and more secular than the Christian ones.w Those virtues were deemed essential, not only for the good life of individuals but for the well-being of society. And they were "virtues," not "values." Not until the present century did morality became so thoroughly relativized that virtues ceased to be "virtues" and became "values."

Values, as we now understand that word, can be beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, even habits or preferences. One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone's virtues are as good as any one else's, or that everyone has a right to his or her own virtues. Only values can lay that claim to moral equality and neutrality.

For the Victorians, virtues were fixed and certain, not in the sense of governing the actual behavior of all people all the time, but as standards against which behavior could be judged. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was deemed to be bad, wrong or immoral - not merely misguided, undesirable or "inappropriate."

In Victorian England, moral principles were as much a part of public discourse as of private discourse and as much a part of social policy as of personal life. They were imbedded in two powerful strains of Victorian thought: utilitarianism on one hand, Evangelicalism and Methodism on the other. They complemented and reinforced each other, the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain, rewards and punishments, being the secular equivalent of the religious gospel of virtues and vices. It was this alliance of a secular ethos and a religious one that provided the practical basis for social policy.

Every measure of poor relief, for example, had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the poor.

In recent times, we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them; and in part the prevailing spirit of relativism, which makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief.

In retrospect, we can see that the social pathology - "moral pathology," I would call it - of crime, violence, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and drug addiction is intimately related to the "counterculture" of the 1960s that promised to liberate us from the stultifying influence of "bourgeois values. …