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
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
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. …