By Gertrude Himmelfarb
From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
Excerpted from a Bradley lecture by Gertrude Himmelfarb, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, February 13, 1995.
When Margaret Thatcher, during her election
campaign in 1983, first raised the issue of "Victorian values," she sad
that she was grateful to have been brought up by a Victorian
grandmother who taught her those values: hard work, self-reliance,
self-respect, cleanliness, neighborliness, pride in country. "All of
these things," she said, "are Victorian values. They are also perennial
Well, not quite. Lady Thatcher's grandmother
would not have spoken of them as "values"; she would have spoken of
them as "virtues." It was not until the present century that morality
became so thoroughly relativized that universal virtues became personal
So long as morality was couched in the language
of "virtue," it had a firm, resolute character. One cannot say that
anyone's virtues are as good as anyone else's, or that everyone has a
right to his own virtues. Only values can lay that claim to moral
neutrality. The term "values" brings with it the assumption that all
moral ideas are subjective, that they are mere customs and conventions,
that they have a purely utilitarian purpose, and that they adhere to
particular peoples--or, as we now say, are race-, class-, and
Values, as we now understand them, can be
whatever any individual, group, or society chooses for any reason. This
impartial, "non-judgmental" sense of values is now so firmly entrenched
in our vocabulary any sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time
without it. Why then is there such interest today in Victorian values?
One answer lies in statistics. It is
instructive--and disquieting--to compare Victorian "moral statistics,"
as they called them, with our own. In Victorian England, the proportion
of illegitimate births to total births fell from 7 percent in 1845 to
less than 4 percent by the end of the century. In 1960, English
illegitimacy began to rise--from 5 percent in 1960 to 32 percent at the
end of 1992, a sixfold rise in three decades.
In the United States, the figures are no less
dramatic. Starting at 3 percent in 1920 (the first year for which there
are national statistics), the illegitimacy ratio rose gradually to
slightly over 4 percent by 1960 (the same figure as England), after
which it grew rapidly, more than doubling by 1970, and reaching 30
percent by 1991.
Or let us take another "moral statistic": crime.
In England between 1856 and 1901, the rate of serious crimes declined
by almost 50 percent. The absolute numbers are even more graphic: while
the population grew from 19 million to 33 million, the number of
offenses fell from 92,000 to 81,000.
England's low crime rate persisted until the
mid-1920's when it started to rise leveling off or declining slightly
in the early 1950s. A dramatic rise started in the mid-1950s, and by
1991 the crime rate was 10 times that of 1955 and 40 times that of
National crime statistics for the United States
start only in 1960, but local statistics suggest that, as in England,
crime generally decreased from the latter half of the nineteenth
century into the early twentieth century. A rapid increase started in
1960, the rate tripling by 1980. A decline in the early 1980s was
followed by another rise, bringing the 1992 rate to a level somewhat
lower than its peak in 1980. The rate of violent crime followed the
general pattern, except that the increase after 1985 was more
precipitous, making for an almost fivefold rise from 1960.
But, as Carlyle would have reminded us,
statistics, even moral statistics do not tell the whole story. In his
essay "Defining Deviancy Down," Senator Moynihan describes how behavior
once stigmatized as deviant is now tolerated and even sanctioned.
Divorce and illegitimacy are viewed benignly by some. Violent crime has
become so endemic that we have almost become inured to it.
Charles Krauthammer has proposed a complementary
concept: "Defining Deviancy Up." As deviancy is normalized, so what was
once normal becomes deviant. The kind of family that has been regarded
for centuries as natural and moral--the "bourgeois" family, as it is
invidiously called--is now seen as pathological, concealing behind the
façade of respectability sins like child abuse. Thus, while crime is
underreported because we have become desensitized to it, child abuse is
overreported, including cases (often inspired by therapists) recalled
long after the supposed events.
The combined effect of defining deviancy up and
defining it down has been to normalize and legitimize what was once
regarded as abnormal and illegitimate, and, conversely, to denigrate
and discredit what was once normal and respectable. This process has
occurred with startling rapidity.
For a long time, social critics and policymakers
found it hard to face up to the realities of our moral condition, in
spite of the statistical evidence. The realities are difficult to
confront because they violate the dominant liberal those that distrusts
the very idea of morality. Moral principles are thought to be illiberal
and coercive. Many are uncomfortable with the idea of making moral
judgments even in their private lives, let alone in public affairs.
It is this reluctance to speak the language of
morality, and to apply moral ideas to social policies, that separates
us from the Victorians. 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. 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--and
not only of the pauper receiving relief but of the independent laboring
poor as well.
In recent times we have so completely rejected
any kind of moral principle that we have deliberately, systematically
divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. We are now
confronting the consequences of this policy. Having made the most
valiant attempt to see the problem of poverty as the product of
impersonal economic and social forces, we are now discovering that the
economic and social aspects are inseparable from the moral and personal
ones. And having made the most determined effort to devise policies
that are "value free," that do not stigmatize the recipients of relief
or the "style of life," we find that these policies imperil both the
moral and the material well-being of their intended beneficiaries.
The Victorian virtues were democratic
virtues--and also liberal virtues. By putting a premium on ordinary
virtues attainable by ordinary people, the Victorian ethos located
responsibility within each individual. This is why the Victorians put
such a premium on the self--not only on self-help and self-interest,
but also self-control, self-discipline, self-respect. A liberal
society, they believed required a moral citizenry. The more effective
the voluntary exercise of morality on the part of each individual, the
more internalized that morality in the self (in the form of conscience,
character, habit, or religion), the less need there would be for the
external, coercive, punitive instruments of the state. It was the great
mentor of the Victorians, Edmund Burke, who enunciated this principle:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion
to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites...
Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite
be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there
must be without...
Before concluding, I must say that in inviting a more
respectful attention to the Victorians, I do not mean to condone
everything in Victorian society. But I do believe that there are some
things we can learn from the Victorians, not only such virtues as work,
temperance, self-discipline, and self-reliance, but also the importance
of moral principles in public affairs. The Victorians were candid and
proud "moralists." In recent years that has become almost a term of
derision. Yet contemplating our own society, we should be prepared to
take a more favorable view of Victorian moralism.
We may, in fact, already be witnessing the
beginnings of a moral reformation. The word "moral" has been
rehabilitated; one can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading the
moral crisis of our time. A few days ago the Washington Post
featured to articles on its op-ed page: one by the liberal columnist
William Raspberry on the need for a new "moral center," and another by
Joseph Califano, formerly in the Carter administration, deploring the
"medicalization" of teenage pregnancy and explaining that it is a
moral, not a medical problem. And then there was a remarkable sight,
the other week, on the cover of Newsweek emblazoned with the word "Shame," and below it the subtitle, "How Do We Bring Back a Sense of Right and Wrong?"
Even an inveterate pessimist like myself may be forgiven for thinking that the day of redemption is nigh.