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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 values."

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 "values."

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 gender-specific.

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 1901.

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.