Examining the Fabric of Moral Values

Review: Gertrude Himmelfarb. The De-Moralization of Society. Vintage Book

Ng Kam Weng

It has become fashionable to talk of moral renewal through “Asian values”. However, the term “values” suggests things personal and subjective, traits which are too light-weight to address the brute facts of the outer world and cruel dilemmas of life.

The challenge is to demonstrate in a concrete manner how Asian values can enrich human relationships in contemporary society. In our eagerness to develop concrete models of moral society, we may be tempted to rely exclusively on an idealized Asian moral heritage. Anyway, why not consider a concrete model from outside Asian society? Choosing a “contrast society” may prove instructive and enlightening.

Gertrude Himmelfarb shares our concerns, as evidenced by her scathing critique of the decay of contemporary Western morality. It is precisely her concerns that make the book The De-moralization of Society engaging, if not acerbic reading.

The book transports us to a society where morality is firmly woven into other fabric of human relationships. It shatters many myths about Victorian morals which are often exploited to justify current Western moral permissiveness and also questions the myth of the uniqueness of Asian values.

Critics will be surprised to find many commonalities between Asian values and Victorian values. Himmelfarb observes that there was fundamental agreement on the centrality of the family among leaders of different ideological persuasions ranging from Evangelicals to secular humanists and sceptics.

For example, Lord Shaftesbury, the Evangelical social reformer and beloved “Earl of the Poor”, insisted that there can be no honor, security and harmony in society “unless the strength of the people rests upon the purity and firmness of the domestic system. Schools are but auxiliaries. At home the principles of subordination are first implanted and the man is trained to be a good citizen.”

Strong families flourish in a society which values sexual fidelity. It is well known that those who lived during the Victorian age are referred to pejoratively as sexual prudes. In particular, Victorian women are seen as sexually repressed, domesticated, child-bearing machines. This stereotype should be taken as a compliment since it is voiced by sexually permissive critics of the contemporary West.

Interestingly, Taine, a perceptive French traveler, expressed surprise at the fidelity of Victorian women. He attributed this virtue to the freedom with which women were brought up in the company of men.

Better education also meant they were less prone to illusion and romantic dreams: “They were fully occupied: reading the same books as men, engaged in philanthropic work, traveling, physically active, they had little time or energy for ‘unwholesome ideas’.” Whether this encouraged men to be more faithful is another matter.

Undoubtedly, there were ambiguities with regard to the status of women in Victorian society. Women were denied the right to vote and their campaign to gain universal suffrage did not bear fruit until after two world wars.

However, Florence Nightingale, patron saint of modern nursing, viewed political power as a matter of indifference in the light of women’s actual power to wield moral influence.

Beatrice Webb described the source of this influence as flowing from “the dignity of habitual authority”. The influence which women had became all the more effective because these “governing and guiding women” had no political and ideological agenda and they increasingly expanded their sphere of influence into areas of philanthropy, social reform, education and local government.

Feminists are quick to exploit the loaded word “patriarchy” to lynch opponents who advocate traditional families.

Himmelfarb offers the interesting observation that in the working-class family, the woman was far more dominant. The man generally handed over his entire pay packet to his wife, who then gave him pocket money!

Who then is the “real man”? Himmelfarb noted that the ideal Victorian gentleman was someone typically identified by his moral virtues: integrity, honesty, generosity, courage, graciousness, politeness, and consideration for others.

To be sure, George Bernard Shaw retorted that the gentleman is only the rich man trying to gain respectability. But if the idea of the gentlemen is moralized, it is also democratized in the process. In contrast to an aristocratic society where only privileged individuals are free moral agents, Victorians put a premium on ordinary virtues attainable by ordinary people.

Himmelfarb stressed, “It is no accident that the Victorians put such a premium on the self, not only self-help and self-interest but also on self-control, self-discipline, self-respect. A liberal society, they believed, required a moral citizenry.”

Edmund Burke, a stout defender of traditional morality, resounded, “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.”

The point is made: We are not to dispense with the need for social and religious sanctions but to ensure that they are as painless and uncoercive as possible. That is to say, the more internalized morality is, the less need there will be for the external punitive instrument of the state.

Moralizing of virtue led to the eventual breakdown of class-oriented society, especially since social leaders were unashamedly moralists both for their own behalf and on behalf of the poor.

“Just as it is demeaning to the working class to suggest that work, thrift, prudence, sobriety, self-help, were middle-class values imposed upon them from above, so it is demeaning to the philanthropists to suggest that they promoted these values for their own ulterior motives.”

Himmelfarb granted the presence of ulterior motives (since the leaders were also self-serving and self-aggrandizing), but “the values they commended to the poor were those that they cherished for themselves and for their own families.” Philanthropists of all persuasions and with different motives all agreed, “that the poor had the will to aspire to the same values and the ability to realize them.” Advocates of Asian values should welcome the view that moral virtues of thrift, industry, diligence and perseverance lie within the capacity of the common man.

But by the same token, advancement of common virtues requires rejection of the active intervention of bureaucratic elite. Bureaucracy is, after all, an invention of Enlightenment rationality and Max Weber is justified in typifying bureaucrats as soulless social engineers.

Asian values flourished in the past whenever there was strong local leadership and a weak central government bureaucracy. Indeed, the most developed centralized bureaucracy of Confucian China only engendered corruption, power abuse and eventual loss of credibility.

Focusing on virtue brings added advantage. Virtue is firstly an inner disposition to do good things, not just because it is expedient to do so, but because of a personal commitment to what is right. Virtue emphasizes that moral terms are not just expressions of social conventions or personal preferences so much as insights into the inherent nature of things which we ought to follow.

Virtue is learned as one cultivates a moral self in conformity to objective moral ideals. That is to say, virtue focuses on character, on being good and not just doing good. Hence, the emphasis is on “virtue” and not just virtues. Yet, in the end, a person of virtue performs good deeds. In contrast, framing moral renewal in terms of values is often weak on these positive emphases.

Advocates of Asian values should take note! Caution is in order here lest this review is perceived as evidence that the writer is a Victorian-phile. Indeed, one may challenge Himmelfarb as being nostalgic in idealizing Victorian society. Nevertheless, she offers many perceptive observations on the fin de siecle (at the end of the 19th century) associated with moral decadence and epitomized by Oscar Wilde in his later years.

Himmelfarb’s portrait of Victorian virtues is considered here precisely because of the many similarities with Asian values. More importantly, the subsequent erosion of Victorian virtues in the 20th century provides relevant and concrete lessons to help Asians avoid a similar erosion of Asian values in their society.

Himmelfarb notes that some Victorians compensated for their loss of religious faith with greater moral assertions. But why be good, and how would a person know if morality bereft of a transcendental foundation is not merely social conformity?

Not surprisingly, morality without religion resulted in an inability to resist the challenge of post-Nietzchean permissiveness which glories in self-exaltation and reduces relationships to power struggles.

Statistics detailing the exponential growth in family breakdowns and crime rates suggest that all may not be well with Victorian virtues. Himmelfarb may have underplayed the destructive power of market forces and economic individualism. Still, the vital necessity of moral virtue to resist the encroachment of irresponsible materialism cannot be gainsaid.

Himmelfarb rejects contemporary ego-centred culture that is narcissistic, fragmented and individualistic, isolating oneself from one’s neighbor. In her words, self-respect always entails respect for others. She further insists that the ethos of a society cannot be reduced to economic, material or political elements alone, precisely because of its moral and spiritual character. Undoubtedly, religion continues to play a vital role in social renewal.

Herein lies the dilemma. Direct religious coercion stifles morality and turns members of a society into hypocrites. On the other hand, morality without religion lacks the strength and ultimately the legitimacy to resist decadent moral individualism.

One way to achieve the delicate balance is offered by Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus who argue that moral ethos is best strengthened if the central government restrains its bureaucracy and gives freedom to citizens to establish their own local “mediating institutions”. In other words, religious authorities should eschew coercion and aim instead at assistance and empowerment.

Advocates for Asian values rightly assume that there are moral resources in local cultures to develop person-size institutions able to nurture moral individuals. They would approve those Victorian activists who created organizations to promote “puritan” and family values. “They looked, in short, to civil society to do what the state cannot do – or, more often, to undo the evil that the state has done.”

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