An Overview Of Victorian Morality

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated March 29, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Morality Helps Us Make Good Decisions.

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As the name suggests, Victorian morality is defined as "the distillation of the moral views of people living during the time of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), the Victorian era, and of the moral climate of Great Britain in the mid-19th century in general."

These moral views are widely regarded as austere and non-indulgent. Victorian morality also displayed zero tolerance towards sexual promiscuity and breaches of the law. Furthermore, individuals from this time are reported as maintaining incredibly dour dispositions.

While many elements of the Victorian moral code will seem alien, some of them are very familiar. Ideas like chivalry have their root in Victorian era movements. As a result, understanding Victorian moral codes can help you to understand modern beliefs far removed in space and time from Victorian Britain.

Victorian Morality Explained

Although truthfulness, economizing, duty, personal responsibility, and a strong work ethic were strongly regarded morals of the Victorian era, the years between 1837 and 1901 involved so much more. One of the most notable differences involves the stark contrasts between the lifestyles of various people, as documented by Academia.

The wealthy and the poor had incredibly different lives. Opportunities and expectations for men and women also varied. Another central element of Queen Victoria's reign involved industrialism. The mid-18th century Industrial Revolution largely prompted this.

Quality Of Life

The quality of life for wealthy individuals and poor individuals couldn't have been starker during the Victorian era.

The high class enjoyed luxurious homes and amenities such as beautiful gardens and servants to cater to their every need. By contrast, poor people from this period experienced the polar opposite of luxury. Many less fortunate individuals were often forced to make do by living in one small room and going without windows, heat, or even running water.

Many wealthy people did not need to work, due to already having an abundance of resources. However, impoverished individuals were forced to work for the sake of putting food on their tables. In many cases, the poor children of this era were forced to work along with their parents. Less fortunate families who lacked homes and jobs usually lived in workhouses.

Amiddle class did exist, although the people in this particular social class only made up 15% of the population. In many regards, the middle class was considered to be part of the upper class, seeing as they too lived comfortably, unlike the lower class. Middle-class men generally held occupations as attorneys, doctors, shopkeepers, bankers, merchants, and factory owners.

Despite the stark quality of life between wealthy and impoverished Victorians, the former did attempt to help the later. It was the duty of these upper classes, wrote eminent Victorians like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, to help the lower classes.

During this era, members of the upper class founded institutions known as "Ragged Schools." The inception of Ragged Schools began in 1844 and was located in working-class communities. In addition to free education, many Ragged Schools also offered shelter, food, and clothes for poor children. These institutions, furthermore, helped less fortunate young people learn reading, arithmetic, writing, and Biblical scriptures.

The Biblical scriptures were important because religion/morality were closely linked in the Victorian Age. “Moral behavior” in general is often charactered by a basis in religious believe, compared to “ethical behavior” which is generally characterized by a basis in lived experience. Morals and values systems are generally based lived experience, though some moral behaviors are not ethical and vice versa.

Inequality Between Men And Women

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Despite the lifestyle differences between rich and poor individuals from this period, upper-class men and women also lived wholly different lives.

While Victorian boys attended the best schools and were groomed for various professions, Victorian girls were not. Instead, girls were often taught in their homes and expected to learn how to draw, play the piano, and sing. Moreover, marriage and serving as support systems for future families were strongly ingrained in girls and women.

Unfortunately, the monumental inequality between men and women is a significant part of the legacy of Victorian morality.

This particular era regarded men as creatures of ambition, independence, action, reason, and aggression. Women, in contrast, were viewed as creatures of passivity, dependence, submission, weakness, and self-sacrifice. Therefore, men were granted the freedom to select professions of their choosing, while women were expected to marry, submit to their husbands, bear children, care for the home, and provide instructions to servants.

Societal views and expectations are only one manner in which inequality between men and women existed during the Victorian era. The inequity also manifested itself in the form of rights granted to men, whichwomen did not enjoy.

Ultimately, women were regarded as the literal property of men. Unlike men, women could not vote, sue, or truly own property of their own. Moreover, in the event of a divorce, women would lose all of their property to men.

This strict moral code has led to the enduring myth of Victorian repression. While it’s true that sexual expression was more limited than it is now, it is increasingly widely believed that Victorian society (at least in private) was much more liberal than we generally give it credit for.

In fact, among primary documents left to us by the not-so-distant Victorian age, a rather large trove of Victorian erotica also survives as a testament to their more modern humanity.

On a more serious note, a number of Victorian era movements that arguably predate modern feminism, including the Women’s Suffrage Movement, have their roots in Victorian times.

Code Of Conduct

Despite the massive disparities between the upper and lower classes (and between men and women), individuals from the Victorian era still regarded themselves as having values.

However, the ins and outs of these values greatly varied between social classes. Wealthy Victorians viewed themselves as individualists and persons who were simply chosen to be in charge. Well-off individuals from this period furthermore believed in family values, the status quo, and traditions. The experience of life's luxuries also went hand in hand with members of the Victorian upper class.

Of the Victorian Code of Conduct, there were three main parts, which are as follows: Value of Evangelicalism, Theory of Utilitarianism, and the Empiricism Theory. However, the preceding values and theories did not necessarily go hand in hand. The Empiricism Theory was, in many regards, the polar opposite of the Theory of Utilitarianism.

First and foremost, the Value of Evangelicalism. John Wesley founded this portion of the Victorian Code of Conduct. Wesley subscribed to the belief that change, social reform, and charity were beneficial to society. Moreover, he thought that Victorians ought to devote themselves to selfless causes for the sake of helping others. In certain regards, the Value of Evangelicalism shares certain parallels with modern day, American activism.

Next on the Code of Conduct is the Theory of Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham brought this theory into being. The Theory of Utilitarianism states that cultural and human values are frivolous and unnecessary. Bentham ultimately believed that sheer reason would serve as helpful solutions to various problems in the world. Depending on the context, the Theory of Utilitarianism would be regarded as an isolationist ideology or a form of social Darwinism.

Last, but not least, comes the Empiricism Theory. John Milton and Charles Dickens founded this particular theory which would eventually become quite a movement. Unlike Bentham's Theory of Utilitarianism, the Empiricism Theory stated that the development of various skills, talents, and personal values would lead to success, wellness, and contentment. Therefore, education and art were regarded as matters of high importance by Milton and Dickens.

However, the Empiricism Theory didn't stop here. This particular theory valued reform and providing reasonable aid to less fortunate members of the Victorian era. Milton actively worked to better the lives of the poor and lower class. Furthermore, the Empiricism Theory believed in duty, respect, philanthropy, charity, sincerity, and a strong work ethic.

Empiricism was national policy for Victorian Britain which was, at the time, a literal empire. On the global stage it manifested as cultural elitism imposed on Britain’s various far-flung colonies. As negative reaction to Victorian imperialism and empiricism mounted, Britain gradually divested from most of its international holdings.

Is Victorian Morality Good Or Bad?

Assessments of Victorian morality will greatly vary upon whom is asked. However, many people will likely agree that this particular era maintained positive and negative aspects.

While there were certain efforts to better the lives of the less fortunate, the life someone lived greatly depended upon which family they were born into. Members of the Victorian era prided themselves on being individualists, yet women were denied rights, opportunities, and the freedom to exist independently of men. Members of the lower class were unable to move up and create a better life for themselves via hard work.

With very few exceptions, Victorians who were born poor also died poor. Child labor and prostitution were also rampant throughout the reign of Queen Victoria.

Morality Helps Us Make Good Decisions.

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How BetterHelp Can Help

Facets of Victorian society have captured imaginations since, well, the Victorian era. Hopefully, after reading this article, Victorian moral codes make a little more sense to you. If you’re trying to sort out your own moral code, studying history may not be enough. When you have questions about ethics or morals, talking to a therapist can help.

Research shows that online therapy can be a powerful tool for people working through difficult-to-process feelings related to morality. In an extensive study published in World Psychiatry, researchers examined the overall effectiveness of online therapy when addressing the symptoms of a range of different mental health issues. Specifically, the report looked at the benefits of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is one of the most prevalent methods of online treatment, helping participants reframe the negative thought patterns that may cause unwanted behaviors or emotions. Researchers concluded that online CBT and other forms of online therapy are useful methods of providing mental health care.

With BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the convenience of your own home. The qualified professionals at BetterHelp have assisted thousands in making sense of the world and improving their mental health. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who have sought help in the past.

Counselor Reviews

“Stephen is an incredible helper, and has guided me through a lot of life recently. I would highly recommend Stephen as someone who is a strong moral compass and a great listener.”

Wendy Friedman is one of the most exceptional counselors I’ve ever encountered. She provides practical application, resources and tools needed to become the best version of myself. Tough love approach and understands areas to work on. Always prepared, very detailed oriented, responsive and cares about the client journey.” 

Conclusion

Although history is full of flaws and missteps, there are always lessons to be learned. A thorough assessment of Victorian morality can also help people of today to be thankful for strides and advancement which have been made. Unlike the time of Queen Victoria's reign, women of today do have rights and are not reduced to being the property of the men around them. Moreover, people who are not born into extremely wealthy families do have the chance to work, grow, and move up. These are opportunities which were not available to Victorians and should always be cherished by people who are currently living.

Despite the plethora of worldly advancements which have ensued since the Victorian era, the world is far from flawless. There are still many issues which various individuals are faced with every day. The sins of the past do not erase the plights of today. Each person has their unique ups and downs. Good times and bad times are inevitable parts of life for everyone. What matters is learning how to effectively and productively manage what life throws at us.

One of the best ways to handle life's challenges is by maintaining a strong support system. Such a system can consist of friends, relatives, and even a licensed counselor or therapist. Counselors and therapists specialize in providing guidance and have improved the lives of millions.

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