An Overview Of Victorian Morality

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Various theories about "right and wrong" have been developed over the centuries, referring to morality. These moral theories can help humans develop codes to live by, which safeguard them in their individual and social lives. One of these theories is Victorian morality, which can be helpful to explore if you're interested in learning how humans have historically lived their lives.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Morality helps us make good decisions

What is Victorian morality? 

Victorian morality is "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 often regarded as austere and non-indulgent. Victorian morality also displays zero tolerance toward sexual promiscuity and breaches of the law. While many elements of the Victorian moral code might seem alien to modern individuals, some may be 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.

Elements of Victorian morality explained

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

The wealthy and the poor had incredibly different lives, and opportunities and expectations for men and women varied. Another central element of Queen Victoria's reign involved industrialism, primarily prompted by the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century. Below are a few of these elements in greater detail. 

Quality of life

The quality of life for wealthy and poor individuals significantly differed in the Victorian era. The high class enjoyed luxurious homes and amenities, such as beautiful gardens and servants catering to their needs. By contrast, poor people from this period experienced the opposite of luxury. Many less fortunate individuals were often forced to live in cramped common quarters without windows, heat, or running water.

At this time, some wealthy people did not need to work due to already having abundant resources. However, impoverished individuals were forced to work to put food on their tables. In some cases, the poor children of this era had to work with their parents. Less fortunate families who lacked homes and jobs may have lived in workhouses.

A middle class did exist, although in many regards, the middle class was considered part of the upper class, as they, too, lived comfortably, unlike the lower class. Middle-class men worked as attorneys, doctors, shopkeepers, bankers, merchants, and factory owners.

Despite the stark quality of life between wealthy and impoverished Victorians, the former attempted to help the latter. During this era, the upper class founded institutions known as Ragged Schools. Ragged Schools began in 1844 and were in working-class communities. In addition to free education, many Ragged Schools offered shelter, food, and clothes for poor children. These institutions helped less fortunate young people learn reading, arithmetic, writing, and Biblical scriptures.

The Biblical scriptures were essential to this society because religion and morality were closely linked in the Victorian Age. Moral behavior, in general, was often characterized by a basis in religious belief, compared to ethical behavior, which was generally characterized by lived experience. 

Getty/Halfpoint Images

Gender inequality 

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 prepared for esteemed 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 firmly ingrained in girls and women.

The monumental inequality between men and women is a significant part of the legacy of Victorian morality. This 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 free to select professions of their choosing, while women were expected to marry, submit to their husbands, bear children, care for the home, and instruct servants.

Societal views and expectations are only one way that inequality between men and women existed during the Victorian era. The inequity also manifested in the rights granted to men, which women did not enjoy. Ultimately, women were regarded as the literal property of men. Unlike men, women could not vote, sue, or own property. Moreover, in a divorce, women would lose all 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 now, it is increasingly widely believed that Victorian society was much more liberal. Among primary documents left by the not-so-distant Victorian age, a relatively large trove of Victorian erotica also survives as a testament to their more modern humanity.

Victorian-era movements that predate modern feminism, including the Women's Suffrage Movement, have their roots in Victorian times.

The Victorian code of conduct

Despite massive disparities, 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 people chosen to be in charge. Well-off individuals from this period believed in family values, the status quo, and traditions. The experience of life's luxuries also went hand in hand with the Victorian upper class.

The Victorian Code of Conduct had three main parts: 

  • Value of evangelicalism
  • Theory of utilitarianism 
  • Empiricism theory

However, the values and theories did not necessarily go hand in hand. The empiricism theory was the opposite of the theory of utilitarianism.


John Wesley founded this portion of the Victorian Code of Conduct. Wesley believed that change, social reform, and charity benefited society. Moreover, he thought that Victorians ought to devote themselves to selfless causes for the sake of helping others. In some regards, the Value of Evangelicalism parallels modern-day American activism. However, it was focused more on religion in this period. 

Theory of utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham brought the theory of utilitarianism 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 a helpful solution 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.

Empiricism theory

John Milton and Charles Dickens founded this theory, eventually becoming a movement. Unlike Bentham's theory of utilitarianism, the empiricism theory states that developing various skills, talents, and personal values would lead to success, wellness, and contentment. Therefore, Milton and Dickens regarded education and art as critical matters.

This theory valued reform and providing appropriate aid to the less fortunate in the Victorian era. Milton actively worked to better the lives of low-income and lower-class people. Furthermore, the empiricism theory believed in duty, respect, philanthropy, charity, sincerity, and a strong work ethic.

Empiricism was a national policy of Victorian Britain, which was, at the time, an empire. On the global stage, it manifested as cultural elitism imposed on Britain's far-flung colonies. As adverse reactions to Victorian imperialism and empiricism mounted, Britain gradually divested most of its international holdings.

Is Victorian morality positive or negative? 

Assessments of Victorian morality may vary depending on who is asked. However, some people may believe the era had both positive and negative aspects. 

While there were certain efforts to better the lives of the less fortunate, the life someone lived often depended upon which family they were born into. Constituents of the Victorian era prided themselves on being individualists, yet women were denied rights, opportunities, and the freedom to exist independently of men. The lower class could not move up and create a better life through hard work.

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

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Morality helps us make good decisions

Finding moral support 

Studying history may not be enough if you're looking to sort out your moral code. Talking to a therapist may be beneficial when you have questions about ethics or morals. For those who face barriers to traditional in-person therapy, online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp can also be beneficial. 

Research shows online therapy can be a powerful tool for people working through difficult-to-process feelings related to morality. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the convenience of your own home and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

In an extensive study published in World Psychiatry, researchers examined the overall effectiveness of online therapy when addressing the symptoms of various mental health issues. Specifically, the report looked at the benefits of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most prevalent online treatment methods, helping participants reframe thought patterns that may cause unwanted behaviors or emotions. Researchers concluded that online CBT and other forms of online therapy are valuable methods of providing mental healthcare. 


Although history can involve flaws and missteps, there are often lessons to be learned. Challenges can still occur despite the plethora of advancements that have ensued since the Victorian era. Maintaining a solid support system is one way to handle life's challenges. Such a system includes friends, relatives, or a licensed counselor or therapist. Counselors and therapists specialize in providing guidance and have improved the lives of millions.
Explore the topic of morality
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started