An Overview Of Victorian Morality

Updated January 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Morality Helps Us Make Good Decisions

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 widely regarded as austere and non-indulgent. Victorian morality also displayed zero tolerance towards sexual promiscuity and breaches of the law. While many elements of the Victorian moral code will seem alien, some 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 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, as Academia documented.

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.

Quality Of Life

The quality of life for wealthy 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 opposite of luxury. Many less fortunate individuals were often forced to make do with living in a tiny room and going without windows, heat, or even running water.

Many 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 many cases, the poor children of this era had to work with their parents. Less fortunate families who lacked homes and jobs usually 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 generally 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, upper class founded institutions known as Ragged Schools. Ragged Schools began in 1844 and were located 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 important because religion and morality were closely linked in the Victorian Age. Moral behavior, in general, is often characterized by a basis in religious belief, compared to ethical behavior, which is generally characterized by lived experience. However, some moral behaviors are not ethical, and vice versa.

Inequality Between Men And Women

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 firmly ingrained in girls and women.

Unfortunately, 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 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 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 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 now, it is increasingly widely believed that Victorian society 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 relatively large trove of Victorian erotica also survives as a testament to their more modern humanity.

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

Code Of Conduct

Despite these 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 persons 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, and Empiricism Theory. However, the 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.

Value Of Evangelicalism

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.

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 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 particular theory which would eventually become quite 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 highly important matters.

The Empiricism Theory didn't stop there. This theory valued reform and providing appropriate aid to less fortunate 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 a national policy of 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 adverse reactions to Victorian imperialism and empiricism mounted, Britain gradually divested most of its international holdings.

Is Victorian Morality Good Or Bad?

Assessments of Victorian morality will greatly vary upon who you ask. However, many people will likely agree that this particular era had 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. 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 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

How BetterHelp Can Help

Studying history may not be enough if you’re trying to sort out your moral code. 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. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the convenience of your own home.

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), which is one of the most prevalent online treatment methods, 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. If you want to learn more, contact a qualified professional at BetterHelp.

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Although history is full of flaws and missteps, there are always lessons to be learned. Despite the plethora of advancements that have ensued since the Victorian era, the world is far from flawless. One of the best ways to handle life's challenges is by maintaining a solid 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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