The Roots of Moral Change in the Industrial Revolution

From Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, on why the Industrial Revolution had a larger effect on morality than the decline of the Church. The Church had long before been corrupted by greed and power, what changed with the Industrial Revolution were the incentives of everyday people and their ability to act on their baser desires:

The ideal was deserted because it had disowned itself. The Church had overlaid the incomparable ethics of Jesus with a complex structure of incredible dogma echoing St. Paul and mostly unknown to Christ, and with an omnipresent incubus of organization and theocratical police laying heavy upon the human mind, ready to stifle any independent thought by using the powers of the state to imprison, confiscate, and kill. The local priests and nuns still remembered (and often practiced) Christianity, but the hierarchy forgot it in a lust for unassailable and infallible authority.

The Church had begun with the Prince of Peace, who had bidden Peter put his sword back into its sheath; it had become a warrior using swords, pikes, and guns against the Albigensians of France and the Jews of Spain. The lowly carpenter of Nazareth had been replaced by a pope more richly housed than most emperors, and controlling more wealth than most states. In disputes between oppressors and oppressed the hierarchy had almost always supported the oppressors and suppressed the oppressed. The success of humanists and humanitarians in freeing the mind and the serf emboldened men to demand the taming of this dogmatic, obscurantist, intolerant, and reactionary power.

Has the weakening of that power been the main cause of our moral decline? No. It has been one factor among many, but not the chief. The principal and overspreading cause of our moral “decay” has been the Industrial Revolution. Almost every aspect of that economic convulsion has affected morality. As examples:

1.) The passage from rural mutual surveillance to concealment of the individual in the urban multitude has almost ended the force of neighborly opinion to control personal behavior.

2.) On the farm, till 1900, the family was the unit of economic production, and the authority of the father was strengthened by his economic leadership and by family solidarity. Under industrialism the corporation and the employee are the units of production; the family is dispersed to follow scattered jobs; the son becomes financially independent of the father; parental authority loses its economic base.

3.) On the farm the youth reached economic maturity–i.e., the ability to support a wife and children–almost as soon as he reached biological maturity–i.e., the ability to have children; marriage came early, and premarital continence was less difficult than in our contemporary industrial society, where the deferment of economic maturity has delayed marriage and made continence difficult.

4.) On the farm the wife was a helpmate, an economic asset; children were economic assets after the age of five; there was less reason than now to defer marriage or to practice birth control.

5.) The postponement of marriage and the limitation of the family have spread contraceptive knowledge and devices, removing the sanction of fear from the prohibition of extramarital relations.

6.) Industrial competition among corporations and individuals has strengthened the profit motive and other individualistic instincts, and has broken down moral restraints in the conduct of business.

7.) The wealth spawned by improved methods of production and distribution has enabled thousands of mend and women to indulge in moral escapades that their ancestors could not afford.

8.) Improvements in communication and transportation have given to local immorality and disorder a publicity that stimulates similar deviations elsewhere; and those improvements have facilitated the conspiracies of criminals and their flight from the scene of their crime.

9.) The spread of education, while widening the classes that abstain from crime, has made the new generation increasingly familiar with the historical and geographical diversity of moral codes and their human origin; the inherited code has been thereby weakened, and much doubt has been cast upon its allegedly divine sanctions and source.

10.) Technology has extended and depersonalized war, and has vastly developed man’s ability to murder or destroy.

Obviously the old moral code was adjusted to an agricultural society, and could not be expected to fit, without many alterations, the conditions of modern industrial life. There we should speak of a moral change rather than a moral decay; the present age is experimenting, at its own peril, to find how far individual freedom can comport with the stability of society, the protection of women, and the security of person and property.

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