Morality and Social Movements

There have been three great eras of social reform/protest in the United States—the 1830s (temperance movement, abolitionism, 1st wave feminist movement), the Progressive Era (1890s-1900s), and the 1960s. Social movement research has shown that moral appeals were common in the 1830s, less common in the Progressive Era , and rare in the 1960s. The discourse of personal morality seems to have fallen off the radar in modern social movements. Appeals to personal morality lost their culturally unifying force as functional differentiation took over. Modern moral appeals target institutions rather than people. We hear a lot about the immorally of capitalism, the immorality of war, etc, but not the immorality of people, as was the case in the temperance movement, for example. Moral appeals have certainly not gone away; they are just targeted differently.

Jeffrey Haydu and Tad Skotnicki (2016) took the movements for food reform as a case study. The first movement, early 19th century, talked about the morality of individuals and the nation. A pure natural diet was strongly associated with morality. Physical and moral/spiritual health were closely tied. But the social movements weren’t necessarily tied to religion. For example, Jeremy Bentham and his followers, including James Mill, saw Christianity as a great evil. Nonetheless, both the Benthamites and the Protestant Christian reformers were focused on moral reform.

Several decades later, the Progressive Era reformers targeted political corruption and other institutional sins. In terms of food, the corruption of the industrial society removed the option of a healthy diet from the vast majority of the urban population; it wasn’t that individuals were immoral, they lacked options. In general, the progressivists wanted to eliminate problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government. Many activists joined efforts to reform local government, public education, medicine, finance, insurance, industry, railroads, churches, and many other areas. Progressives transformed, professionalized, and made “scientific” the social sciences, especially history, economics, and political science. Progressives believed that the family was the foundation of American society, and the government, especially municipal government, must work to enhance the family.

The social movements of 1960s, at least the more radical versions, did not talk about personal morality, unless it was to oppose middle-class morality, and they saw modern American politics and capitalism as irredeemable, rather than targets of reform.


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