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The Drunkard's Progress: by Nathaniel Currier 1846, warns that moderate drinking leads, step-by-step, to total disaster.

Moralism is a philosophy that arose in the 19th century that concerns itself with imbuing society with a certain set of morals, usually traditional behaviour, but also "justice, freedom, and equality".[1] It has strongly affected North American and British culture, concerning private issues such as the family unit and sexuality, as well as issues that carry over into the public square, such as the temperance movement.[2]

The term has been used in a pejorative sense to describe the attitude of "being overly concerned with making moral judgments or being illiberal in the judgments one makes".[3]

French moralists[edit]

From top left and clockwise: Jean de La Bruyère, François de La Rochefoucauld, Luc de Clapiers, Nicolas Chamfort

In French literature, the moralists (French: moralistes) were a tradition of secular writers who described "personal, social and political conduct", typically through maxims. The tradition is associated with the salons of the Ancien Régime from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The tradition begins with the Essais of Michel de Montaigne (1580), but its heyday was the late 17th century.[4]

Although the moralists wrote essays and pen-portraits, their preferred genre was the maxim. These were short abstract statements devoid of context, often containing paradoxes and always designed to shock or surprise. The moralists aimed for objective and impartial observation freed from the preconceptions of their day. Their approach was never systematic.[4] The four principal moralists and their main works are:

North America[edit]

In tracing the origins of moralism, sociologist Malcolm Waters writes that "Moralism emerged from a clash between the unrestrained character of frontier expansionism, a middle-class, Protestant emphasis on respectability cultivated in small-town America and an egalitarian and anti-intellectual evangelism among splinter Protestant groups."[5]

In the 19th century, the issues of abolition and temperance formed the "twin pillars" of moralism, becoming popular through Christian Churches in the United States, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.[6][7] Moralism as promoted by some Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, manifested in wide support for abolitionism.[8]

The rise of postmillennialism in the 19th century "encouraged a general culture of Protestant moralism and pushed it toward a series of social reform movements, from antislavery and abolitionism (freedom for the slaves now), to protests against Indian Removal, to antiwar and peace efforts, to women's rights, to temperance work before and after the Civil War."[9] As such, the campaign for women's suffrage, evidenced by the ethos of organisations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was highly driven by the moralism of that era.[10]

In the latter part of 20th century, as well as the 21st century, moralists in the United States turned their attention to championing the movement to criminalize abortion care.[2] Moralists have also focused their efforts in maintaining blue laws, such as those that discourage Sunday shopping, in accordance with first-day Sabbatarian beliefs and the sensibilities of some labourers and trade unions.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Theissen, Gerd (2007). The Bible And Contemporary Culture. Fortress Press. p. 147. ISBN 9781451408607.
  2. ^ a b Klingemann, Hans-Dieter; Fuchs, Dieter; Zielonka, Jan (2006). Democracy and Political Culture in Eastern Europe. Routledge. ISBN 9781134170418.
  3. ^ Archer, A. (2018). "The problem with moralism". Ratio. 31 (3): 342–350. doi:10.1111/rati.12168. S2CID 148850005.
  4. ^ a b Ian MacLean, "Moralistes", Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Taylor and Francis, 1998), doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA035-1.
  5. ^ Waters, Malcolm (2002). Daniel Bell. Routledge. p. 73. ISBN 9781134845576.
  6. ^ Welter, Brian (6 May 2011). "Philosophy professor finds both Christians, secularists lacking". Catholic News Service. Archived from the original on November 18, 2018. In many essays, Taylor shows how this excessive moralism in both the Protestant and Catholic churches from the 17th century onward led to a "polite" Christian society where being polite was more important than being Christian.
  7. ^ Robins, R. G. (2004). A. J. Tomlinson: Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199883172.
  8. ^ Ryan, James Emmett (2009). Imaginary Friends: Representing Quakers in American Culture, 1650-1950. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 51. ISBN 9780299231743. Still operating at the margins of American religious discourse, Quaker civic moralism would see its legitimacy in the public sphere grow as increasing numbers of American citizens grew sympathetic with the Unionist and abolitionist causes.
  9. ^ Brekus, Catherine A.; Gilpin, W. Clark (2011). American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 50. ISBN 9780807869147.
  10. ^ Delany, Sheila (2007). Writing Woman: Sex, Class and Literature, Medieval and Modern. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 11. ISBN 9781556354434.
  11. ^ Steinfels, Peter (2013). The Neoconservatives: The Origins of a Movement: With a New Foreword, From Dissent to Political Power. Simon and Schuster. p. 37. ISBN 9781476729701.

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