The Victorians are famous for their emphasis on “character,” and many of them, if plopped down in our midst, would seem bizarrely earnest and conscientious, (even) if less so than Darwin.
This is no place for a Darwinian treatise on moral history, but one possible factor is obvious: most people in Victorian England live in the rough equivalent of a small town (decentralized in every respect – Cribb interjection 2015). To be sure, urbanization was well under way, and thus the era of anonymity was nearing. But, compared to today, neighborhoods, even urban ones, were stable.
There are at least two reasons integrity and honesty make particular sense in a small and steady social setting. One is that (as everyone who has lived in a small town knows) there’s no escaping your past. A second reason why being nice is so fruitful in a place like Shrewsbury is that the people you’re nice to will be around for a long time.
Actually, civility does cost something: a little bit of time and psychic energy. And these days it doesn’t buy too much—at least, not unless it is laser guided. Many, if not most, of the people we encounter each day don’t know who we are and will never find out. Even our acquaintances may be fleeting. People move often, change jobs often. So a reputation of integrity matters less now, and sacrifices of all kinds—even for colleagues and neighbors—are less likely to be repaid far in the future. These days an upper-middle-class man who by example teaches his son to be slick and superficially sincere, to tell minor lies in profusion, to work harder on promise than delivery, may well be equipping him for success (…and oh how this shit kills me. This is so true and so pervasive in our current society and everyone just pretends like it is normal and appropriate. The minimal lies always morph into greater bastardizations of truth. Less and less effort is applied towards developing a true skill/great product, communicating with clear and definitive precision, and honing objective analysis. More effort is applied towards becoming the better liar or manipulator or distorter of truth, so something can be sold…so someone can be taken advantage of while disavowing or ignoring all objective criteria (the natural order). Exuberant “marketing” of a minimal quality product or a minimal effort and aptitude service has become the rule of the land towards customers, employees, neighbors, piers of any sort, and of course, it always eventually trickles down to your own family, and your own self-awareness. Well, as long as everyone else is doing it… – Cribb interjection 2015).
The Moral Animal
Robert Wright 1994