All societies have values and moral expectations that seek to guide individual behavior and provide a cohesive social order for all. Yet the specific values that are present in many modern ethical debates have their roots in the ways that lifestyles and values changed in a specific place and time – Europe (and then its colonies) in the period historians refer to as “Modernity.” Understanding a little about our history will help us to understand something about WHY we care about the issues we do and WHICH arguments about those issues seem persuasive to us.
European society during the Middle Ages was characterized by:
• Agrarian (farming) economy, with the family as central unit of economic production .
• Extended family systems, with one’s relatives all living together and providing for many of its own needs
– child and elder care, medical care, even a sort of “police” system – as sort of its own miniature society
• Hierarchical social order of feudalism – from serfs to monarchy
• Church dogma explained causes (instead of scientific reasoning) and provided legitimation for expected behaviors
A Rapid Change
Then a lot of changes in society began to take place at more or less the same time. These changes brought changes in how people thought and lived. They also changed what people valued – which means that these changes influenced the ways we think about the ethical issues of today. Some of the changes that took place were:
• Agricultural Revolution – improvements in agriculture led to less need for the peasants to work the land for their feudal lords. These peasants were driven off the lands and fled to cities.
• Industrial Revolution – improvements in technology also allowed for the creation of factories. Work began to be something that one left home to do.
• Changes in family structure and relations – families lived in smaller units in the cities (the beginning of the nuclear family), so they could no longer provide for everything they needed as a self-contained unit. They depended more on other people and on the resources of the community as a whole to meet their needs. Soon, a greater division of labor developed than there had been in the past. Men’s and women’s duties were more clearly defined. Men went off to work and women tended to the home. This was also the period in which childhood came to be seen as a separate stage of life. Previously, children had done similar work as adults and were viewed as small adults. Now, children came to be seen as innocent and in need of protection.
• The rise of capitalism – capitalists owned machinery and employed laborers. Laborers no longer owned the products they made. They worked for wages and had to use those wages to pay for the things they needed – even the things they had made themselves. They no longer had control of what they made or when. Their routines were no longer those of daylight and seasons, but were determined by timeclocks, machines, and invisible market forces.
• Urbanization and new social classes – cities grew larger. Poverty and crime grew. New social classes came into being and gained power. One of these new groups – the bourgeoisie (composed of capitalists, bankers, academics, etc.) – clashed with traditional elites (like the clergy and the monarchy) for power in society.
• Philosophy and political revolutions – new ideas were produced by the people who experienced these new lifestyles. These new ideas brought about the demand for reforms to the way governments function.
• The Protestant Reformation and secularization – changes in religious belief and its importance in personal and social life also accompanied these social changes.
• The Enlightenment – people began to seek explanations through reason and science. The scientific method was created to test theories about the causes of things.
All of these changes in lifestyles and beliefs brought about changes in the values and roles that become central to today’s ethical debates