4.1.1        Moral Influence as a Dimension of Governance

 (This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/411.htm)

Governance can be thought of as having a Moral Dimension, where people exert influence on each other to comply with expected behaviour.  As Amitai Etzioni pointed out:

“Communities provide informal social controls that reinforce the moral commitments of their members and, in turn, help make for a largely voluntary social order.” [1]

The term ‘communities’ is used here to mean groups of people who feel that they have strong connections with each other, whether through social connection, neighbourhood, work, race or religion. People belong to more than one community and, in the terminology of this book, societies encompass many overlapping communities.

The application of moral influence can be seen as a process of negotiation between communities and their members: the community is offering membership and its benefits, and each individual is offering to conform to the group’s moral values (which may be based on a system of beliefs) and its behavioural norms.  If the individual rejects the bargain that is offered, and leaves the community, the latter will be smaller and therefore less powerful.  Communities and their members need each other.

Although they are influenced by other people, individuals are autonomous moral agents.  Their personal behaviour affects the lives of other people, they exert moral influence, and their participation in politics (which is the subject of chapter 6) is informed by their moral values – as illustrated:


Moral influence lacks the penalties available in law, for example, and so it may be perceived to be weak – but it can be just as effective as power exerted in the other dimensions, if not more so.  For example, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the power of public opinion in 19th-century America:

“The multitude require no laws to coerce those who think not like themselves: public disapprobation is enough; a sense of their loneliness and impotence overtakes them and drives them to despair.” [2]

“The multitude” in this sense may mean a particular community or a wider society.  The language used by de Tocqueville indicates that, far from being weak, moral pressure can be so strong that it can be oppressive.

The Moral Dimension sets the patterns of interpersonal behaviour which support peaceful coexistence on a day-to-day basis.  The Legal Dimension can be used to strengthen the enforcement of some moral codes but the law cannot be present in every social interaction, so the Moral Dimension has a more comprehensive reach in determining how people behave.

In common with the other dimensions, the Moral Dimension is facing change.  Most modern societies have to accommodate multiple religious communities and many people who do not have a religion (and who may not feel that they constitute a non-religious community).  Any modern governance structure has to take account of these different foundations for morality but, for peaceful coexistence, it is only necessary to reach agreement on how people should behave – whilst allowing them freedom of belief.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] This quotation comes from Amitai Etzioni’s article, Strength in numbers.  In the same article he defines community in these terms:

“…community can be clearly defined as a group of individuals in possession of the following two characteristics: a web of affect-laden relationships that often criss-cross and reinforce one another (rather than merely one-on-one or chain-like individual relationships); and some commitment to a core of shared values, norms and meanings, as well as a shared history and identity – in short, to a particularistic normative culture. Many communities are confessional, ethnic or both. They tend to command a strong sense of loyalty and mutual responsibility – like families writ large. Critics often call them ‘tribal’.”

This was available in April 2014 at http://www.thersa.org/fellowship/journal/features/features/strength-in-numbers.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II, Book 3, section 48, p.271 of the Penguin edition.  This quotation appears on p. 719 of the PDF version, which was available in May 2014 at http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/toqueville/dem-in-america1.pdf.