4.1.1 Effects of Moral Influence

The effects of moral influence can be quite potent, yet it is exerted directly between individuals who may not have any formal authority.

The word ‘moral’ is used to distinguish between right and wrong, or ‘good and bad’.  The acceptability of governance, as seen by those who are subject to it, is this book’s criterion for judging how good it is – as noted earlier (2.3).  And it is argued here that this should be assessed according to its impact on society, defined as a group of people living together.  

Governance can be thought of as having a moral dimension, where people influence each other’s behaviour (sometimes unintentionally).  Influencers might merely be seeking power for themselves, but most people want the behaviour of others to be conducive to peaceful coexistence.  As Amitai Etzioni pointed out, in his article Strength in numbers:[1]

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

The term ‘communities’ means groups of people who feel that they have strong links with each other, whether through social connection, neighbourhood, work, race or religion.  ‘Moral commitments’ are taken to refer to a person’s values: their individual sense of what is right and wrong.  People’s moral values drive their behaviour even when they are not in the presence of those who have influenced them

People belong to more than one community and, in the terminology of this book, society includes many overlapping communities.  People partly define their sense of identity in terms of the communities they belong to.  Kwame Anthony Appiah’s article, ‘Mrs May, we are all citizens of the world,’  noted that all of us “experience narrower identities embedded in more encompassing ones”.

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

Moral influence can be very powerful, although it lacks the penalties available in law.  Alexis de Tocqueville observed the power of public opinion in 19th-century America, for example, in his book Democracy in 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.” [Part II, Book 3, section 48]

“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 of power 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 of power, the Moral Dimension is facing change.  Increased migration is changing the cultural mix of many societies.  Most modern societies include people with different beliefs: religious communities and those who do not have a religion.  Any modern governance structure must take account of these differences but, for peaceful coexistence, it is only necessary to reach agreement on how people should behave – whilst allowing them freedom of belief. 


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/411c.htm


[1] Amitai Etzioni’s article, Strength in numbers, was published in the RSA Journal, Autumn 2009, (pp. 24-27).  It has been taken off the Internet.