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.

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, 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’ 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 by which people define their sense of identity.  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”.

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.  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 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 include 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 must 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. 

It is argued in this book that the Golden Rule, to avoid treating other people in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated, should be prioritised over all other moral values.  It is supported by every religion, by most philosophies, and by rational argument.


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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/edition04/411a.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.