The global history of moral movements in the Modern Age encompasses diverse historical agents, social practices and narratives across the world. Moral movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emerged from different cultural, regional and political backgrounds in the Western and non-Western worlds. The heterogeneity of these movements becomes most evident, when considering the different semantic connotations associated with ‘moral’ actions: Most actions of social movements engaged in improving living conditions on moral terms attempted to combat ‘moral decay’, even ‘vice’.
Very often moral organizations strived for inner improvement. The range of historical terms under which those associations sailed, indicate that the intention to morally improve society was deeply embedded in religious debates. Through their actions these associations operated within different arenas, including the improvement of animal rights, working conditions and heathen souls. In other words, their action was prevalently interwoven with religious agendas. For those historians who are interested in interdisciplinary approaches as well in contemporary debates, the Companion to Moral Anthropology provides a useful introduction to both, the intellectual history of morals and practice of moral anthropology. In his introduction, French anthropologist Didier Fassin critically examines key methodological approaches to the anthropology of morals (Kant, Foucault, Durkheim). Organized in five parts (Legacies, Approaches, Localities, Politics, and Dialogues), the volume also includes surveys such as Marc Edelman’s essay on E.P. Thompson’s moral economy or Kwame Appiah’s essay on moral philosophy. Furthermore the Companion to Moral Anthropology contains case studies of applied moral anthropology in areas like humanitarianism or human rights (Didier Fassin (ed.), A Companion to Moral Anthropology, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
Without explicitly referring to the term ‘moral movements’, historical scholarship also addressed moral issues, discourses and sets of practices within, for instance, the abolition or the labour movements. In the following remarks I concentrate on two aspects: the inter-relationship between moral and religious movements, and humanitarian activism. In his early overview of European international movements, Irish historian Francis Lyons outlines the spread of internationalism during the nineteenth century and discusses reasons why some associations survived until the twentieth century. One chapter is dedicated to the formation of an international social conscience since the 1850s, which according to the author is inherently shaped by three types of organizations: temperance, anti-slavery and Red Cross movements (Francis S. L. Lyons, Internationalism in Europe, 1815–1914, Leyden: Sythoff, 1963). Generally speaking, Lyons’s overview is a helpful guide for anyone interested in the rise of internationalism during the nineteenth century. However, the recently edited volume Global Anti-Vice Activism, 1890–1950 inspired by global history, moves beyond Western conceptualizations of social conscience. The collection of essays frame similar historical agents, their social practices and arguments under the umbrella term ‘vice’. In their volume, the group of editors claims that anti-vice activism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries operated so successfully in the global and local worlds, that the editors even observe a new ‘turn’. This ‘vicious turn’ around 1900 is situated on different levels: anti-vice activism, which was targeted against prostitutes and the consumption of alcohol or drugs, ‘brought together an extremely diverse set of issues, cast of characters, and assortment of debates, all centered on the habits of the body and various forms of consumption’. In contrast to earlier Euro-centred research on the topic, the editors emphasize the global dimensions of anti-vice activism. A particularly salient example is the case of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who turned out to be ‘an ardent crusader against the unholy trinity of drugs, drink, and debauchery’. As the editors argue, Gandhi combined Indian anti-colonial nationalism with ‘nationalistic puritanism’ (Jessica Piley, Robert Kramm and Harald Fischer-Tiné (eds), Global Anti-Vice Activism, 1890–1950: Fighting Drinks, Drugs, and ‘Immorality’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 5). By identifying anti-vice activism as global endeavour, the volume breaks new ground. The idea that disentangling practices of anti-vice politics demands a profound reconstruction of genealogies of knowledge which also incorporates body practices, refers to an earlier book Prohibitions and Secrets. In this book I argue that the ‘Western’ discovery of taboo as moral system is linked with missionary agency on the one hand, and the professionalization of such systems of knowledge, on the other. Missionary action like the London Missionary Society, or the German Innere Mission, which battled decay at the home front framed moral narratives during the nineteenth century (Alexandra Przyrembel, Verbote und Geheimnisse. Das Tabu und die Geschichte der europäischen Moderne, Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2011).
In a more narrow sense, many moral associations (e.g. the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union) emerged from religious enterprises. In light of the ongoing interest in religious vitalism in the context of global modern history (C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), a wide range of different literature concentrated on missionary organizations, and predominantly Protestant activism. Out of this rich body of literature, two studies are recommended which both frame religious moral interventions in the context of national imperial enterprises. In his textbook The British Missionary Enterprise (London: Routledge, 2008), Jeffrey Cox outlines the impact of British missionary action on civilizing populations in and outside Europe. The Australian historian Ian R. Tyrrell focusses on American moral reformers of the turn of the twentieth century who aimed at morally uplifting societies. Tyrrell argues that the attempt to create a moral world based on Christian values went hand in hand with the emergence of American imperialism. Focussing on the Woman’s Temperance Organization and the Young Men’s Christian Association, Tyrell argues that those ‘moral reformers had bequeathed to the American nation a tradition of entanglement with the wider world’. This tradition includes both, ‘the urge to be part of the world and yet at the same time superior to other countries’ (Ian R. Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 237).
As Lyons’ early observation that social conscience became a central point of reference for many associations during the nineteenth century turns out to be persuasive, one specific manifestation of ‘moral’ action should be included in this survey: the emergence of humanitarianism. Again, anthropologists initiated critical debates on humanitarian practices in the contemporary world (Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). However, during the last decade historians of modern history have vigorously debated global practices and narratives of humanitarianism. Many studies focused on single organizations, particularly on national Red Cross movements, filling research gaps as it was not until recently that most institutions began to write their own histories (Julia Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; Rachel Chrastil, Organizing for War. France 1870–1914, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).
In the British case the inter-relationship between humanitarianism and Empire dominates in recent research: Rebecca Gill, ‘Networks of Concern, Boundaries of Compassion: British Relief in the South African War’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 5 (2012), pp. 827–844; Matthew Hilton, ‘Ken Loach and the Save the Children Film: Humanitarianism, Imperialism, and the Changing Role of Charity in Postwar Britain’, Journal of Modern History 2 (2015), pp. 357–394. French historian Bertrand Thaite draws attention to narratives of French humanitarianism. He argues that heterogenous organizations such as the Catholic Père Blancs or Médicins sans Frontières refer to the same set of arguments. Although very different organizations, these associations referred to a ‘humanitarian protocol’ ‘with few dramatic devices’. One of them appears to be the language of compassion which ‘changed its nature and social meanings’: Bertrand Thaite, ‘Horror, Abjection and Compassion: From Dunant to Compassion Fatigue’, New Formations 62 (2007), pp. 123–136, and Bertrand Thaite, ‘Reinventing (French) Universalism: Religion, Humanitarianism and the “French” Doctors’, Modern & Contemporary France 2 (2004), pp. 147–158.
Pursuing the research interest in the impact of emotions, especially compassion, on humanitarianism, another focus of recent research lies on visual representation as specific form to express and to activate humanitarian aims. Several articles in the volume Humanitarian Photography on humanitarian imagery discuss the meaning of particular incidents for the visual representation of atrocities on the one hand, and the proliferation of humanitarian activities following catastrophes like the Armenian Genocide or the Biafra famine in the 1970s, on the other hand. In their introduction the editors reflect the ‘the morality of sight’ associated with humanitarian action: Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno (eds), Humanitarian Photography: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Above all, controversy around the convoluted history of human rights since the eighteenth century, and the construction of a ‘new utopia’ in the second half of the twentieth century, triggered new research fields regarding agents’ narratives as well as their practices. However, this research shows a clear bias toward twentieth-century human rights activism; see Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Jan Eckel, Die Ambivalenz des Guten: Menschenrechte in der internationalen Politik seit den 1940ern (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). The volume Moralpolitik provides an overview of the contested interpretations of human rights throughout history. In his introduction, Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann suggests a genealogical reading of human rights politics by examining its boom in the 1970s and its ‘prehistory’ in the nineteenth century. Instead of trying to inscribe the heterogeneous understanding of human rights into a teleological narrative, Hoffmann uses the interpretations of human rights as a starting point for understanding moments of crisis: Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.), Moralpolitik: Geschichte der Menschenrechte im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010); Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.), Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
In future, research will have to disentangle nineteenth- from twentieth-century humanitarian players, strategies and narratives. In her very insightful article ‘Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context’, Abigail Green observes the ‘preoccupation with the origins of our current world-order’ in recent historiography. As she argues such ‘presentist’ approaches fail to ‘include now unfashionable nineteenth-century preoccupations like temperance, and situating humanitarian activity more clearly within a variety of religious traditions—Christian and non-Christian—may serve to demonstrate both the contingency, and the limitations, of the ways this field is currently constructed’: Abigail Green, ‘Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National’, Historical Journal 57 (2014/15), pp. 1157–1175. Further research will need to address ‘non-Western’ moral activism beyond its most famous players like Gandhi and to locate different moral concerns by analysing its religious reverberations in the local and global worlds.