Before he became an Anglican priest in the late 18th century, and wrote the much-loved hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton was a slave trade sea captain. He bought and sold slaves, raping, torturing and killing them in the course of his journeys across the Atlantic. Despite being a deeply religious man, he had no moral scruples about it. Only later in life did he come to look back in horror on what he had done, when the abolitionist movement had begun seriously to challenge the slave trade.
Newton’s case encapsulates “the stunning transformation of moral consciousness”, as the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson puts it, that swept across the world in opposition to slavery in the century or so that followed the late 18th century. Anderson uses Newton’s biography to open an important and illuminating lecture on how moral progress is achieved. In it, she takes the history of the abolition of slavery as the starting point of an exploration into how social movements can challenge and then change social norms by establishing new ways of living that vindicate their moral claims. In particular, she looks at how the powerful can confuse their self-interest with moral right, cloaking oppression and injustice in moral claims, until these are contested by social movements that succeed in creating social institutions and practices based on new norms. There is nothing inevitable about this, however. Social movements can be reactionary as well as progressive, and they can fail in their efforts to establish new ways of organising society.
Social movements have critical roles in fostering social change: they mobilise and unify people around clear goals, and demonstrate their moral worth and commitment in their campaigns and organising activities. When we think about “doing good”, these questions of agency become important. Moral progress is not handed down from on high, but won through active participation. Anderson’s essay draws our attention to how we learn by doing, and how we succeed in making lasting change when our experiments in living become successfully embedded in new institutions, socio-economic organisations, and legal frameworks.
What does this mean in practice? A myriad of things, of course. But an example from our recent experience might help to explain the argument: the campaign for a Living Wage. This started as an initiative of faith groups and citizen activists, mobilising around a clear, morally charged goal of ensuring that wages are high enough for people to live on, such that they can enjoy their lives outside of work, with friends and family. It was grounded in active organising. It spread out of the voluntary sector into the private and public sectors. It got backing from foundations and corporations, and then public authorities like the Greater London Authority. Eventually, political parties came to support it and more and more companies started to pay a Living Wage. The journey is not over, by any means, but lots of progress has been made.
This post was originally written for the Big Lottery Fund blog.