John Ruskin's lecture on "Traffic" discusses the relationship between taste and morals. I would like to explore how Ruskin connects these terms through his analysis of class structure. In an address to an audience of Yorkshire businessmen contemplating the building of a commercial exchange, Ruskin makes the following pronouncement: "Taste is not only a part and an index of morality; — it is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, "What do you like?" Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what they are" (52) Ruskin ties the question of taste, or what a person likes, to that person's social situation. Taste operates a principle of habit or social custom. Ruskin's argument is that taste internalizes a person social position as their subjective disposition:

The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things — not merely industrious, but to love industry — not merely learned, but to love knowledge — not merely pure, but to love purity — not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice. [53]

Morals are truly and fully inculcated when an individual takes the moral ought as the basis for his or her subjective outlook on life.

What then does the overlap between taste and morals have to do with Britain's class structure? Ruskin perceptively points out how taste differs among various groups of people. In response to a pamphlet "On the Necessity of the Diffusion of Taste among all Classes," Ruskin asks,

When you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think. . . You may put him to other work if you choose; but, by the condition you have brought him into. [54-55]

Here Ruskin points out the hypocrisy of philanthropists who would condescend to improve the sensibility of the masses without ever being willing to change the class division that creates different tastes in the first place.

Ruskin's larger observation is that a class' moral taste serves its own interests and not anyone else's. What Ruskin describes as the religious ideology of "Getting-on" works to the benefit of the bourgeois: "It is very pretty indeed, seen from above; not at all so pretty, seen from below. For, observe, while to one family this deity is indeed the Goddess of Getting-on, to a thousand families she is the Goddess of not Getting-on" (70). Morals are inherently self-interested and self-absorbed in their own values. Moral disposition become ideological when a group of people supposes that what works for one works for many, when in fact the situation is quite to the contrary. The seeming universal accessibility of middle-class values like "getting-on" is the device that perpetuates the asymmetry between the capitalist gentleman and the workers.

Ruskin's treatment of class morality attempts to shock his commercial audience into class consciousness. "Change must come," Ruskin says (72). The inequality between classes cannot go on forever. Ruskin charges that "each of you striv[es] to do his best, without noticing that this best is essentially and centrally best for himself, and not for others" (72). In the end, Ruskin attempts to show the limitations of moral taste as a model for understanding and responding to the plight of the other. Because taste is socially subjective and thoroughly internalized within the individual, it admits no outside. By critiquing the relational mechanism between taste and moral thought Ruskin can question the values that the modern capitalist religion holds dear.

Questions

1. How does Ruskin's analysis of moral taste relate to his treatment of modern industry in the Stones of Venice?

2. What does Ruskin seek to accomplish with his address on "Traffic?"

3. What rhetorical strategies does Ruskin use to provoke his audience, and to what extent are they effective?

4. How does Ruskin use architecture as a vehicle for social critique?

References

Ruskin, John. "Traffic." The Crown of Wild Olive & The Cestus of Aglaia. Ed. Ernst Rhys. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1915.


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 13 November 2006