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Being Good in the Modern Age - From Enlightenment to Environmentalism


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor: Professor Frank Trentmann
  • Assessment: a 48-hour online examination (50%) and two 2000-word essays (25% each)

Module description

In this module you will have the chance to engage with major themes and debates in the history of morality from the enlightenment to the present. We begin by discussing shifting values in enlightenment debates about civilisation and human improvement to then examine the forces and debates surrounding projects that set out to transform private and public morals.

Weekly topics and readings will be drawn from Britain and the British Empire, but also include some materials from the United States, Europe and Japan. Secondary sources will be complemented with select primary sources (speeches, essays and cartoons) that will give you the opportunity to understand better the transformation of moral practices and values in modern and contemporary history.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction to morality in history: moral values and practices in history; approaches to morality; the historical study of changing morals
  • The Enlightenment: civil society and projects of improvement; manners and gender
  • Private vice, public virtue? Commerce and consumption
  • Am I not a man and brother? The debate about the slave trade
  • Utilitarianism and evangelicalism: the campaign against widow-burning in India
  • Social mission in the slum
  • Moral economy: food riots and fair prices
  • Free trade: the end of moral economy?
  • Consumer boycotts
  • Satyagraha: Gandhi and non-violent resistance
  • Pacifism and conscientious objectors
  • The post-45 human rights’ regime
  • Critiques of the human rights’ regime
  • Caring for distant others: development aid and famine relief
  • The debate about prostitution
  • Sexual mores: premarital sex and divorce
  • Abortion
  • Animal welfare
  • Caring for the planet: morality in the age of climate change

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • display a good knowledge of the major themes in the history of morality
  • compare and contrast modern scholars’ approaches on the subject
  • handle primary sources with confidence and demonstrate the ability to use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms.