Class and Virtue: Differences Between Low and Upper Class


Since ancient times, class relations and class values have been discussed by scholars, educators, politicians and ethnologists. Person’s virtuous behavior can be habitual and effortless in different circumstances, but this does not alter the fact that for human beings in general class relations and social position are tempting. Hence, a virtue like justice is needed; it plays a corrective role in directing and governing our emotions. In his article, Class and Virtue, Michael Parenti states that low-class people are ’less desirable and less moral” than upper-class citizens. The main weakness of his argument is that Parenti does not explain reasons and causes of low morals and values typical for low-class people (Parenti n.d.). Thesis Working people are ’less desirable and less moral” than upper-class citizens because they receive poor education and have little time for personal development and knowledge mastering.

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Human virtues and morals are closely connected with education of people. Parenti is right in stating that low-class people lack virtues and morals typical for the upper classes. in this case, the main problem is that the lower-class child is also less likely to have received previous assistance in learning the formal material taught by the school (Connell 235). Such a student will find himself lagging behind if he is with children from mixed backgrounds, but even if he is in a class-homogeneous school, he and his classmates may soon find that the teacher is unsatisfied with their performance because of her view of what constitutes normal progress. They may thus soon feel a sense of failure by the school’s standards, standards they may not have fully understood or accepted in the first place (de Avillez 17).

Traditional values, more commonly found among working-class and lower-class parents, place emphasis on order and authority. The parent is concerned that his child is clean, obedient, and respectful. The emphasis is on the child’s behaving “properly,” proper behavior being defined independently of any of the circumstances that may have brought about that behavior (Connell 235). Developmental values, in contrast, place emphasis on the child’s motives and the development of self-control (Byrne 213).

This pattern, more commonly found among middle-class parents, emphasizes “internal” qualities such as consideration, curiosity, and initiative, rather than external conformity. Research indicates that working-class parents are likely to judge the child’s behavior in terms of its immediate consequences and its external qualities. Byrne explains:

“Orientation is the predisposition in virtue of which a person already has his or her answer to the question about ultimate meaning. Commonly a person picks up that concern through the way he or she responds to other people. The people one emulates, what sociologists like to call “role models,” determine to a large extent the concerns one has” (213).

In this case, middle-class life both allows and demands a high degree of self-direction, whereas working-class life places greater emphasis on authority and external conformity. Middle-class parents’ emphasis on self-control and initiative is tantamount to recognition of the significance of these qualities in middle-class occupations (Connell 235). Their emphasis on the subjective aspects of their child’s development reflects the psychological sensitivity that is encouraged in both their occupations and in higher education. Their encouragement of pride in achievement, growth, and satisfaction from interpersonal relations reflects commitment to an ideal of self-fulfillment.

In contrast, the working-class parents’ greater emphasis on obedience and conformity reflects both their occupational experience and a lower level of faith in self-direction and initiative (Education and Class Stratification 2004). Their emphasis on the external rather than the internal qualities of the child is probably in part a function of their more limited exposure to contemporary theories of the psychology of human development, but it is also due to a weaker commitment to a set of achievement values more commonly found in middle- class families (de Avillez 26).

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In terms of Christian theology, the virtuous human being is one who can with some confidence stand before God, one whose character can withstand the penetrating judgment of the Almighty. For upper-class people, virtue involves self-mastery and such development of character as makes us fit to withstand God’s judgment. the main problem is that it is easy for high social classes to develop their personalities and master knowledge and skills (Cozzarelli and Tagler 519).

The majority of low or working-class people spend their life looking for means of subsistence. Critics admit that the virtues must be inculcated in children, and they must learn to love what is good and right. “The preferential option for the poor cannot mean God “prefers” the poor in the sense that God loves the poor more than those in the middle class or the rich” (Byrne 213). Only then will they be in a position to think seriously about moral theories and hard cases. Not clarity but character should be the first goal of moral education. the main problem is that many low-class people are deprived a chance to receive moral education at school and at home.

Working people are ’less desirable and less moral” than upper-class citizens because they are involved in class relations and influenced by culture and values of their own class (Connell 235). “It is becoming increasingly hard for Americans to deny the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth in this society, one reflection of which is the perception of a “shrinking middle class.” (Cozzarelli and Tagler 519).

The concept of self-identification plays a crucial role in formation of manners and morals. Critics emphasize that moral and intellectual virtue is not different for different social classes but it depends upon wiliness and desire of a person to behave morally. Virtue can be seen as a kind of knowledge that can be acquired only at the end of a long process of education (Cozzarelli and Tagler 519). One of the most common points made in the literature on social status differences in the school experience is that the lower-class child is disadvantaged because the vast majority of teachers are middle-class in origin or at least have adopted middle-class values and modes of behavior.

The lower-class child has more difficulty using his previous experience as a guide in his relations with his teacher because of her different appearance, However, the adjectives that participants endorsed as being most descriptive of poor people were predominantly negative and included beliefs that the poor are uneducated, unmotivated or lazy, or in some way socially irresponsible (e.g., alcoholic, drug abuser). Following Cozzarelli and Tagler:

“The widespread acceptance of negative stereotypic images of the poor, negative attitudes toward the poor, and belief in personal responsibility for poverty serve as major roadblocks for efforts to reduce poverty” (Cozzarelli and Tagler 519).

The middle-class emphasis on self-control and the internalization of standards is also found in school. Middle-class teachers, like middle-class parents, look for and reward evidence of a child’s commitment to middle-class values. The lower-class child’s view of rules as externally imposed may not lead him to misbehave (especially in the early grades), but it is likely to lead to docile conformity to rules rather than to their adoption. He will see the teacher’s expectations as very strange because of her constant emphasis on motivation and personal commitment (Cozzarelli and Tagler 519).

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In sum, Parenti is right that working people are ’less desirable and less moral” than upper-class citizens, but the research shows that it is not a problem of a single individual but a social problem caused by differences in education and class values. Moral understanding and action depend on vision; vision depends on character; character must be shaped by those who come before us. What moral education requires is a revelation by which we can test our vision and a grace powerful enough to transform our character.

Other personality differences between low and upper-class people seem to be associated with this dominant fact of the self-image. In low-class children, the sense of inadequacy, together with the awareness of being disadvantaged, seem to lead to a withdrawn and often fearful reaction to other people. Some have pointed out that the low person’s position in society generates anger in him but also requires that he repress such feelings. This is consistent with the finding that working-class people are often more passive, withdrawn, and fearful than upper children and that when they are aggressive it is likely to be in a covert manner.

Works Cited Page

de Avillez, M. Class: a guide through the American status system. Touchstone, 1992.

Byrne, P. H. “Ressentiment and the Preferential Option for the Poor”. Theological Studies 54. 1993: 213.

Connell , R. W. “Working-Class Families and the New Secondary Education”. Australian Journal of Education 47. 2003: 235.

Cozzarelli, Ch., Tagler, M.J., Wilkinson, A. V. “Do Middle-Class Students Perceive Poor Women and Poor Men Differently?” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. 2002: 519.

Education and Class Stratification. 2004. Colorado Freedom Report. Web.

Parenti, M. Class and Virtue, n.d. Web.

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