We are a group in Sydney working on a project on restraint in Australia, ranging from philosophical ideas on the virtue of temperance to the role of self-control in Australian history, especially in the mid-twentieth century, and modern sociology and psychology of anti-drug campaigns . . .
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 Sons of Temperance march, Hill End 1872
National Archives of Australia

Project Introduction

The aim of the Restraint Project is to create a complete and readable account of the changes over time and the present relevance of the virtue of self-control or temperance in Australia. Recovering this virtue, now rarely talked about though widely practised, will provide a much-needed resource for discussion of such difficult social problems as addictions, chronic debt, violence in remote communities and safe sex campaigns, where, after all government and other outside interventions, a potential victim or perpetrator needs the self-control to say no.

`Just do it', or Bill Clinton's `I did it just because I could' are expressions of a libertarian or unrestrained attitude to opportunities or temptation, normally associated with the mentality of the Sixties. In earlier and harder times, by contrast, education made much of training children's characters in such virtues of self-control as temperance, thrift, restraint, sobriety, decency, cleanliness and politeness.

Restraint or temperance in behaviour is often needed - in resisting drug offers, in preventing abuse of power and escalation of violence, in being faithful in sexual relationships, friendships and workplace relations, in not spending more than one can reasonably expect to earn, but since the Sixties little has been said about it and there have been few efforts to incorporate it explicitly in education. Though there is little approval for the `sex, drugs and rock-and-roll' lifestyle, there is not much reply normally made to it beyond warnings of physical harm in the remote future - there is little sense, for example, that building a self-controlled character as a desirable moral end in itself, and one that will benefit others.

There has been a solid tradition of philosophical debate about the virtue of temperance, from Plato and Aristotle to modern authors such as MacIntyre. We will use this as a core of our conceptual approach to the historical and sociological material we will examine.

In the light of our researches, we will reflect on the question of whether, as many of these writings suggest, virtue is `free-standing', and ethics is founded thereon (a position which has been criticised for self-absorbed and automatically conservative tendencies), or whether, as argued in Corrupting the Youth ch.16, human worth and the resulting human rights are ethically foundational, and virtues exist for the sake of worthwhile ethical ends.

In sketching the cultural background of the virtues, we will also use several classics of literature which have vividly personified philosophical abstractions regarding the conflict between temperance and licence, such as Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary, Heart of Darkness and The Rainbow. These are well-absorbed in the culture as tools for thinking about virtue in a way that philosophers' arguments are not.

There has been some attention in feminist circles to the gendered nature of restraint, as in the meaning of a woman's honour being especially bound up with chastity and the recognition that women's political action was often in pursuit of positive programs of restraint - temperance as a plan to battle poverty was associated with women to the degree that the socialist alternative was with men. There has been less discussion of the objective facts of women's worse outcomes from lack of restraint, due to the possibility (especially in earlier times) of pregnancy and certain forms of social and economic ruin not so applicable to men.

In Australian history, our earlier work in Corrupting the Youth, ch. 10, identified a long tradition in education of training the young in self-reliance, temperance and independence through sport, civics lessons, surf lifesaving, the Boy Scouts, stories of classical heroes and the British Empire and the like, supported for adults by churches and Masonic lodges in enhancing `character'. One other author sensitive to such concerns, though less sympathetic to them, is Brett, who emphasised the appeal of Robert Menzies and the Liberal Party to a `moral' middle class proud of its traditions of independence and thrift. Overall, however, the topics of this project have a very low profile in Australian historiography as now pursued.

The significance of the research lies in combination of the arguable need for people to be restrained and the lack of attention to the topic. Australian youth and adults are offered easy access to cheap drugs, fast cars, fast food, internet porn and unsecured debt, and the only real defence - or at least the last line of defence - is their self-restraint. But little is done to focus on and support that mode of behaviour.

As the project will argue, concepts such as `restraint', `temperance', `sobriety' and `decency' dropped out of public discourse around the 1960s, leading to an impoverishment of vocabulary for discussing ways of avoiding harm to oneself and others. Temperate behaviour did not disappear with the language for it, and the public still professes shock at gross violations of the norms of restraint (such as rampages by drunken footballers). But there are few resources for discussing the topic and educating children in it. There is an urgent need to do so. A social fabric must be grounded in norms and expectations of individual behaviour - one's assumption that the social fabric is strong enough to permit one to walk down the street without being assaulted, for example, must be grounded in the behaviour of almost all individuals in restraining their anger in public. A large-scale project and readable book on the topic, such as we plan, will provide the resources for putting the issue back on the national agenda.

Although in some ways the project involves recovering past approaches, such as the civics education of a hundred years ago, the project is innovative in that the last century has added an understanding of many psychological truths that were not appreciated decades ago. For example, policies of child removal of the mid-twentieth century failed to understand as we now do the trauma caused to children. Our present knowledge of the development of self-esteem in children and its necessity in creating restraint so as to look after one's own health and safety mean that there is hope of creating more effective - and gentler - social and educational policies to encourage restraint than previously. To accomplish this, our project needs to range widely in fields such as child psychology and sociology that were not well-developed until recently. The large intellectual scale is innovative, but essential to the nature of the project.

For further information, contact James Franklin,


This site created by James Franklin with help from Gerry Nolan