IN recent decades we have so completely rejected any kind of moral calculus that we have deliberately, systematically divorced welfare from moral sanctions or incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them; and in part the prevailing spirit of relativism, which makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief.
And having made the most determined effort to devise social policies that are ''value-free,'' we find that these policies imperil both the moral and the material well-being of their intended beneficiaries. The Supplemental Security Income Program in the United States is a case in point. Introduced in 1972 to provide a minimum income for the blind, the elderly, and the disabled poor, the program has been extended to drug addicts and alcoholics because of an earlier ruling defining ''substance abuser s'' as ''disabled'' and therefore eligible for public assistance.
Just as many intellectuals, social critics, and policymakers were reluctant for so long to credit the unpalatable facts about crime, illegitimacy, or dependency, so they find it difficult to appreciate the extent to which these facts themselves are a function of values - the extent to which ''social pathology'' is a function of ''moral pathology'' and social policy a function of moral principle.
The moral divide has become a class divide. The ''new class'' as it has been called, is not in fact all that new; it is by now firmly established in the media, the academy, the professions, and the government. In a curious way, it is the mirror image of the ''underclass.'' One might almost say that the two have a symbiotic relationship. In its denigration of ''bourgeois values'' and the ''Puritan ethic,'' the new class has legitimated, as it were, the values of the underclass and illegitimated those of the working class, who are still committed to bourgeois values and the Puritan ethic.
If liberals have much rethinking to do, so do conservatives, for the familiar conservative responses to social problems are inadequate to the present situation. In Britain, as in America, more and more conservatives are returning to an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral and social goods that they value - that it ma y even subvert those goods.
For the promotion of moral values, conservatives have always looked to individuals, families, churches, communities, and all other voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as the genius of American society.
Yet here too conservatives are caught in a bind, for the values imparted by the reigning culture have by now received the sanctions of the state. This is reflected in the official rhetoric (''nonmarital childbearing'' or ''alternative lifestyle''), in the distribution of condoms in school, in the prohibition of school prayer, in social policies that are determinedly ''nonjudgmental,'' and in myriad other ways.
Individuals, families, churches, and communities cannot operate in isolation, cannot long maintain values at odds with those legitimated by the state and popularized by the culture.
Values, even traditional values, require legitimation. At the very least, they require not to be illegitmated. And in a secular society, legitimation or illegitimation is in the hands of the dominant culture, the state, and the courts.
It is not only ''values'' that are being rediscovered, but ''virtues'' as well. That long neglected word is appearing in the most unlikely places: in books, newspaper columns, journal articles, and scholarly discourse.
When we are told that organizations are being formed in black communities to ''inculcate values'' in the children and that ''the concept of self-help is reemerging,'' or that campaigns are being conducted among young people to promote sexual abstinence, are we not witnessing the return of quintessentially Victorian virtues?
No one, not even the most ardent ''virtue revivalist,'' is proposing to revive Victorianism. Children are not about to return to that docile condition in which they are seen but not heard, nor workers to that deferential state where they tip their caps to their betters. Nor are men and women going to retreat to their ''separate spheres''; nor blacks and whites to a state of segregation and discrimination. But if the past cannot - and should not - be replicated, it can serve to put the present in better perspective.
If Victorian England did not succumb to the moral and cultural anarchy that is said to be the inevitable consequence of economic individualism, it is because of a powerful ethos that kept that individualism in check.
The current notions of self-fulfillment, self-expression, and self-realization derive from a self that does not have to prove itself by reference to any values, purposes, or persons outside itself - that simply is, and by reason of that alone deserves to be fulfilled and realized. It is this self that is extolled in the movement against ''co- dependency,'' which aspires to free the self from any dependency upon others and, even more, from any responsibility to others.
This is the final lesson we may learn from the Victorians: that the ethos of a society, its moral and spiritual character, cannot be reduced to economic, material, political, or other factors, that values - or better yet, virtues - are a determining factor in their own right.
It is often said there is in human beings an irrepressible need for spiritual and moral sustenance. Just as England experienced a resurgence of religion when it seemed most unlikely (the rise of Puritanism in the aftermath of the Renaissance, or of Wesleyanism in the age of deism), so there emerged, at the height of the Enlightenment, the movement for ''moral reformation.''
Confronted with an increasingly de-moralized society, we may be ready for a new reformation, which will restore not so much Victorian values as a more abiding sense of moral and civic virtues.