In his speech “Traffic,” John Ruskin seeks to enlighten the citizens of the town of Bradford on his views of the marketplace or exchange they hoped to build. While these citizens may have expected a discourse of the more concrete virtues of architecture, Ruskin delivers instead a discussion on the inherent morality of architecture and, in a broader sense, all forms of art. He does not hesitate to mention the almost schizophrenic state of architecture in his time; houses were built in one style, churches in another, almost exclusively Gothic. He emphasizes that churches are not necessarily more holy than any other spot; they are certainly a meeting place, but divine inspiration, he says, can manifest anywhere — the entire earth is a holy place rather than one particular spot. Ruskin highlights also several points that he makes in his other writings, such as pointing to the creation of any building as being founded in particular conditions of morality and positive energy.

At one point of his speech, he mentions that people’s character may be fairly accurately by asking a simple question — what do you like? They might answer that they like one thing or another, but these favored ideals offer significant insight that may be generally applied to understand a person’s overall moral character. He defends this point against those who would believe this to be a rather underhanded and incomplete way of judging a character, saying:

Nay,' perhaps you answer: 'we need rather to ask what these people and children do, than what they like. If they do right, it is no matter that they like what is wrong; and if they do wrong, it is no matter that they like what is right. Doing is the great thing; and it does not matter that the man likes drinking, so that he does not drink; nor that the little girl likes to be kind to her canary, if she will not learn her lessons; nor that the little boy likes throwing stones at the sparrows, if he goes to the Sunday school.' Indeed, for a short time, and in a provisional sense, this is true. For if, resolutely, people do what is right, in time they come to like doing it. But they only are in a right moral state when they have come to like doing it; and as long as they don't like it, they are still in a vicious state. The man is not in health of body who is always thirsting for the bottle in the cupboard, though he bravely bears his thirst; but the man who heartily enjoys water in the morning and wine in the evening, each in its proper quantity and time. And 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.

Ruskin brings up the classic dilemma of intention versus action. Some would argue that those who behave piously are moral in themselves; Ruskin here states that he believes that to be moral, one must enjoy that morality. In other words, he makes the claim that morality is an internal feature; that the only truly moral people behave thusly not because they attempt to align themselves with an external definition of morality, but because they like to act in such a way — and conversely, a person who behaves morally with no conviction, or with an immoral desire within, cannot be considered moral. He also suggests, however, that with repetition a person can come to like an ethical way of life, and in this seems to suggest that the external can affect the internal. He therefore makes a sort of loop; morality is a feature that cannot be judged or entirely related to the external world, and yet at the same time makes the connection that the outside world can affect and even reform an individual’s internal character.


1. Is Ruskin’s gauge of character applicable or practical? Can a person be accurately judged based on “what they like”?

2. Ruskin says that people can behave morally without being moral in themselves. What about the converse? Can people behave “immorally” but have a strong sense of ethics?

3. Is the external world the strongest factor in developing morality, or is there a core within an individual’s character that more greatly affects that person’s sense of right and wrong? Are some people led more from the inside and others from the outside, or is morality born and nurtured in similar ways across all situations and personalities?

4. What can be made of Ruskin’s primary point within the text — is “good taste” in terms of art and aesthetics as he calls it truly a reflection of good character? Does art always have to be founded on either moral or immoral principles? Can art exist separate from the artist’s or the viewer’s sense of morality?

Last modified 31 December 2010

6 May 2019