Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs survey provides a fascinating glimpse into the American public’s views of issues that can be classified under the broad rubric of morality. The survey, conducted each May since 2001, probes Americans’ views about a series of specific issues and behaviors — ranging from cloning humans to polygamy — as well as broad questions about their views of moral values more generally.
One of the important trends measured by the survey over the past two decades is Americans’ increasingly accepting attitudes toward a variety of behaviors relating to fertility and sexual relations — behaviors which were heretofore more likely to be considered taboo or morally frowned upon. Americans have become significantly more open to things to which they were previously closed — at least as far as their attitudes are concerned as measured by survey responses.
Americans’ views that each of the following is morally acceptable has increased significantly over the past two decades: sex between an unmarried man and woman, having a baby outside of marriage, sex between teenagers, and gay or lesbian relations. And while just 23% of Americans say that polygamy is morally acceptable, that’s up from 7% in 2003. (There is one interesting exception to these trends; about nine in 10 Americans say that married men and women having an affair is morally unacceptable, and that hasn’t changed much over time).
This general pattern has been described as a movement to individual choice norms — a shift away from normative standards proscribing certain behaviors that arose through practice, tradition and religious teachings. The public increasingly says that as far as these behaviors are concerned, the choice is up to the individual. In essence, Americans are becoming more accepting as far as non-traditional families and sexual behavior are concerned.
Americans Remain Negative on the Overall State of Moral Values
At the same time, we have another fascinating insight from the May poll based on responses to a question that asks Americans about their general, overall view of moral values in the U.S.: “How would you rate the overall state of moral values in this country today — excellent, good, only fair, or poor?” As Gallup’s Megan Brenan and Nicole Willcoxon recently reviewed, only relatively small percentages of Americans have rated moral values as excellent or good across the last two decades. The majority of Americans consistently rate the nation’s moral values as only fair or poor. This year the “poor” percentage has edged up to a record 50%, with 37% of Americans saying the state of moral values is only fair and 13% saying excellent or good.
Thus, over the past two decades, Americans have become increasingly more liberal in their views of the acceptance of certain fertility and sexual behaviors while at the same time maintaining a quite negative perception of the overall state of moral values in this country.
Decoupling Sex and Morality, to an Extent
There are several ways of looking at these results. Available data certainly indicate, for example, that sexual relations outside of marriage are commonplace in America. So it may be that Americans’ increasingly more libertine attitudes in this regard are a grudging recognition of reality, while at the same time, as indicated by their responses to the broader question, they don’t like it.
But it seems the more likely explanation is that Americans mostly aren’t focused on sexual behavior when they think about moral values. This conclusion comes from additional Gallup data in the May survey, which measure Americans’ responses to a question asking them to name “the most important problem with the state of moral values in the U.S. today.”
As Brenan and Willcoxon point out in their review, “The most common response does not touch on any issue that has been the subject of public debate or social policy legislation in recent years, but rather on a more fundamental aspect of the way people treat each other. More Americans cite consideration of others (18%) than any other issue.” Other categories of responses to the question asking about problems with moral values in the U.S. include mentions of racism and racial discrimination, dishonesty and lack of integrity, lack of personal accountability, and greed and selfishness.
Small percentages of Americans — totaling less than 10% — mention abortion, sexuality, promiscuity, teenage sex, and gay and lesbian relations. But the majority of Americans, when asked about problems with the nation’s moral values, think of what I would call interpersonal relations — how we deal with one another in our daily lives and how we comport ourselves in an interconnected social system.
In other words, the perceived poor state of moral values in this country today is, in the eyes of the average American, the result of flaws and problems with our dealings with others and with society — not the result of behavior relating to sex and family structures.
These data fit with the anthropological theory of morality as cooperation. This approach argues that “morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life.”1 Oxford University anthropologists reported in a 2019 study that adherence to seven manifestations of morality as cooperation (including such things as helping family members; working and helping group members; reciprocal cooperation such as paying debts, cooperation, trust, and not cheating on contracts; being brave; being respectful to those in authority; being fair in terms of resources; respecting other’s property) was present in 60 disparate societies around the world. The authors concluded cooperative behaviors are “plausible candidates for universal moral rules.” The American public appears to agree.
The fact that Americans are more likely to accept behaviors that have previously been seen as immoral flies in the face of religious teachings of many of the largest religious entities in the U.S. The Catholic Church, for example, continues to instruct that sex should be reserved for marriage only and is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. Many Protestant denominations have similar moral tenets.
Thus, while religious leaders may bemoan the increasing acceptance of behaviors they proscribe, the data show that rank and file Americans — while concerned about moral values — are focusing on other issues. Moral values to many Americans revolve around how we deal with one another in daily life rather than how we deal with reproductive issues.
The findings have ramifications for the American political system. As is well-established, much of the emphasis in American politics today is on not cooperating; instead, it is on ideological rigidity and conflict. This may provide cable news ratings, hits on websites, podcast audiences, and primary election victories for political candidates, but it doesn’t fit with the overall desires of the public.
It is also worth reemphasizing that despite inflation, COVID-19 and many other pressing problems, Americans say that governance and the failure to get along with one another are the most important problems facing the nation. We have also found in the past that Americans want their elected officials to compromise rather than stick rigidly to principles.
Thus, if we are looking for a way to improve Americans’ negative views of the state of moral values in the nation today, the way forward seems clear from the data — increasing trust, cooperation and consideration for others.
 Curry, O.S., Mullins, D.A. and Whitehouse, H. (February 2019, V. 60, No. 1). Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies. The University of Chicago Press Journals. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/701478.