What Does Morality Mean to You?
The Divide Between Older and Younger Americans is Widening
From time to time, I come across a survey that leads me to wonder why Americans have different views about morality. Isn’t it a matter of right versus wrong? Doesn’t The Golden Rule explain it best?
According to a survey by YouGov, while morality can be described as a set of rules that distinguish good behavior from bad behavior, the definition and interpretation of the word are often subjective. As part of a larger project on morality in the U.S., YouGov recently asked Americans about their views on morality, where it comes from, and the current state of moral values in the U.S.
The following results are worth considering given the decline of morality in America over many years now whether we are looking at the behavior of politicians, actions by members in the media, sports figures, and so much more. Add to this the senseless violence and crime, and mass murders at schools and other sites, and I can only shake my head that in 2023, we don’t seem to have a generally accepted concept of what morality is.
Dichotomy Between Right and Wrong
Getting back to the survey results, the concept of morality often creates a dichotomy between “right” and “wrong.” According to most Americans, people are generally aware of this distinction: 64% of Americans say that people mostly have a sense of right and wrong, and only 26% say they mostly do not. To me, these results are not good. If 26% of the population believe the population is not aware of the difference between right and wrong, is it any wonder unethical behavior is all around us?
When asked more specifically about the meaning of behaving morally, 34% say behaving morally means doing everything one can which leads to good outcomes for everyone, 25% say it means acting according to one’s own conscience, 15% say it is following duties and obligations in life irrespective of the consequences, and 14% say it is following the moral teachings of a religion.
These are more positive results, but I fear that knowing what is right doesn’t mean a person will do the right thing. There are pressures to conform to a group narrative that may not be based on ethical standards; peer pressure; fear of the cancel culture; selfishness; and other ways that ones’ sense of right and wrong are challenged by segments of society.
Apart from what morality means, YouGov also asked Americans about the source of morality and found no consensus. Asked which comes closer to their view, more than one-third (37%) say that morality comes from each person’s conscience, 27% say it comes from God or a higher power, 16% say it comes from society, and 9% say it comes from science and reason. Younger Americans are less likely than older Americans to say that morality comes from God or a higher power and more likely to say it comes from science and reason.
What do Americans say about their own morality?
Four in five Americans say they are somewhat or very moral, and only 12% say they are somewhat or very immoral. Age seems to play a role in how moral Americans perceive themselves to be: Americans between 18 and 44 are less likely to say they are somewhat or very moral (67%) than are Americans 45 and older (91%). Furthermore, younger Americans are also less likely to say morality is somewhat or very important to them (76%) than are older Americans (94%). My own observations mesh with those of the survey.
For years, ethics and morality was a staple of education in K-12 whereas today, most schools shy away from it for fear of offending, or not representing, one group or another. I point to the 1960s as the beginnings of the decline when the mantra was “to do your own thing.” That meant, you should put your needs ahead of others even if it means ignoring their rights and your responsibilities to society.
Among the Americans who consider themselves moral are 71% of Americans who have cheated on a partner who never found out, 80% of Americans who have cheated on a partner who did find out, and 87% of Americans who say they have never cheated. These results are telling in that it shows Americans have a wide grouping of what is right or wrong based on their own behavior and seem to view morality from the point of view of relativeness. In other words, it's a situational ethic where right and wrong are defined by each situation and not based on common core values.
What do Americans think about the state of moral values in the U.S.?
Consistent with other recent surveys, 53% of Americans say that moral values in the U.S. are either weak or very weak. Americans between the ages of 18 and 44 are less likely to say that moral values in the U.S. are weak or very weak (40%) compared to Americans 45 and older (63%). Once again, the older Americans have a stronger moral base, at least in their minds, than younger ones.
Some Americans think that the morality of U.S. society has been especially declining in the past 10 years: 51% say that U.S. society is less moral now than it was 10 years ago, but only 35% say it is less moral now than it was 200 years ago. The decline in morality over the years seems undeniable, as I explained previously. The lack of education, declining parental involvement in teaching ethics to their kids, bad influences of social media, contentiousness in politics, a general lack of civility in society, and the lack of role models all come together to muddy the ethical waters.
Many Americans consider the people closest to them to be more selfless than they do people generally. When asked about others’ behaviors, by 57% to 19%, Americans say people more often behave selfishly than selflessly. But, when asked about their friends and family more specifically, Americans say that they more often behave selflessly than selfishly, by 47% to 25%. These results add credence to the notion that we live in a society where ethical relativism rules the day. In other words, each of us defines what is and is not ethical for ourselves. That’s a problem because it makes it virtually impossible to apply The Golden Rule to decision-making. If we choose to treat others the way we wish they would treat us, then selfishness may rule the day.
The moral values that should be emphasized in society include honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, empathy, kindness, civility, and personal responsibility, among others. Integrity is the whole of moral behavior--to be a principled person and have the courage to act rightly. We should always consider how our actions will affect others--the consequences of our actions--and focus on the good (benefits to others) and not the bad (harming others) before deciding what to do where others are affected.
The problem is there doesn’t seem to be an urgency in education, politics, government, social media, print media, sports, Hollywood, and so on to teach youngsters about moral values. I wonder: What additional bad things must happen to us and others in society before we take the decline of morality seriously?
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on January 19, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.