For 21 years, Gallup has followed Americans’ beliefs about mainstream social issues, asking them to decide whether things like abortion, wearing fur, and having children out of wedlock are morally acceptable.
In the last report, published earlier this month, a slight majority of Americans say changing their gender identity is morally wrong, putting the problem on par with abortion as a source of polarization in the country.
But there is a clear partisan divide on both abortion and gender transition, a gap of over 50 points. And even on less polarizing issues, conservatives and liberals often follow a predictable course. This year, there is only one issue that people on both sides largely agree on, and that is that medical testing on animals is morally acceptable.
But does political affiliation inform moral beliefs or does it simply reflect them? It’s a chicken egg question that has interested researchers for years.
A school of thought, called moral foundations theory, proposes that people of all cultures form moral systems out of 5 or more universal value sets. These include care / harm, fairness / cheating, and sanctity / degradation, according to Jesse Graham, an ethicist at the University of Utah and co-developer of the theory. Differences in political beliefs arise from differences in the values that we consider most important.
But partisan identity has become so strong in the United States that a Stanford researcher said political affiliation now takes precedence over identification by religion and ethnicity. And research at Pennsylvania State University and elsewhere suggests that, regardless of what has happened in the past millennia, our political preferences have more influence on our moral beliefs today than we would like to admit.
“If there’s a causal arrow, it’s your policy versus what you think is moral,” said Peter Hatemi, political scientist at Penn State.
Here’s a look at the latest findings from Gallup, compared to past years, and the latest thoughts on how political ideology affects moral beliefs.
This is the first year that Gallup has asked Americans about the morality of gender transition, and the topic started off as such a polarizing issue as abortion. Fifty-one percent of Americans said it was morally wrong to change their gender identity; 46% said it was morally acceptable.
However, broken down by ideology, the numbers look quite different. Seventy-eight percent of people who identify as politically liberal say being transgender is morally acceptable, compared to 23% of political conservatives. (Additionally, women are more likely than men to view gender change as morally acceptable, as are young adults more likely than older adults, according to the report.)
When it comes to abortion, 73% of liberals say abortion is morally acceptable, compared to 19% of conservatives.
Belief in the morality of the death penalty also differed markedly by partisan identity. Seventy-one percent of Conservatives said the death penalty is morally permissible, compared with 36% of Liberals.
Lydia Saad, director of American social research at Gallup, said it’s reasonable to question whether political choices dictate moral choices or simply reflect them, especially since people are more open to party changes than ‘they have not been in past generations. “Before, the holidays were sort of hereditary; you were a Republican family or a Democratic family, and you stuck to it, as if you were Catholic. Now maybe people don’t feel as comfortable doing that, ”she said, adding that people could turn to political parties that match their established beliefs on the issues.
But Hatemi, at Penn State, says his research shows that the opposite is true.
“This idea that we have these moral cores and that we choose our policy and actions based on them goes against every piece of data that we have today. It just doesn’t hold water. “, did he declare.
As an example, he cites supporters of former President Donald Trump who were willing to put aside their own values of monogamy, loyalty and religious faith and ignore Trump’s behavior that went against it. these values. “And the same for the left, which was defending #MeToo but (said) we’re just going to forget about Bill Clinton.”
In addition to political parties and leaders, parents also influence our beliefs about morality. “And there is definitely a part of you that has a moral disposition, but at the end of the day we use morality to justify our views, not to inform them,” Hatemi said. But he added that Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham “will say the exact opposite”.
Haidt is the social psychologist at New York University who, along with Graham of the University of Utah, identified five foundations of morality:
- Healing / Harm – described on the Moral Foundations website as the human ability to feel and dislike the pain of others.
- Fairness / cheating – involving mutual altruism and concerns about equality and proportionality.
- Loyalty / betrayal – linked to the evolution of tribal coalitions.
- Authority / subversion – regarding hierarchies in social groups, these values can be expressed with respect for traditions and authority.
- Holiness / degradation – this forms the basis of “religious notions of living in a high, less carnal, more noble way” and is expressed in the widespread idea that the body is a temple.
A sixth foundation has also been proposed, which is oppression and freedom.
Haidt and Graham say that differences in how Americans value these foundations is at the root of our cultural battles.
“The current American Cultural War, we have found, can be seen as stemming from the fact that liberals are trying to create a morality based primarily on the foundation of care / harm, with additional support from the foundations of fairness / harm. cheating and freedom / oppression. they wrote about moral foundations website.
Conversely, “conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including loyalty / betrayal, authority / subversion, and holiness / degradation.”
But Graham, co-editor of “Atlas of moral psychology, said in a review of Hatemi’s work that he believes political ideology and moral judgments are likely to be affected by culture and temperament, among other factors. “The question that comes first, ideology or morality, often comes up when I lecture, and my honest (unsatisfying) answer is that this is a very difficult chicken and egg question that we do not yet have clear answers. ”
Changes over time
Regardless of the origins of these beliefs, Gallup’s latest findings confirm that Americans are more accepting of same-sex relationships, premarital sex, and having children outside of marriage than ever before.
And this is the first time in 20 years that Gallup has conducted the survey that more respondents say abortion is morally acceptable than not – although by just 1 percentage point, 47% to 46% , and the survey’s margin of error is plus / minus 4 percentage points.
“In general, the attitudes of Americans have become morally more permissive on most of these issues over the past two decades,” wrote Megan Brenan, research consultant for Gallup.
Out of 20 issues, a majority of Americans this year said 11 were morally acceptable, with birth control (90%), divorce (79%), and sex between a man and a single woman (73%) on your mind.
Likewise, about two-thirds of Americans consider same-sex or lesbian relationships, gambling, having a baby outside of marriage, and medical research using human embryonic stem cells as morally acceptable, the report said.
The number of people who say divorce, same-sex relationships and abortion are morally acceptable is the highest ever in the survey, Gallup said.
Meanwhile, six issues were viewed as morally wrong by the majority: extramarital affairs, human cloning, polygamy, physician-assisted suicide, animal cloning and pornography. On these issues, a greater proportion of conservatives than liberals saw the problem as morally wrong, with the biggest gap being observed in the area of pornography. Fifty-eight percent of Liberals said pornography is morally acceptable, compared to 24% of Conservatives.
As for what Americans think of the moral state of the country as a whole: Over the past 15 years, when asked to rate the general state of moral values in the country, the majority of respondents said it was fair or poor.