Busted Halo

In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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January 5th, 2011

Declining Morality?


Out recently from Gallup:

Americans are three times more likely to describe the current state of moral values in the United States as “poor” than as “excellent” or “good.” Americans’ assessment of U.S. morality has never been positive, but the current ratings rank among the worst Gallup has measured over the past nine years.

The vast majority of Americans think that our morals are slipping, and in open-ended questions, respondents told Gallup it was because people were increasingly disrespectful of others, that parents weren’t raising their children with proper values or spending enough time taking care of them, corruption and dishonesty among business leaders was on the rise, and that folks are moving away from God and the church. (Interestingly, Democrats think that things aren’t going to the dogs as much as Republicans.)

But before you freak out, here’s an alternative view:

When respondents tell Gallup they are concerned about morals, it’s the data-based version of the “kids these days…” trope:

Kids these days need to learn some manners. Kids these days need to learn how to respect their elders. We always think that previous generations – or back in our day – had more character and moral fortitude. Indeed, research on Gallup’s morality polls from five years ago has found that young-adults tend to be more optimistic about the moral and ethical climate of America.

This is where your hear your Grandmother’s voice say, “Of course these young people think everything is great… They are the problem… Back in my day…”

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Matt

    The problem is that the answer is far more complicated than the question implies.

    More people are avowed atheists. But more of the people who still self-identify as “Christians” are actually showing up for church regularly, and more of _them_ are taking an active role in lay ministries. So how’s religion doing?

    Abortion rates are down, teen pregnancy is down, for the first time since Roe v Wade a majority self-identifies as “Pro-Life”, and chastity movements get good PR for the first time in my lifetime. But middle-school kids have started giving each other b*******s in the parking lots. How are we doing on sexual morals?

    I could go on.

    My point, though, is that even if you break down the question in terms of a particular moral sphere, and you have all the relevant data, it’s still hard to come up with a single “better” or “worse” answer to the question of how well our national moral compass is calibrated, compared to the past.

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