The moral opinions of U.S. adults are put on display every May through an annual Gallup poll.
The survey asks about issues ranging from sexual activity among unmarried people to animal rights.
Over the years, we have seen the vast majority of Americans have been opposed to human cloning, extramarital affairs and suicide.
The public’s view of sex between unmarried men and women has gone from a 53% approval rate in 2001 to a 72% approval rate in 2020.
In the last decade, the country has become more approving of gay and lesbian relationships, rising from a 38% approval rate in 2002 to 66% in 2020.
The report also shows that Americans still are split over issues like abortion, the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide.
While activists will focus upon the statistical changes in their issues, I tend to be disturbed by a seldom-discussed facet of the annual survey.
In addition to specific issues, Gallup asks the public two questions about our moral climate:
- “How would you rate the overall state of moral values in this country today?”
- “Right now, do you think the state of moral values in the country as a whole is getting better or getting worse?”
The shocking thing is that Americans have answered relatively the same for both questions over the last 20 years.
In 2001, 81% of participants thought the overall moral state of the country was “only fair” or “poor.” Today, that total is 78%.
Historically, scores have ranged from an all-time best of 76% in 2011 to an all-time worst of 86% in 2018.
In short, over three-quarters of Americans do not look favorably upon the moral climate in this country.
The other question has similar statistics. In 2002, 67% of participants felt the moral climate of the country was getting worse; in 2020, it was 68%. This statistic has ranged from 64% in 2004 to 82% in 2007.
Not only do the majority of Americans think we are not doing well morally, they also are expecting things to get worse.
These statistics should cause alarm in the faith and moral community. The concern is not with this year’s lack of progress, but that for two decades the public feels that moral progress is not being made.
Therefore, we are compelled to ask why? What is happening? What are we doing wrong?
One explanation is the country has been polarized for decades – sometimes feeling like a death match between the left and right.
Therefore, the statistics stay the same based upon whichever political party is in power.
While there might be some truth here, I find this explanation to be shallow. I think a more fitting explanation requires us to look at how we discuss right and wrong.
Preachers, pundits and the media are good at expressing opinions but not so good at explaining why those ideas are justified.
Why do we believe what we believe?
Often, the focus is on how we should feel about an idea. Instead, we need to spend more time discussing why a moral proposition is justified.
What are the conflicting moral principles? Where do they come from, and why should we care?
Physician-assisted suicide is one example.
Pundits like to get on the evening news and share emotive stories of people who are suffering in pain or warn us that patients with disabilities might be abused at the end of life.
While it is important to remember these issues affect real-life people and that suffering is real, ethicists and the faith community need to do more. Reasoned arguments must be provided.
The abortion debate illustrates the problem as well. Abortion is regularly discussed in the public sphere, but reasoned dialogue tends to collapse into straw man and ad hominem arguments.
As moral thinkers, we owe the public more than fear mongering and name-calling.
First, we owe the public the opportunity to witness fair and reasoned arguments based on good evidence.
Opinions are great, and we need to listen to a wide selection of ideas. But we must look for the argument behind those ideas.
Then, we need to ask, “What is the evidence for this?” and “How can this be justified?”
Finally, we need to admit openly the weakness in our own arguments, not just the fallacies of the other side.
This all needs to be done publicly. In witnessing a serious and peaceful discussion of moral issues that goes beyond one-liners, the public develops its ability and confidence in judging moral propositions.
Second, we need to return to the process of teaching ethics.
For decades, I would praise my undergraduates for having an opinion and being passionate for their cause. I would then turn around and force them to justify it and defend their beliefs.
I sometimes spent more time teaching critical thinking and inductive logic than ethics.
The problem with most of the public dialogue about moral issues is it rarely goes beyond surface disagreements. It rarely addresses foundational presuppositions or how specific arguments function.
Politicians, ethicists and faith leaders have not modeled good moral discourse. We have given the public a steady diet of half-baked rhetoric, not trusting them to weigh the facts or validity of arguments for themselves.
No wonder the public feels things are bad and getting worse.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.