Declining moral values in the U.S.

An important area of research for me involves the study of how moral values relate to economic conditions of society and the well-being of individuals. For example, a few years ago I published a study (here) describing how to measure the generalized morality of countries, and I linked that measure to economic conditions within countries. Currently I am trying to understand trends in moral values and how and why they change over time.

It is not uncommon for people to bemoan a decline in moral values. For example, in 2015 a Gallup Poll (here) found that “Most Americans (72%) continue to believe the state of moral values in the U.S. is ‘getting worse,’ while 22% say it is ‘getting better.'” But is there evidence supporting the ‘decline in moral values’ story? Yes, at least in the United States.

I like working with a database called the World Values Survey, which is a compilation of face-to-face interviews with adult citizens ages 18 and older conducted in many countries around the world. Respondents are asked many questions about what they believe, such as perspectives about religion, politics, social values, and so forth. The survey is conducted in multiyear waves about every five years or so. It began in 1981. The most recent wave in which data is available (number 6) began in 2010 and involves work in 57 countries around the world with more than 85,000 respondents. The organization behind the study is currently preparing for the next round of studies.

Note the following two charts for respondents in the United States. The data are reported for each of the six waves. The number of respondents in each wave is at least 1,000 (and so allows for meaningful statistical analyses).

Social trends

This first chart (‘trends in social values’) shows the percent of people who believe that different social issues are not justifiable. There is a clear downward trend. If these represent genuine moral values, then here is the evidence. I could add others. For example, in 1981, 69 percent of people believed that prostitution was not justifiable, but in 2005 the number declined to 47 percent.

Economic trends

This next chart (‘trends in socio-economic values’) shows the percent of people who believe that certain actions by individuals are not justifiable. There is also a downward trend, although it is not as pronounced as is the case for social values. I call these ‘socio-economic values’ because I use them to construct my measure of ‘generalized morality’ mentioned above.

Why is there a decline in moral values? Well, that’s the million dollar question. While we can easily point to correlations, identifying causality is notoriously difficult in social science research. But sometimes correlations suggest patterns and plausible explanations. For example, declining religiosity and confidence in churches might be an explanation. Religions have traditionally played a major role in articulating moral standards in society. If people become less religious and are less tied to churches over time, then that might explain why moral values decline.

Religion

Consider this chart (‘importance of religion’), which shows various indicators of religiosity. While most people in the United States continue to believe in God (almost 90% according to the most recent wave of the World Values Survey), they are becoming less connected to Him. For example, only about 60 percent of people believe that God is important to them. There is also an alarming decline in confidence in churches. In 1981, 46 percent of people had a lot of confidence in churches, but in 2010 the percent had declined by more than half to 19 percent. If we don’t trust our churches then we will not trust what is taught there, such as being moral and having high moral standards.

At the risk of being accused of confusing correlation with causation and overlooking the many complicated factors affecting moral values in society, I am tempted to call this one. We need a spiritual and religious revival in the United States if we want to see a reversal of declining moral values in society. We need to go back to church. We need to listen to preachers and Sunday School teachers. We need to study scriptures and pray and do other religiously meaningful things. If we believe in God, then we need Him to be important to us. Why not. We’re important to Him.

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Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

1 thought on “Declining moral values in the U.S.”

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