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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The Winter of Our Discontent and our identity

woodFor the past several years I have required students in my applied ethics course to read John Steinbeck’s book, The Winter of Our Discontent. The story, which takes place in the early 1960s in a fictional East Coast town called New Baytown, is about the moral decline of a man named Ethan. At the beginning of the book Ethan is content and has a reputation for integrity. By the end of the book Ethan has engaged in a number of morally corrupt activities in order to obtain wealth and status.

I like the book because it is one of the best novels showing the dilemma people face when tempted to do bad things and the heartache people inevitably feel because of their actions. Steinbeck takes us into the mind of Ethan as he rationalizes what he does. “What are morals? … Is there a check in men, deep in them, that stops or punishes? There doesn’t seem to be,” says Ethan. That’s a scary way to justify one’s behavior.

The class discussions of this book are always interesting. Students generally agree that the things Ethan did were wrong and that Steinbeck did a good job in showing that happiness in life does not come from doing bad things to get ahead or merely from the acquisition of wealth. However, students differ in the lessons they learned from the book.

Some students drew connections with teachings from their parents and churches about the importance of doing good and being good, even when others around us are not.

Some students felt that experience is the best teacher in life. That is, we learn right and wrong by choosing wrong and then by seeing that it does not get us what we expected. Only rarely can one be “taught” that something is wrong and that such teaching will be sufficient to keep us on the moral high ground. In other words, the only way we can learn that stealing is wrong is to steal, get caught and be punished. Having someone who says they know better and who tells us it is wrong and that we can never “prosper” by stealing is not good enough.

Some students believed in the power of example and of a good role model. If there is someone we admire who behaves ethically, then we might be more inclined to avoid the temptations to lie, cheat and steal. But what if we associate with people who do not value integrity?

An important lesson is where our sense of identity comes from. If we require validation from others, then we will be susceptible to pressures to acquire riches at any cost. That is, we will become like Ethan. You’ll have to read the book to understand why. (The book would carry a PG rating for adult themes and mild language.)

An alternative objective would be to find validation from within, or, better yet, to consider “what thinks God of me?” There is an extensive scholarly literature on the subject of religiosity and identity. Scholars have noted that religions provide a strong effect on the way people see themselves and the world. But that can come at a cost, for example, if one’s religious identity is threatened by intergroup conflict. When one’s religion is attacked, then having an identity too strongly tied to the religion may create a risk that people will take extreme actions in order to protect their identity and worldview (see, for instance, a paper entitled “Religiosity as Identity: Toward an Understanding of Religion From a Social Identity Perspective.” But havin51lkrhfbuelg one’s sense of identity tied to one’s religion is not the same as considering “what thinks God of me?” An excellent religious perspective of this theme is here. I’m also reminded of a wonderful book, You Are Specialby Max Lucado, that makes the same point.

I know I’ve gone off track a bit, since I started this post with Steinbeck’s book. But since my identity is not based on what I think others think of my blogging, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Doing bad when I think I’m good

A perplexing question in social science research is why people behave in ways inconsistent with their beliefs and their perceptions about themselves. For example, if we know it is wrong to lie, cheat or steal, then why do people lie, cheat or steal? Economists might say people conduct a rational analysis to assess the benefits of lying, cheating or stealing relative to the costs of getting caught or having a guilty conscience and will behave inappropriately when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Psychologists might look to the internalized norms and values of people and say they will lie, cheat or steal when their internal value systems become corrupted. But what if people maintain a strong internal value system but still lie, cheat or steal? Is it possible for me to behave dishonestly and still consider myself an honest person? The question is not trivial. Consider these variations:

I see myself as a person dedicated to healthy eating and exercise but who routinely (over)indulges in sugary and unhealthy foods.

I see myself as a person who values education and a growing intellect but who routinely watches too much television or plays too many games on a smartphone or tablet.

I see myself as a person who is fair and impartial but who regularly denigrates the statements of persons whose political views differ from mine.

I see myself as a person who treats others with dignity and respect but who often hurls insults at political opponents because its just “politics”.

I see myself as a religious person but who rarely attends church or reads scriptures and prays.

I see myself as a competent and careful blogger but who infrequently adds new posts to his blog or reads and comments on the blog postings of others.

A study published in 2008, entitled The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance, provides a compelling insight here. According to the authors of the study, people have and want to maintain a particular image of themselves, such as being a person of honesty. A problem arises when people face a decision that can produce a short-term gain but require them to act in a way that is contrary to their self-image or self-concept. When people are torn by competing motivations–“gaining from cheating versus maintaining a positive self-concept as honest”–they will solve this dilemma “by finding a balance or equilibrium between the two motivating forces, such that they derive some financial benefit from behaving dishonestly but still maintain their positive self-concept in terms of being honest.” But how? The trick is to define the behavior in a way that still allows them to maintain the desired self-concept. The authors describe this as malleability. The more malleable the situation, the more likely people will behave inappropriately while still maintaining a positive self-concept. Consider this variation of an example provided by the authors: I might be able to justify taking a $1 notebook from my friend, even if I cannot justify stealing $1 from his wallet to buy the notebook myself. The malleability here comes from my defining this action as “borrowing” rather than stealing, or thinking that because I let my friend use something of mine previously, then my taking the notebook is okay because “this is what friends do.” Of course, there is limit to this rationalization. I might be able to rationalize taking the $1 notebook but probably not taking my friend’s $20,000 car. Thus, malleability and limits set the boundaries within which rationalization occurs.

The scholars conducted experiments to see how people behave when given opportunities to cheat and to redefine how they see themselves. The experiments confirmed their expectations. As summarized by the authors, “people who think highly of themselves in terms of honesty make use of various mechanisms that allow them to engage in a limited amount of dishonesty while retaining positive views of themselves. In other words, there is a band of acceptable dishonesty that is limited by internal reward considerations.” In other words, I can lie as long as I can convince myself it is really not lying. If I can do this easily, then good for me. I get my lie and self-worth too. If I cannot do this easily, then I’ll resign myself to being honest.

So, if we want to reduce dishonesty in society, we need to limit the malleability of contexts in which people might lie, cheat or steal. In other words, we need to make it harder for people to rationalize their unethical behavior that allows them to maintain a positive self-concept even though they are doing wrong. In their study, the authors were able to do this by asking the subjects of their experiments to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember. Perhaps this means we should be promoting greater religious observance in society.

Lying is still lying, regardless of what we want to call it. Cheating is still cheating. And stealing is still stealing. All our wrong. We need to call it what it is.

Phew! That was a lot of work creating this post. Time for this healthy exerciser to take a chocolate break.

 

 

Utilitarian pushers are a miserable lot

Each spring semester I teach an applied ethics class called “Ethical Issues in Agriculture.” Today we discussed one of the most famous thought experiments in applied ethics—the trolley dilemma (a Youtube.com presentation of the issue is here). In this dilemma, a trolley is running out of control on a track where five men are working. In one variation, you are told you can save the five by pulling a lever to divert the trolley onto another track, where one man works, thus killing him. In another variation, you are told that you can push a very fat man off a footbridge onto the track to derail the train, thus saving the five.

Would you pull the lever to save five while causing the death of one in the first case?  Why? Would you push the man off the footbridge to save the five in the second case? Why?

I have used the trolley problem for many years in class. Most students are willing to pull the lever in the first case, but most are not willing to push the man in the second case. According to students, it is better to save five at the expense of one by pulling the lever, since five versus one seems to be the only pertinent factor in the first trolley case. This is classical utiliarian thinking. Utilitarianism is the idea that a decision is right if a greater good is served, such as more people benefiting than being harmed. Inflicting extreme pain on a person for information that could save thousands would be justifiable under utilitarianism. However, non-utilitarian thinking applies in the second trolley case because there are other things to consider. For example, in the first case all workers have preexisting harm since they are on track, whereas in the second case the man on the footbridge is not in harm’s way; our pushing him introduces him to harm. Diverting the trolley is what saves the five in the first case, whereas the death of the man is necessary in the second case. We also need to consider the rights of the man to decide for himself whether to leap or not–that is, we should not use him as a means to an end without his consent.

What is interesting with the trolley problem is people who use utilitarian thinking in the second case, choosing to push the man in order to save the five.

I read a study a few years ago that shed some light on people who are predominantly utilitarian thinkers. The study is “The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas.” The researchers wanted to know how people who selected a utilitarian outcome to the trolley problem scored on personality assessments. Over two hundred college students were recruited for the study. The study showed that people who consistently adopt utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas are more likely than others to have indications of psychopathic personalities or to feel that life is meaningless.

Most respondents in the study did not think it was right to push the fat man to save five workers. However, respondents who consistently chose the utilitarian solution to the different variations of the trolley problem also scored high on personality assessment indicators that suggested a high degree of psychopathy, emotional detachment to others, and a sense that life is meaningless. In other words, utilitarian pushers (people who believe it is acceptable to push the fat man off the footbridge) are not pleasant or happy people. In fact, we might even say their psychological profiles are troubling.

It is interesting that economics as a profession pushes the utilitarian framework (choose actions where the benefits exceed the costs). It’s our fundamental way of thinking as economists. Maybe this is why the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle referred to economics as the “dismal science.”

In case any of you are worried, it’s okay to have an economist as a friend … as long as you don’t take walks along trolley tracks together.

 

Commitment by default

The University of Missouri is set to announce soon that an administrator from the University of Connecticut will be named president of the University of Missouri system. The University of Missouri sought to hire a new system president with Tim Wolfe resigned as system president in late 2015. His resignation followed protests by students, faculty and alumni over his handling—or lack of handling—of events that underscore a problem of racial tensions on campus. As a faculty member at the University of Missouri, I hope the hiring of a new system president will commence a healing that is sorely needed within our community. I also hope that if he is indeed capable, the new system president will stick around for a while.

Whenever a president or leader of an organization is forced to resign, I often wonder why it came to that. Was the leader really that bad or incompetent? Why couldn’t the leader and other affected parties work things out? More generally, why is it, following a crisis within an organization, that there is an immediate call for resignation, effort to impeach, or organized effort to see that “heads roll” (figuratively speaking)? Why isn’t there first a concerted effort to work through difficulties and differences? It is as if the default reaction is “get rid of the leader” rather than “let’s see if we can work this out.”

I think there is a lesson here if we think about something analogous in marriage. When things go wrong in a marriage, the default reaction seems to be for the couple to split rather than to overcome and problem-solve. The principle of no fault divorce that is so common in society has now become divorce by default. In contrast, why isn’t commitment the default?

My wife and I have been married for more than 28 years. It has not always been easy. We have said things we should not have said and haven’t said things we should have said. We’ve taken each other for granted, been inconsiderate and otherwise acted like humans unfortunately often do. But one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long is because we are committed to each other. For us, commitment is the default, not divorce. I know my wife will not bail on me when things get difficult, and she knows the same about me. When we married, we made a commitment to each other that we accepted as binding. My religion’s theology also tells me that our marriage will be binding forever–that is, in this life and in the next. Now that is a long-term commitment!

Because my wife and I are committed and because each of us knows the other is committed, we have learned to work things out and our marriage is better because of it. I can only imagine what my life would be like for me today if divorce were our default. I suspect I would be trying to figure out how to help my children manage a two household situation.

When commitment is the default, parties in a relationship—whether in marriage or within an organization—have a long-term perspective. They see the potential the partnership can become and thus are willing to work to make that vision happen. This requires a willingness to compromise as well as an ability to see things through another’s eyes. It requires mutual respect. It fosters not only an accurate recognition of our faults and the weaknesses of others but also a realization that people can and do change. Commitment by default does not mean that separation should never happen. Rather, it means giving the relationship and those within it a benefit of the doubt. Divorce or separation is a last resort and only when there is a strong and compelling reason that healing and improvement will not be possible or if a continuation of the relationship will be physically or emotionally harmful.

When divorce rather than commitment is the default, parties in a relationship tend to be short-sighted and selfish. They see things primarily through their own limited understanding and fail to appreciate the perspective, values and interests of others. They see the motes in the eyes of others without recognizing the beams in their own. They want others to change but they don’t want to change themselves. A call for separation does not produce solutions to difficult problems. It just forces them on to the next partners or leaders. Divorce by default does not mean that long-lasting relationships are not possible. Rather, it means parties will work things out only when they have good reason to, but determining what these reasons are is often difficult to assess, especially when emotions are strong and tempers flare.

I believe that commitment by default leads to stronger marriages and families than divorce by default. And strong families are essential for the well-being of society. I also believe that commitment by default will lead to stronger and more effective organizations. When leaders, followers and stakeholders are committed to each other, and when this knowledge is common and accepted by everyone within the organization, they will work to heal, solve and build. They will create solutions to problems rather than evade them.

We have problems at the University of Missouri. Thus, we need a leader who is committed to change and supportive of the university community. But we also need faculty, staff and students who are committed to their new president and slow to call for a resignation when times are difficult. Commitment by default is the best strategy for genuine improvement on our campus and in society at large.

Are we better off today than our grandparents were in the 1950s?

I finished reading Robert Gordon’s massive book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. And it is massive, topping 750 pages including notes and references.

Gordon’s thesis is simple: American growth and the improvement in the standard of living for people living between 1920 and 1970 was better than the improvement in growth and living standards for people living between 1870 and 1920 and for those living between 1970 and today. Stated differently, while my grandparents had it better than their grandparents, the improvements that my grandparents experienced were more substantial than the improvements I have seen.

The reason is that the inventions and innovations that occurred between 1920 and 1950 were more significant and had a greater impact on labor productivity and personal well-being than the inventions and innovations that occurred before and after that time period. Gordon systematically reviews “all” of them (hence the long book). He considers improvements in food, housing, transportation, communication, health, working conditions, financial services.

Here are simple examples: Going from no cars in the late 19th century to cars available to most households in the early 20th century had a greater impact on people and businesses than going from cars then to cars with airbags and rearview cameras today. Similarly, going from no electric lighting to electric lighting had a greater impact than going from electric lighting to more efficient electric lighting. Going from no penicillin to penicillin was more profound than going from penicillin to more powerful penicillin. Going from no telephones to telephones was more important than going from telephones to mobile phones today. The list goes on and on. People living between 1920 and 1970 saw more radical changes in their lives than people living since the 1970s.

What made the book fun was the presentation of stories and historical examples he gave. Even if you are not interested in the economics behind his thesis, you can read the chapters and gain insights about how life improved for people during the early half of the 20th century.

Gordon raises some warnings. It is not likely that we will see the kind of growth that the economy and people experienced from 1920 to 1950–what he refers to as the “Great Leap Forward”–anytime soon. And worse, the widening level of inequality we are seeing will only make things worse. The growth rate of real income for the top 10 percent and for the bottom 90 percent of persons in the U.S. was about the same in the mid 20th century–about 2.5 percent per year. But since the 1970s the top 10 percent of wage earners has seen real wages increase more than 1.4 percent annually while real wages for the bottom 90 percent of workers have decreased during the same time period. This is not good for a healthy, growing and productive economy.

Accepting rejection with civility and grace

I have been editing the academic journal, Agriculture and Human Values, for 10 years. I get more than 400 submissions a year, and I publish between 40 and 50 articles each year. If you do the math, that means I reject far more papers than I accept (my acceptance rate is about 12%).

I know it is not easy receiving a rejection letter. As an academic with a responsibility to publish, I get rejection letters, too. I know the feeling a rejection creates. Your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Your chest tightens. You want to lash out at the naive editor who made the bad call or the idiot reviewers who are clearly ignorant of what ground-breaking research looks like. If a reason is given for the rejection, then you see only the flaws in its logic; you miss points of genuine concern. If no reason is given, then you get even madder because the rejection now seems arbitrary and without merit.

Occasionally I get a “lashing out” email from authors of papers I rejected. The writers are clearly writing out of emotion. Many of these express unkind things about the editor, the editorial process and the reviewers providing reviews. Fortunately, there is a delete button that safely handles these emails.

But on even rarer occasions I get an email from an author of a rejected paper thanking me for the opportunity to consider their work and expressing appreciation to the reviewers for their helpful comments and insights. Wow. How amazing it is to find someone who is civil and gracious in rejection!

I received such a message yesterday shortly after my sending the dreaded rejection letter. The writer said this: “Thank you for the thoughtful response regarding this manuscript submission. While I am disappointed at the final decision, I very much appreciate the care with which the reviewers considered the manuscript as well as your commentary regarding your decision.” The writer continued with a request that I let the reviewers know that the author was grateful for the comments and suggestions they provided.

It is encouraging to know that there are scholars of integrity out there, especially those who are able to see rejection for what it is–an opportunity to improve one’s research and to demonstrate that they are a person of character.