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.


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.

The latest issue of Agriculture and Human Values is in print

TheAHV_10460 latest issue of the academic journal I edit, Agriculture and Human Values, has just been published. This is the official journal of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society. The table of contents to issue 1 of volume 34 is here.

A brief summary of the articles in this issue is as follows: Fouilleux and Loconto examine the conventionalization of organic agriculture through the perspective of tripartite standards regime of governance. Jones et al examine the perceptions of students from developing countries about agriculture as an occupation. Contzen and Forney introduce a typology of farm family configurations in a study of Swiss farming. Mann and Bonanomi offer a framework for assessing the ethical implications of large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries. Papaoikonomou and Ginieis assess the transformative nature of local food systems by focusing on the practices, narratives about and governance characteristics of CSAs in Spain and New York City. Arcari uses discourse analysis to examine how meat and animals are discussed and framed in debates about animal agriculture. Stone and Glover use the lens of embeddedness to examine “rice worlds” of the Green Revolution, Golden Rice and heirloom landrace rice. Kurth and Glasbergen examine the effectiveness of halal certification organizations in a study focusing on the Netherlands. Bellante uses a case study of a local food movement in Mexico to provide a more balanced view of their advantages and limitations. Poulsen examines the degree to which urban farms are able to overcome critiques about civic agriculture. Desmarais et al document changing land ownership patterns in Canada. Zepeda and Reznickova describe the evolution of a Slow Food movement at the University of Wisconsin. Additionally, Jennifer Clapp, S. Ryan Isakson and Oane Visser introduce a collection of four papers on the complex dynamics of agriculture as a financial asset. The issue also contains book reviews and a list of books received.

Corruption, 2016

Transparency International is a non-governmental organization, headquartered in Berlin, with a mission to document and root out public corruption worldwide. The organization defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.”

For more than two decades Transparency International has produced an annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The most recent edition of the index (here) ranks 176 countries from the least corrupt to the most corrupt. The index ranges from a scale of 0 to 100, “where a 0 equals the highest level of perceived corruption and 100 equals the lowest level of perceived corruption.” The Index  “aggregates data from a number of different sources that provide perceptions of business people and country experts of the level of corruption in the public sector.”


The least corrupt countries are Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden. They always stay at the top of the list. The most corrupt countries are Syria, North Korea, South Sudan and Somalia. Denmark’s score is 90 while Somalia’s is 10. The United States is number 18 on the list, with a score of 74, below Canada, Germany and the UK. That’s alarming. Not that the US is below other countries but that the US is more than halfway to the midpoint of the CPI scale (Slovakia and Croatia have scores of 51 and 49 respectively).

Corruption matters because it erodes public trust in government and business, and trust is very important for promoting economic growth and well-being. For example, note the following figure I produced showing the correlation between corruption and per capita gross domestic product. Of course, correlation does not mean causation. And we can debate whether corruption produces low growth or whether low growth invites corruption, but the correlation is stark. Highly corrupt countries are very poor. Moreover, for every 10 point improvement in a country’s perceived corruption, GDP per capita increases by more than $7,000 (that’s what the equation in the figure shows).


Transparency International also draws a connection between corruption and social inequality. As noted on their website (here): “it’s timely to look at the links between populism, socio-economic malaise and the anti-corruption agenda. Indeed, [US President] Trump and many other populist leaders regularly make a connection between a ‘corrupt elite’  interested only in enriching themselves and their (rich) supporters and the marginalisation of ‘working people’. Is there evidence to back this up? Yes. Corruption and social inequality are indeed closely related and provide a source for popular discontent. Yet, the track record of populist leaders in tackling this problem is dismal; they use the corruption-inequality message to drum up support but have no intention of tackling the problem seriously.”

In other words, we preach virtues but don’t practice them ourselves.

Which reminds me. After discussing these ideas in my applied ethics class I suggested that students can obtain an automatic A in the class if they leave me a $100 bill with their name written on it in pencil. Some students laughed while others wanted to negotiate the price. Apparently they didn’t learn anything.

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.



Morality and neurochemical impulses

Recently I was reminded of a book I read a while ago by philosopher Patricia Churchland entitled Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. (A brief video of her explaining the book is here.) The book attempts to explain what scientists have learned about the brain in order to explain how it is that humans developed a sense of morality. One interesting idea she discusses is that the hormone Oxytocin is found in the brain and in the body. It has been shown to promote caring behavior in animals, and it is released during pregnancy, triggering “full maternal behavior” in humans and animals. Oxytocin also promotes trust in humans by “raising the threshold for tolerance of others, and to its down-regulation of fear and avoidance responses,” as demonstrated in experiments in which some research subjects are given a dose of Oxytocin and are asked to play games and interact with others in order to measure trusting behavior. Another interesting discussion is that, at the genetic level, behavior is complex. No single gene can be associated with any unique or specific behavior. In the “Parable of the Aggressive Fruit Fly,” Churchland explains how scientists are able to breed a fruit fly that is 30 times more aggressive than their natural cousins, but genetic differences between them are minor and do not seem to be related to any specific behavior. Rather, differences are in mundane physiological functions.

After discussing these ideas Churchland enters into a discussion of why various philosophers have not really gotten it right about morality and ends with a criticism of religion, or what she calls a “supernatural basis” as the source of morality. She denies the need to rely on God or religion in order to explain morality and how people come to know that something is right or wrong, focusing instead on a neurobiological basis for these. To this end she is particularly critical of religious tenets that imply or state an absolute standard of behavior or morality, such as claims about what someone “ought” to do or be. She focuses especially on the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments and a God-given conscience. One reason she gives is that religious “absolutes” are just that—prescriptions that are intolerant of specific contexts. Another reason she gives is that absolute standards are invalidated because of the allowance of exceptions, such as when the Lord tells Moses “Thou shalt not kill” (see Exodus 20) and then later commands him to slay Israelites who worshipped false Gods (see Numbers 25). I note the inconsistency in these two objections. She is critical of religious intolerance as well as its tolerance. She also complains that people “with conscience” often advocate conflicting ideals. For example, some people feel it is wrong to eat meat while others feel it is morally acceptable. According to her, this means religion cannot be used to justify claims about morality.

I find her argument highly unsatisfying. If she is correct, then where does this leave us? A world in which morality is relative and where morality is created and defined by neurochemical reactions in our brains? If we live in such a world, then how is it that humans are able to make decisions of right and wrong and come to a consensus about many moral issue? Neurochemicals might explain in part feelings of affection we have for others, but that only accounts for the sociality of humans and animals. It is too far a leap to claim that it also accounts for the ability of humans to engage in complex moral analysis or to make and act on specific moral judgments. It also cannot explain how or why little children understand basics of right or wrong. If you ask a five year old child if it is a good thing or a bad thing to take a toy away from another child or to hit another person, they usually get the right answer (it is a wrong thing). Children have an innate sense of right and wrong that can only be described as a conscience. Neurobiological responses are too primitive to explain this ability of children. To accept Churchland’s view is to equate morality with sociality, and that is clearly insufficient for explaining actual moral judgment.

A stable society requires that humans accept a common morality and sense about what is right or wrong and that they are willing and able to police themselves by exercising moral restraint. This requires a belief or a willingness to believe that there is such a thing as an absolute standard of morality. History has shown repeatedly the horror that humans inflict on others when they disagree on fundamental moral issues and beliefs and adopt a mindset of relativism and situational ethics. The Nazi holocaust comes to mind. (Side note: I just finished Miklos Nyiszli’s book, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, which provides a stunning account of a Jewish doctor who helped the infamous Josef Mengele conduct experiments on prisoners in the concentration camp.)

Personally, I would rather live in a world in which people accepted the reality of a Divine Being and followed His dictates than one in which people acted only according to neurobiological and chemical impulses. It is because people ignore their God-given conscience that immoral behavior and human-on-human atrocities occur.

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 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.