Private Verdicts (Guilty!) on Public Morals

Do we live in a culture where anything goes? Turn on the TV or walk down a big-city street and it’s hard to feel otherwise. But while society now condones behavior that once was forbidden, this doesn’t mean people have ceased to feel disapproving. The findings of a new Gallup poll make this clear. Forty percent of adults said the overall state of moral values in this country is “poor.” Another 41 percent said it’s “only fair,” while just 1 percent said it’s “excellent” and 17 percent called it “good.” Women were more likely than men to say we’re in a poor moral state (45 percent vs. 33 percent). As you’d expect, older respondents were more apt than younger ones to take this dim view: 45 percent of 50-64-year-olds said things are “poor,” vs. 35 percent of 30-49-year-olds and 28 percent of 18-29-year-olds. But wide majorities in all age groups said the nation’s moral condition is getting worse. What sorts of behavior elicit all this disapproval? Notwithstanding the high incidence of broken marriages, 28 percent of respondents said divorce is “morally wrong.” Nor have Americans become inured to out-of-wedlock births, with 50 percent saying it’s wrong to have a baby outside of marriage. Forty-two percent said sex between unmarried men and women is wrong, and 87 percent said the same of married people having extramarital affairs. While polls routinely find a majority of Americans oppose an outright ban on abortion, 53 percent of this survey’s respondents view the practice as morally wrong. Given their hard line on heterosexuals’ lapses, it’s no surprise to find a majority of respondents (55 percent) saying homosexual behavior is wrong. In a culture that sometimes seems to exalt toleration above all other virtues, it’s striking to see such a deep reservoir of moral distaste on this array of issues. The impulse to stigmatize various behaviors has indeed fallen into abeyance. But if moral judgments are less publicly evident than they once were, that shouldn’t fool us into thinking they no longer animate people’s private opinions.