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Moral decline: The myth that won’t go away

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Various

Image: PxHere
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Is society experiencing a moral decline? Most of us seem to think so, but what about the evidence? 5 takes a look for signs to show whether we’re really getting less righteous – or more.

Key Takeaway

  • Some people have always thought that moral values are in decline. It’s true that our morals change over time, but there’s actually loads to be optimistic about in the values that are on the rise today.

We all agree: moral values are in decline.

In the US, more than two thirds of people see the country’s values deteriorating, according to regular surveys by polling firm Gallup. In fact, for the whole of the two decades that Gallup has been running the survey, a large majority of Americans have consistently said that the nation’s morals are bad, and getting worse.

It’s a familiar story, particularly on the political right (there’s a reason conservatives are called conservatives). Headlines remind us of it. Leaders bemoan it. And it’s nothing new. It appears to be in our nature to hark back to the “good old days”. Britain’s postwar generation looked back to the Victorians as beacons of moral fortitude. The Victorians, in turn, looked back to a time before the Industrial Revolution. Even in Roman times, people moaned about changing family values (and today we still speak of the “decline and fall” of the Empire, despite historians pointing out that’s not really how it happened).

As a narrative, it’s powerful and pervasive. But is it true?

Rome fell. But did it decline? Photo: PxHere

A picture of moral righteousness? Image: PxHere

The answer really depends on how you define “moral values”, which differs from person to person. Those on the political left prioritise concepts of fairness and preventing harm, while those on the right weigh these up against other considerations such as a sense of moral purity, loyalty to the community and respect for authority.

Our sense of right and wrong is shifting around us. Research by Ipsos Mori in the UK shows that far fewer people today believe that drugs, homosexuality, abortion and cohabiting are morally wrong, than did 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the number who believe the death penalty is wrong, has gone up. In a survey conducted for the BBC last year, young people were more likely than older people to say it was acceptable to lie on a dating profile or fake a sick day. On the other hand, they were also more likely to say they would step in to stop bullying or sexual harassment at work. Are the young really less moral, or just differently moral?

“Crime has steadily fallen in recent decades, yet a majority still believe it’s going up”

While some studies have shown perceptions of a moral decline in connection with a fall in religious belief, evidence of actual attitudes and behaviour doesn’t seem to back this up. A study published in 2016 by Dr Ingrid Storm of the University of Manchester in the UK looked at two types of “moral” issues – those connected with respecting tradition, and those connected with the law, or doing right by others. “More Europeans are now willing to justify behaviours that go against tradition, but attitudes have not changed when it comes to breaking the law or harming others,” Dr Storm concluded. “As religion has declined in Europe there has also been an increase in acceptance of personal autonomy on issues concerning sexuality and family. Each generation is more liberal on these issues than the one before. In contrast, we find no evidence that moral values have become more self-interested or anti-social.”

Where’s the evidence?

So how to explain the persistent feeling of moral decline, despite the lack of concrete evidence? If we take a closer look at Gallup’s survey of Americans, a contradiction emerges. Every year, they ask people two questions: how are things now, and how will they be in future. Every year, respondents insist we’re on a downward spiral, yet the proportion who say things are bad right now doesn’t actually increase. In fact it’s remarkably stable (it even went down a little in 2020 – perhaps reflecting a blooming of faith in our fellow humans amid the pandemic). What the data really reveals, then, is a persistent belief that things are going to get worse, alongside evidence from the same people suggesting that, over time, they haven’t. So here’s an idea: maybe things aren’t getting worse. Maybe we just think they are.

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We can see the same pattern in other survey data. In the UK and the US, where crime has steadily fallen in recent decades, a majority still consistently believe it’s going up. Sociologists even have a name for this frustrating phenomenon: the crime perception gap. In his posthumously published 2018 bestseller Factfulness, Hans Rosling highlights this gap as an example of the human psychological instinct to dwell on negativity, fuelled partly by the media, which focuses on what’s wrong, never what’s right, and on what’s dramatic, never what’s routine. So the most awful crimes get the most coverage, no matter how out of the ordinary they may be, giving the impression of a gradual slide into anarchy. As Rosling puts it, “Each time something horrific or shocking happened, which was pretty much every year, a crisis was reported.”

“Often, it’s young people showing the moral leadership – even children sometimes”

Not only is crime stubbornly refusing to rise, there are other measurable trends that seem to show improvements in recent years. Not everyone would class teenage pregnancy or divorce as “moral” issues, but either way, they’ve been falling for years in the US, UK and many other countries. This rarely makes the news.

Boomers v millennials

Today, talk of moral decline often descends into a bunfight between the generations. The baby boomers credit their prosperity to their own discipline, hard work and respect for the rules. They paint millennials as self-absorbed, entitled snowflakes, iPhone in one hand, soya latte in the other. ‘OK boomer’, reply the millennials, who blame the older generation for hogging the fruits of a period of extraordinary prosperity – oh, and trashing the planet.

Is religion the source of morality? Photo: Unsplash/Nagesh Badu

In recent years the idea of a morally debased youth has been turned on its head with the rise of the “woke” generation who stand accused of being, if anything, too righteous. Call them naive, misguided or sanctimonious if you like, but morally weak? That’s a stretch.

And while evidence of decline is sketchy, examples of major moral advances are easy to find. Same-sex marriage laws in dozens of countries. The first black president of the United States. The #metoo movement. Removing the stigma from mental illness. Often, it’s young people showing the moral leadership – even children sometimes, like the climate strikers who managed to push environmental issues to the top of the agenda. Sure, we’re not perfect but, in some ways at least, aren’t we doing better?

Perhaps the most encouraging evidence is young people’s lack of moral certainty. In the BBC survey, older people claimed to have a clear view of right and wrong, while younger people said they struggled more with moral choices. Some might say that shows the young are morally weaker. Others might say it shows that they’re more aware of their own faults, that they engage more deeply with moral questions, and that they seek the answers within, rather than without.

It will be up to historians of the future to decide whether that means our moral values have declined, or improved.

Discover More

  • Get a fact-based view of the world and where it’s heading by reading Hans Rosling’s excellent book Factfulness.
  • Counteract a focus on what’s wrong with a daily boost of what’s right on platforms such as Beautiful News.
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