The morals of the millions of Americans are changing, and that troubles people. In 2019, 77% of Americans were very worried or fairly worried about the nation’s morals.1 I believe even more people are concerned about what they see as a moral decline today.
Sex-related topics are at the forefront of this tectonic moral shift. Data from the Moral Issues Gallup survey shows how pronounced the change is and in which areas our nation’s morals are changing faster than others.2
Every year, Gallup researchers ask a sample of Americans to categorize the following behaviors as morally acceptable, morally wrong, depends, or no opinion:
- Sex between teenagers
- Sex between an unmarried man and woman
- Married men and women having an affair
- Having a baby outside of marriage
- Gay or lesbian relations
Let’s look at each of these sex-related topics in turn and then have a brief discussion on why the shift in morals is so concerning to people.
With advances in imaging technology showing the human embryo at different stages of development,3 I assumed that people were less supportive of abortion than they had been in the past. I was wrong. For the first time since Gallup began polling, over half (52%) of Americans polled in 2022 found abortion acceptable. This is up from 42% in 2001 with most of the change in opinion occurring between 2019 and 2022.
Sex between teenagers
Almost half (46%) of Americans surveyed believed that sex between teenagers is morally acceptable without any qualifications. 4% of respondents thought it “depends” on the circumstances. I wonder if the respondents had a 17-year-old in mind or a 13-year-old when filling out the survey. I find it surprising that so many people think teenagers have the capacity to make such life-altering decisions.
Sex between an unmarried man and woman
Three-out-of-four people (76%) see sex between an unmarried man and woman as morally acceptable. This is up from 53% in 2001. Most Americans must believe that sex is not a sign of total commitment and mutual responsibility. If this survey is representative of the US adult population, then over 150 million adults see unmarried sex as respectable.
Married men and women having an affair
Only 9% of people find it morally acceptable for married people to have an affair. This is up a little from 7% in 2001. A vast majority of people still believe that infidelity is wrong, which is great news. Most people see marriage as a commitment to one’s spouse. Fewer people are getting married these days, but most Americans expect those who do to remain true. It’s worthwhile to consider why so many cling to the idea of a faithful marriage while rejecting other sex-related norms.
Having a baby outside of marriage
70% of people find it morally acceptable to have a baby outside of marriage, and opinions have changed significantly on this since 2001. It stands to reason that many of these people believe children do not need a father – or perhaps a mother – to maximize their chances to flourish. All this despite a mountain of data showing the benefits of two-parent households for children.4
Gay or lesbian relations
In an absolute sense, acceptance of gay and lesbian relations has grown more than any of the topics discussed here since 2001 (from 40% in 2001 to 71% in 2022). From 2021 to 2022, the percentage of Americans who cited gay and lesbian relations as morally wrong dropped from 30% to 25% – that’s a 5% absolute change in only one year.
On a percent growth basis, acceptance of polygamy is growing faster than any of the topics covered here (7% in 2003 to 23% in 2022). Assuming there are 200 million adults in the US and that this survey is representative, roughly 32 million more people believe that polygamy is acceptable than did in 2011. If this trend continues, polygamy will quickly move from the fringes of society into the mainstream.
Two out of five people (41%) surveyed in 2022 saw pornography morally acceptable. This is up from 30% in 2011 when the Gallup folks began surveying Americans about this topic. While most people still find pornography morally problematic, the trend is toward acceptance. Because it is so easily accessible and prevalent, I wonder if some are taking the if you can’t beat ‘m join ‘m approach to accepting porn.
More people approve of divorce than they do of any of the other topics discussed here. 81% of those surveyed found divorce morally acceptable without qualifications, which is up from 59% in 2001. Only 13% feel divorce is morally unacceptable, and 5% say it “depends” on the circumstances. When filling out the survey, I wonder if respondents were thinking about divorces associated with abuse and infidelity or if they consider divorce a viable option for any reason.
Drifting toward a moral free-for-all
When Gallup researchers asked the open-ended question, “What is the most important problem with the state of moral values in the country today,” the most common answer by a large margin was “Considerations of others/Compassion/Tolerance/Respect.” There is a clear and unmistakable trend toward permissiveness in our culture.
It’s not so much that what we think of as bad is changing (okay, the trends for some of the topics above worry me too). It’s that there is increasing reluctance to call anything wrong. What was unacceptable is becoming common place, and what was once tolerated is now admired. If trends continue, the only evil will be to call out another’s behavior as immoral. We should challenge norms, but when they withstand the tests of reason, time, revelation, and data, then deviating from them is not progress but backsliding.
The benefit of civilization is that it civilizes us. The laws of government, the institutions of history, and the cultures of society drive us to suppress the unsavory aspects of our natures in favor of commonly held values. If we decide that accepting any behavior is the only worthwhile virtue, then we may lose the civilizing aspect of civilization. Individuals will act beastly, and no one will resist. Our peace will begin to unravel, and society will look progressively more barbarian. How could it be any other way?
In healthy societies, parents teach values and healthy behavior to their children (Find a discussion here on our lost values). Neighbors correct other people’s children when they step out of line because the community shares a sense of right and wrong. Adults strive to align their lives with a few foundational behaviors, even if compliance requires personal sacrifice. And the bedrock morals of a society give the people a sense of unity and purpose.
So, is this moral decline or progress?
Your perception of this era as one of moral ascendance or decline may depend on how you see the general trend toward permissiveness. If you believe that individuals need the freedom to act out their authentic innermost desires – even if the resulting behavior will probably lead to others’ suffering – then you see this as an age of moral progress. The idea of a shared sense of morality would limit self-expression for some people, which would be unacceptable to you.
If, on the other hand, you see morality as the set of values and behaviors we need to build healthy families and communities, then you likely think we are in an era of moral decay. You may feel the need to suppress some of your sexual inclinations. And you would be willing to endure discomfort to avoid compromising your shared standards.
So, will the trend toward moral laxity continue, perhaps at a faster rate? Or will we decide that the movement toward sexual freedom was a failed experiment? This, in my opinion, is one of the most important questions of our time. Perhaps one day morality will be seen as fashionably nostalgic. I believe a small cadre will hold fast to their shared morals – regardless of the consequences – while the rest of nation gradually breaks down every taboo.