While morality can be described as a set of rules that distinguish good behavior from bad behavior, the definition and interpretation of the word are often subjective. As part of a larger project on morality in the U.S., YouGov recently asked Americans about their views on morality, where it comes from, and the current state of moral values in the U.S.
The concept of morality often creates a dichotomy between “right” and “wrong.” According to most Americans, people are generally aware of this distinction: 64% of Americans say that people mostly have a sense of right and wrong, and only 26% say they mostly do not.
When asked more specifically about the meaning of behaving morally, 34% say behaving morally means doing everything one can which leads to good outcomes for everyone, 25% say it means acting according to one’s own conscience, 15% say it is following duties and obligations in life irrespective of the consequences, and 14% say it is following the moral teachings of a religion.
Apart from what morality means, YouGov also asked Americans about the source of morality and found no consensus. Asked which comes closer to their view, more than one-third (37%) say that morality comes from each person’s conscience, 27% say it comes from God or a higher power, 16% say it comes from society, and 9% say it comes from science and reason. Younger Americans are less likely than older Americans to say that morality comes from God or a higher power and more likely to say it comes from science and reason.
What do Americans say about their own morality?
Four in five Americans say they are somewhat or very moral, and only 12% say they are somewhat or very immoral. Age seems to play a role in how moral Americans perceive themselves to be: Americans between 18 and 44 are less likely to say they are somewhat or very moral (67%) than are Americans 45 and older (91%). Furthermore, younger Americans are also less likely to say morality is somewhat or very important to them (76%) than are older Americans (94%).
Among the Americans who consider themselves moral are 71% of Americans who have cheated on a partner who never found out, 80% of Americans who have cheated on a partner who did find out, and 87% of Americans who say they have never cheated.
Morality is an important issue for most Americans, regardless of how moral they consider themselves: 86% say being moral is somewhat or very important to them, including 69% of Americans who say they are somewhat or very immoral.
What do Americans think about the state of moral values in the U.S.?
Consistent with other recent surveys, 53% of Americans say that moral values in the U.S. are either weak or very weak. Americans between the ages of 18 and 44 are less likely to say that moral values in the U.S. are weak or very weak (40%) compared to Americans 45 and older (63%). American opinion on the strength of moral values in the country also varies with political affiliation: While 68% of Republicans and 53% of Independents say that moral values in the U.S. are weak or very weak, only 39% of Democrats agree.
Some Americans think that the morality of U.S. society has been especially declining in the past 10 years: 51% say that U.S. society is less moral now than it was 10 years ago, but only 35% say it is less moral now than it was 200 years ago.
Many Americans consider the people closest to them to be more selfless than they do people generally. When asked about others’ behaviors, by 57% to 19%, Americans say people more often behave selfishly than selflessly. But, when asked about their friends and family more specifically, Americans say that they more often behave selflessly than selfishly, by 47% to 25%.
Do Americans think life is fair?
YouGov also asked Americans a few questions regarding fairness, a topic related to morality. Most Americans (60%) say life is, generally speaking, not fair, including 63% of Americans who consider themselves moral and 56% of Americans who consider themselves immoral. Americans who say religion is very important to them (34%) are more likely to say that life is fair compared to those who say religion is somewhat important (27%), not too important (24%), or not important at all (12%). Perceptions of fairness also depend on family income: Americans from households making $100,000 or more are more likely to say that life is fair (39%) than are Americans from households making less than $100,000 (23%).
— Carl Bialik and Milan Dinic contributed to this article.
Methodology: The poll was conducted among 2,000 U.S. adult citizens on two separate surveys conducted from November 15 - 18, 2022 and November 16 - 21, 2022 with each survey conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 2%.
Image: Getty (Karl Tapales)