Which actions — and people — do Americans consider immoral?

Oana DumitruContributor
February 10, 2023, 10:59 PM GMT+0

Philosophers have thought and written about the importance of morality for centuries, but what do Americans today think are moral and immoral actions? As part of a larger project on morality in the U.S., YouGov asked Americans their opinions on various social situations to determine what actions they deem moral.

More Americans think it's immoral to betray a partner than to shortchange the government. Majorities of Americans say that cheating in a relationship (65%) and cheating on a tax return (52%) are two actions that should always be considered immoral, with Americans older than 45 slightly more likely to say so about each action than younger Americans are. Americans who have cheated in a relationship in the past (53%) are less likely to say that cheating is always immoral than are Americans who say they have never cheated in a relationship (74%).

As for eight other scenarios polled, 43% of Americans say paying for sex is always immoral, 38% say downloading pirated media from the internet is always immoral, and 34% say the same about drinking under the legal minimum age. Similar shares of Americans say having an abortion (25%) and sharing a streaming subscription password so more people can use it (23%) are always immoral. Opinions on the morality of abortion vary by political party, with 43% of Republicans saying abortion is always immoral but only 14% of Democrats and 22% of Independents agreeing.

Americans’ opinions on using torture by U.S. security services are also linked to their political party. While Americans overall are more likely to say there are no circumstances where it is justified to use torture to get information from suspects, by 43% to 36%, Democrats and Republicans disagree with each other. By 54% to 27%, Democrats say there are no circumstances where torture is justified. Just 33% of Republicans agree there are no circumstances that justify torture, while 51% disagree.

However, when asked more specifically about U.S. security services using torture when questioning terrorism suspects, 54% of Americans say that would be OK, including 68% of Republicans, 47% of Democrats, and 29% of Independents. Older Americans are more likely than younger adults to approve of using torture when questioning terrorism suspects. About one-third (35%) of Americans say using torture when questioning criminals who have committed serious offenses such as murder is OK, and 20% say the same about everyday questioning of criminals. In both of these scenarios, the age groups are flipped from the terrorism scenario: Older Americans are less likely to support the use of torture in these cases.

Half of Democrats but fewer than one in three Republicans say they have a moral responsibility to protect the environment and are doing whatever they can. Four in ten Americans say they believe we are morally obliged to reduce our environmental impact and also say they are personally doing as much as they can to reduce their impact; Democrats (49%) are more likely to agree with both of these statements than Republicans (29%) are. However, 25% of Republicans say they do as much as they can to reduce their environmental impact without believing this is a moral obligation; that compares to 10% of Democrats.

As the morality of large corporations is increasingly questioned, 25% of Americans say they sometimes buy from companies they believe behave immorally, while 24% say they never do so; 9% say they often do and 24% say they don't consider the morality of companies they buy from. Republicans (30%) are slightly more likely to say they do not consider the morality of a company’s actions when deciding to buy from it — a greater share than among Democrats (22%) and Independents (20%).

Do immoral actions make immoral people?

With a wide range of actions considered immoral by majorities of Americans, it is likely that many of us have done something, at some point, that is widely deemed to be immoral. Do Americans think a person who did one thing widely considered immoral is a bad person, regardless of their current behaviors? About one-third of them say someone who stole money but later gave most of it to charity should be considered a bad person, and about one-quarter say the same about each of the following groups: people who have lied under oath and later regretted it, people who seriously hurt someone physically but later felt remorse, and people who previously cheated on a partner but were later faithful in future romantic relationships. Different age groups weigh some immoral more heavily than others: Younger adults are more likely than older Americans to say that someone who cheated on a partner but is later faithful should be considered a bad person.

What occupations do Americans think are immoral?

As people’s occupations can determine how they spend most of their waking hours, different jobs may be associated with different levels of morality. About two in five Americans (38%) say politicians are very immoral, and 30% say they are somewhat immoral. Similar shares of Americans say that pornography actors (34%) and lobbyists (30%) are very immoral. Among the people considered very moral based on their occupation are doctors (24%), teachers (22%), scientists (19%), therapists (18%), and religious leaders (18%).

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This article includes data from two online polls conducted November 15 - 18 and November 16 - 21, 2022 — each among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. The 2,000 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: Adobe Stock (mehaniq41)

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