Laws regulate behavior in society, but do Americans believe that their laws and moral values are aligned? As part of a larger project on morality, YouGov asked 2,000 Americans how they view the relationship between morality and the law.
Does illegal mean immoral?
By 52% to 29%, Americans say that just because something is illegal, it does not necessarily mean that doing it is immoral. Americans 45 and over are more likely (57%) than younger adults (45%) to say this. Americans with a college degree are more likely than those without one to agree with this stance. Republicans (46%) are less likely to agree than Democrats (56%) and Independents (51%).
Americans were also asked about the reverse scenario: If something is immoral, does that justify making it illegal? By 54% to 26%, Americans say it does not. Americans 45 and older (64%) are more likely to say so than younger adults (42%) to say so. Americans with a college degree (35%) are more likely than those without one (20%) to say that if something is immoral, making it illegal is justified.
Although at least half of Americans say illegal does not necessarily mean immoral, and about as many say the reverse, by 39% to 31%, Americans say disobeying a law that one considers unjust would be immoral. While Democrats and Independents are narrowly split on whether disobeying a law one considers unjust would be immoral or moral (36% to 37% for Democrats; 31% to 29% for Independents), by 51% to 26% Republicans say disobeying such a law would be immoral. Opinions on the morality of disobeying laws one personally considers unjust vary with age: Younger adults are more likely to say that disobeying the law would be moral (37% for adults under 45 and 26% for older adults)l. Education also plays a role: Americans with degrees are more likely to say disobeying the law would be moral (38%) than are Americans without college degrees (27%).
Americans’ views on laws in the U.S.
When it comes to how Americans currently perceive laws in the U.S., by 30% to 16% Americans say that laws in the country are too lenient rather than too strict. While nearly half (47%) of Republicans say laws are too lenient, only 25% of Democrats and 22% of Independents agree. Age also seems to play a role: Americans 45 and older (9%) are less likely than younger adults (24%) to say that laws in the U.S. are too strict.
Most Americans prefer to live in a country with laws: 65% say that society would function worse than it currently does if all laws were abandoned and people were expected to follow their moral values, while only 13% say it would function better and12% say they think there would be no change if laws were abandoned. Republicans (74%) are more likely than Democrats (66%) and Independents (58%) to say that society would function worse without laws. While only 50% of adults under 30 and 39% of 30- to 44-year-olds think society would function worse without laws, 91% of Americans 65 and older say the same. Education may also play a role in these opinions: Americans with a college degree (20%) are more likely than those without one (9%) to say that society would function better without laws.
YouGov also asked about more concrete examples of laws that may be considered immoral. One of the most controversial state practices in the U.S. is the death penalty — the execution of a person for a crime they have been found to have committed. Almost half (47%) of Americans say the death penalty is moral, while 28% say it is immoral. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Republicans say that the death penalty is moral, while fewer than half of Democrats (38%) and Independents (43%) agree.
Methodology: This article includes data from two online polls conducted November 17 - 21 and November 18 - 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%.
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