The chicken-egg question underneath America’s political divide

Americans are becoming more morally permissive. But which came first: our values or political identity?

For 21 years, Gallup has been tracking Americans’ beliefs about prevailing social issues, asking them to decide if things like abortion, wearing fur and having children outside of marriage are morally acceptable.

In the latest report, released earlier this month, a slight majority of Americans say that changing one’s gender identity is morally wrong, putting the issue on par with abortion as a source of polarization in the country.

But there is a sharp partisan divide on both abortion and gender transition, a gap of more than 50 points. And even on issues less polarizing, conservatives and liberals often follow a predictable course. This year, there’s only one issue in which people of both parties largely agree, which is that medical testing on animals is morally acceptable.

But does political affiliation inform moral beliefs or merely reflect them? It’s a chicken-egg question that has interested researchers for years.

One school of thought, called moral foundations theory, proposes that people in all cultures form moral systems from 5 or more universal sets of values. These include care/harm, fairness/cheating and sanctity/degradation, according to Jesse Graham, an ethicist at the University of Utah and a co-developer of the theory. Differences in political beliefs arise from differences in the values we consider to be the most important.

But partisan identity has become so strong in the U.S. that one Stanford researcher says political affiliation now trumps identification by religion and ethnicity. And research at Pennsylvania State University and elsewhere suggests that, regardless of what went on in millennia past, our political preferences have more influence over our moral beliefs today than we might like to admit.

“If there’s a causal arrow, it’s your politics to what you deem to be moral,” said Peter Hatemi, a political scientist at Penn State.

Here’s a look at the latest findings from Gallup, as they compare to years past, and the latest thinking about how political ideology affects moral beliefs.

A contentious debut

This is the first year that Gallup has asked Americans about the morality of gender transition, and the subject debuted as an issue as polarizing as abortion. Fifty-one percent of Americans said it is morally wrong to change gender identity; 46% said it is morally acceptable.

Broken down by ideology, however, the numbers look quite different. Seventy-eight percent of people who identify as politically liberal say being transgender is morally acceptable, compared to 23% of political conservatives. (In addition, women are more likely than men to view switching genders as morally acceptable, as are younger adults more likely than older adults, the report said.)

With regard to abortion, 73% of liberals said abortion is morally acceptable, compared to 19% of conservatives.

Belief about the morality of the death penalty also differed sharply by partisan identity. Seventy-one percent of conservatives said the death penalty is morally permissible, compared to 36% of liberals.

Lydia Saad, Gallup’s director of U.S. social research, said it’s reasonable to question whether political choices dictate moral choices or simply reflect them, especially since people are more open to changing parties than they have been in generations past. “It used to be parties were sort of hereditary; you were a Republican family or a Democrat family, and you stuck with it, like being Catholic. Now maybe people don’t feel as comfortable doing that,” she said, adding that people may be switching to political parties that line up with their established beliefs on issues.

But Hatemi, at Penn State, says his research shows that the opposite is true.

“This idea that we have these moral cores and we choose our politics and actions based on them just flies in the face of every piece of data we have today. It just doesn’t hold water,” he said.

As an example, he cites supporters of former President Donald Trump who were willing to set aside their own values of monogamy, faithfulness and religious faith and overlook Trump’s behavior that ran counter to those values. “And the same for the left, which was championing #MeToo but (said) we’re just going to forget about Bill Clinton.”

In addition to political parties and leaders, parents also influence our beliefs on morality. “And there’s certainly some part of you that has some moral disposition, but at the end of the day, we are using morality to justify our views, not to inform them,” Hatemi said. But he added that Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham “will say just the opposite.”

Haidt is the social psychologist at New York University, who, with Graham of the University of Utah, identified five foundations of morality:

  • Care/harm — described on the Moral Foundations website as human capacity to feel and dislike the pain of others.
  • Fairness/cheating — involving reciprocal altruism and concerns about equality and proportionality.
  • Loyalty/betrayal — related to shifting tribal coalitions.
  • Authority/subversion — regarding hierarchies in social groups, these values can be expressed in respect for traditions and authority.
  • Sanctity/degradation — this forms the basis for “religious notions to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way” and is expressed in the widespread idea that the body is a temple.

A sixth foundation has also been proposed, which is oppression and liberty.

Haidt and Graham say differences in how Americans value these foundations are at the root of our cultural battles.

“The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the care/harm foundation, with additional support from the fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression foundations,” they wrote on the Moral Foundations website.

Conversely, “Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.”

But Graham, co-editor of the “Atlas of Moral Psychology,” has said in a critique of Hatemi’s work that he believes it is likely that both political ideology and moral judgments are affected by culture and temperament, among other factors. “The question which comes first, ideology or morality, comes up often when I give talks, and my honest (unsatisfying) answer is that it’s a very difficult chicken-and-egg question we don’t have clear answers on, yet.”

Changes over time

Regardless of the origins of these beliefs, Gallup’s latest findings confirm that Americans are more accepting of gay and lesbian relations, premarital sex and having children outside of marriage than they’ve ever been.

And this is the first time in the 20 years that Gallup has been conducting the survey that more respondents said abortion was morally acceptable than not — although by only 1 percentage point, 47% to 46%, and the margin of error for the survey is plus/minus 4 percentage points.

“Generally speaking, Americans’ attitudes have become more morally permissive on most of these issues over the past two decades,” Megan Brenan, a research consultant for Gallup, wrote.

Of 20 issues, a majority of Americans this year said that 11 were morally permissible, with birth control (90%), divorce (79%) and sex between an unmarried man and unmarried woman (73%) at the top.

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“Likewise, roughly two-thirds of Americans see gay or lesbian relations, gambling, having a baby outside of marriage, and medical research using human embryonic stem cells as morally acceptable,” the report said.

The number of people who say divorce, gay/lesbian relationships and abortion are morally acceptable is the highest ever recorded in the survey, Gallup said.

Meanwhile, six issues were viewed as morally wrong by majorities: extramarital affairs, cloning humans, polygamy, doctor-assisted suicide, cloning animals and pornography. On these issues, larger shares of conservatives than liberals viewed the issue as morally wrong, with the largest gap seen in the subject of pornography. Fifty-eight percent of liberals said pornography is morally acceptable, compared to 24% of conservatives.

As for what Americans think about the moral condition of the country overall: Over the past 15 years, when asked to rate the overall state of moral values in the country, the majority of respondents said fair or poor.

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