Pew Research Center Assesses Modern Morals: Sex, Drugs, and the 1040

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

03/28/2006 - Cheating on your taxes is almost as bad as cheating on your spouse. Drinking excessively is worse than smoking marijuana.

Engaging in homosexual behavior and having an abortion are equally fraught.

Telling a lie to spare someone's feelings is worse than gambling.

Sex between unmarried adults is more objectionable than overeating (but not by much).

Those edicts aren't drawn from some new millennium user's guide to morality. Rather, they represent the collective judgment of the American public when asked in a Pew Research Center survey to assess the moral dimensions of different kinds of behaviors.

Survey respondents were read a list of ten behaviors and asked whether, in their personal opinion, each one is "morally acceptable, morally wrong, or not a moral issue."

The survey, by design, covered a wide range of activities, in part to avoid signaling to respondents that inclusion on the list was meant to convey a presumption of moral unacceptability.

The activity that drew the most widespread moral disapproval, 88%, was "married people having an affair," while the one that drew the least was "overeating" - although a sizable minority (32%) said that activity was morally wrong.

The survey did not measure intensity of feelings. It's possible, therefore, that the difference between the 79% who say it's morally wrong to cheat on one's taxes and the 88% who say the same about cheating on one's spouse is greater (or smaller) than those numbers indicate. Judgments about right-and-wrong are by nature profound, and - in real life - often nuanced and situational. By contrast, this survey questionnaire is a blunt instrument.

Even so - and in admittedly coarse strokes - the alignment of responses to the ten questions paints an interesting portrait of contemporary American morality.

PDF Report:Sex, Drugs, and the 1040

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