04 March 2012

Is Morality Increasing?

But what are these problems? When considering America's moral decline, my first instinct was to look at the crime rate. If Satan is at work in America, he's probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime. There are some caveats to these statistics, as my colleague points out, but I think we can conclude that crime is not the cause of America's moral decline.
There are several problems with using legality as a proxy for morality:  The two obviously are not the same.  At all.  Since R.M. references Satan, I will assume that he is referring specifically to the Judeo-Christian moral code.  As such, his attempt to conflate legality and morality is especially inept.

First, there are many immoral actions that are not illegal:  homosexual intercourse, adultery, fornication, abortion, disrespecting one’s parents (an act that was punishable by death in the Old Testament, incidentally), and so on.  In fact, from a moral perspective, the current legal code is effectively and considerably more libertine than the Christian moral code.  As such, appealing to crime statistics is simply nonsensical because they cannot accurately measure all forms of immorality.  (Also, crime statistics cannot, by definition, account for unreported crime, which would skew towards inreased immorality.) 
So let's look elsewhere. Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There's just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.
A declining abortion rate proves nothing.  The more relevant question is: how many women are having unwanted pregnancies?  (Remember, that’s the whole point of abortion).  The abortion rate is nothing more than a case study in self-selection bias, and a decline in the abortion could prove nothing more than the increasing efficacy of birth control.

The self-selection bias also plays a role in the declining divorce rates.  Not only are there fewer divorces (relatively and absolutely), there are also fewer marriages.  Now, it could be that the decline in the marriage rate explains the decline in the divorce rate, since those who are more likely to have their marriages end in divorce may find it more advantageous to skip marriage in the first place.  This explanation, though unproven, seems to be rather likely given the current incentives that modern family law provides.

This same sort of analysis can apply to infidelity rates.  It may be that there is massive self-selection going on at this point in time, wherein the majority of people who choose to get married in this day and age are those who are most likely to be committed to their vows, which means that those who would ordinarily cheat simply avoid marriage, and thus avoid being part of the infidelity statistics.
Other areas that might indicate declining virtue are also going against the perceived trend. For example, charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, "the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades." So where is the evidence of this moral decline?
Note also that the DOW is up after the recession.  Not to be a pessimistic ass, but I would bet that charitable giving declines going into the next recession, which should hit once the massive, interventionist legislation popularly known as ObamaCare takes effect.  Toss in the never-ending increases in bureaucratic fiat, the likely tax raises that will accompany increased spending (and remember, inflation is a tax), and it is thus highly likely that charitable giving will go straight down the tubes, and will do so shortly.

A lower teenage pregnancy rate is murky at best, for the same reasons that lower abortion rates are.  It may simply prove that teenagers are better at avoiding pregnancy than ever before.  It does not necessarily prove that they are having sex less frequently.

The high school graduation rate is completely irrelevant to the question of morality, as the Judeo-Christian ethic says nothing of attending high school, or indeed of graduating from it.  One does not need to have any moral strength to pass high school, as the whole educational system is designed to make it absurdly easy for anyone to pass.  Indeed, at this point in time, one has to work actively to fail high school.  Additionally, scholastic standards have changed so much that cross-generational comparisons of the high school graduation rate are unfair, especially in light of the differing economic conditions.

In all, this exercise in self-confident reassurance that we’re as moral as we’ve ever been is nothing more than shallow statistical analysis coupled with imprecise thinking.  Between term conflation, argument from correlation, and a general inability to account for self-selection biases, this attempt at moral cheerleading is nothing short of inept.  I think this video provides a nice summary:


  1. All very good points, sir. Crime may be going down, but sin is not, its increasing. The people don't have to break the law to be doing something bad, they can just pick any one of the myriad things our government allows thats morally wrong and do that. The law of the state is not morality, occasionally they intersect, but they're not at all the same thing.

  2. You make some reasonable points. Illegality is not the same as immorality. Still, you have to consider some immoral but formerly commonplace activities that used to be legal. These include slavery and torture.
    Two methods occur to me to try to measure immorality over time:
    1) Look only at things that have always been considered wrong (eg. murdering adults, stealing). I think this method would show that we are less immoral now.
    2) Taking something like the 10 commandments and comparing now to ancient days on each point. By my count the modern era loses 7-3 (and that's being generous to today's era)

  3. @DW- I'm not sure if sin is increasing (i would believe it to be the case, but I cannot say conclusively. All I can say for sure is that the argument tendered doesn't prove that morality is increasing.

    @Greg- Slavery is not immoral per the Judeo-Christian moral code. It was an accepted (albeit highly regulated) practice in the Old Testament, and was never condemned in any form in the New Testament (and was tacitly accepted in the N.T.). Trying to statistically measure the occurrence of morality is always bound to fail because morality includes intent, not just action (cf. Gen. 6; "The heart of man was evil continually"). As such, the murder rate may decline, but this is not conclusive proof that people are less murderous, since murder is a heart issue as well.

    I'm not sure what you mean by point 2; please elaborate/explain.

  4. I just meant that you take a moral code and compare the two era on a point-by-point basis.

    If you use the "Ten Commandments" as that moral code, and you compare the two eras on each point, then the historical era was more moral. For instance, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is less followed now than it was in the past (at least I think that is the case). Without doing any research, I think that the modern era follows 3 commandments more closely now and 7 commandments less well. So that would support your view.

    Re: slavery. While slavery is not expressly condemned, I do think it breaks the Golden rule in a fundamental way.

  5. @Greg- That's what I thought, but I wanted to make sure. I agree with your assessment.

    Re: slavery, I think it's helpful to remember that the golden rule is a general principle, not an overarching command. For example, when wooing a mate, it is general helpful to not treat a potential mate as if they belong to the same gender as you. Some concessions must also be made for social norms (for example, I would prefer for people to be blunt when talking to me, but I generally tone down my tendency towards bluntness when dealing with others).

    Also, it's helpful to remember that God himself is a slave owner of sorts (cf. Rom. 6), so it would be hypocritical for him to forbid slavery carte blanche.

  6. Excellent post, Simon. Spot on.

  7. Excellent, Simon. If you have not yet done so, you should leave this in them comments section at the Economist.

    Morality is a slippery concept in that it is defined differently by many people. Some think that as long as you don't steal and don't murder, you are moral even if you sleep around, have abortions, or are homosexual. It is a difficult concept to argue when the shades of gray between right and wrong vary in intensity to people. Judeo-Christian morality is well defined but not many will use that as their metric, not even many Christians for some reason.

    Is this another attempt at Christian-bashing in the press? Invoking Satan could mean Jewish, Christian, or Muslim definitions of morality are at play, but it is Christians who are most vocal about declining morals and therefore the likely target of this "oh you silly Chicken Littles" piece.

  8. I almost never comment at corporate sites, mostly because that can quickly turn into a time suck. There are some relative aspects of morality which, as you noted, make nailing it down pretty difficult. And I do think that this is another attempt at Christian-bashing in the press, to make all of us doom-and-gloomers appear to be way off base.