Are Americans Becoming Less Moral?
BY DEBIE BIH '26
American morals are in a constant state of change, with each generation witnessing shifts in values, beliefs, and societal norms. This flux gives rise to the prevalent assumption that American values are slipping away. However, this perception of decline isn't necessarily linked to an actual erosion of inherent values, but is a consequence of the evolution of social landscape, a recurring experience seen throughout different ages of American society.
Anthropologists from the University of Oxford defined seven universal morals: helping family, helping one's group, returning favors, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing resources fairly, and respecting others’ property. These innate morals developed when humans, abandoning solitude in favor of living in groups, learned to appreciate falling back on an interconnected community. They found that the communities were stronger, and these morals generally allowed people to peacefully coexist and can be found in all societies, including America. Despite current popular beliefs, these morals have been on the rise in America. Violent crime and felonies, such as grand theft auto and property and drug-related crimes, have all been on a steady decline since the late 1990s. Although crime has declined, a recent Gallup poll reported that eighty-three percent of Americans still believe that morals, a key aspect amongst groups, have lost their value. Thus, there is a different reason why Americans believe that morals are declining.
A rise in moral discourse is the cause. In America, there have traditionally been certain ethical norms and values seen as universal. As society evolves and becomes more diverse, the interpretation and application of these morals are being reevaluated. The growing diversity in the United States, encompassing various cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, has highlighted the need to reexamine traditional ethical norms. Based on different experiences and histories, people have unique perspectives on ethics and morality, which challenges the notion of a single, universally accepted set of ethical values. Polygamy, a common practice in various societies around the world, is considered taboo in America. As another example, many Americans consider gay marriage moral, yet it is taboo in many other places. It is very hard to convince a person to abandon their deep-set cultural morals in favor of traditional American values or even agree with people who have different moral values. With so many different cultures coexisting in America, discourse is inevitable knowing the difficulty of compromise and understanding other people’s morals.
Nowadays, the internet has continuous discourse on topics like gun laws, trans rights, and abortions; social media has the power to conduct rapid dissemination of information, leading to everyone feeling educated enough to have a say in every and all moral arguments, even if not everyone is qualified to be part of every moral argument. However, the internet enables online communities or tribes, where like-minded individuals gather around shared beliefs, whether those beliefs are logically sound or not. For example, the ability to find sources that fit “your” side feeds into a heightened sense of political loyalty in America. The moral values of a certain political party can become so ingrained in individuals that their minds are no longer open to the possibility of any other morals, developing an inherent stubbornness in those that become extremely attached to their morals, a key part of their identity. Currently, moral arguments are less about the argument’s soundness; rather, listeners question who made the argument and the speaker’s political party. Overall, individuals begin to see people who disagree with them in the slightest as immoral, consequently giving the perception that America altogether is immoral.
The continuous ethical discourse is not a phenomenon unique to this generation; each generation brings its own set of values and perspectives shaped by the unique circumstances and challenges of their time. Older generations may perceive a decline in traditional values as younger generations adopt new approaches to contemporary issues. As values change, younger generations may begin to view older generations as immoral. The influx of immigrants, the creation of social media, and the polarization of political parties have only increased the moral discourse that has always been prevalent in America. Ultimately, whenever American society approaches a new consensus of moral values, it will not last as the cycle of new generations, new people, and new experiences will begin to reshape the American moral landscape again.