The short version of the paper I just published
This is all so fabulous and immensely reassuring, and I'm going to sip it like a fine wine for the rest of the day.
Thank you for being so rigorously interested in this question that you put such an immense amount of work into concluding "we're not sure, but if one thing looks likely, it's that all this absolute certainty sure looks dead wrong". The best and wisest of answers.
Congratulations, Adam (and Dan). Amazing work.
Is it possible Adam that the persistence of perceiving ‘moral decline’ is actually caused by accelerated shifts in the definition of morality itself? Morality is only an interpretive symbol system. It is overlaid linguistically onto behavior patterns .The extent of your research is impressive but most of the survey items you list are not really measures of ‘behavior’ such as: when I have a gift most recently it was reciprocated within 12 months. No one writes surveys like this in part because we doubt anyone could answer them accurately. A lot of moral behavior is not capturable except through direct observation and mass ethnography (something no one has figured out and only the Feds have the resources to execute.
As far as I can tell, this is absolutely correct. It's also fascinating because those who speak of decline might say that folks getting softer, kinder, more concerned about equity, or considerate of others' feelings itself is part of the same decline we've been experiencing for thousands of years. When the ancient Romans wrote about the decline of the /mores/, they weren't concerned that people were less kind to children and animals than they used to be -- they were noting that the days when the head of a household could publically kill his own son for being insufficiently pious towards their ancestors were gone. Their 5x or 10x great-grandfathers (had they written down their discontent) almost certainly would have complained that the bar for how much impiety it takes to warrant death has been getting uncomfortably high lately.
This is all just basic moral anti-realism. There isn't any objective morality by which we have gotten worse or better -- by contemporary standards we've gotten better over the last 20,000 years; by the standards of 20,000 years ago we've become unimaginably (literally) worse. Robin Hanson likes to point this out re: fears of AGI, and to say that whether your descendants are silicon and concerned with paperclips or flesh and concerned with their own ends makes no difference to one thing which is that your current scale of values will disappear with your death (if not before).
This is super interesting!
Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the perception of a threat from authoritarian political opponents. Everyone seems to be experiencing this more or less regardless of their chosen political opponent. I think there are a lot of dynamics that go into it, but I had wondered if over-all happiness or satisfaction decreasing with age could explain certain elements of this perception gaining so much salience in the last 10 - 20 years. I was thinking that given wealth disparity between generations it if people are less happy as they get older then the culture in general might start to reflect that given the disproportionate effect of their wealth. But, when I looked for data on the question it turns out people are generally much happier and satisfied as they get older. Especially the wealthy. Seems pretty obvious in hindsight actually, lol.
This seems to capture the intuition about 'happiness' decreasing with age in a much more subtle and interesting way. Very excited to read the full paper! Thank you so much for not keeping it hidden in an academic journal.
Once again, you knock it out of the park with another fantastic post. I have been earnestly debating this very issue with my sweet but fearful elderly neighbor who is convinced the world is burning down around us compared to her perceptions of an imagined "more perfect" version of the world that existed in the 50s when she was a child. I have been gently trying to persuade her the world is fine, there are wonderful people all around us and we are actually safer and doing better than in past generations, but she simply does not believe me. I can't wait to explain what I've learned about the twin biases of exposure and memory to her. It's really easy to see how we arrive at these conclusions when you understand the natural human tendencies underlying them. Bravo, Adam. You are hands down my favorite person on Substack.
I think one factor might be that people tend to interpret relative statements as absolute.
For instance if one asked "Do the latest Trump allegations make it less likely you will vote for him?" then a democrat might say yes, even though they were never going to vote for trump anyway. They should have answered no.
The issue is they interpreted the question as not as a question about how their voting intentions have changed, but just about their voting intentions now. They might have interpreted it as "Is it unlikely you will vote for Trump?"
Similarly when asked "Is morality on the decline?" People might instead interpret the question as "Is the moral situation currently bad?" As your graph shows 80 percent of people think morality is poor or fair currently.
This might explain 70 percent saying morality is decreasing even though morality is constant across time.
While I have some serious criticisms, I wanted to first say that I greatly admire the creativity and rigor of your research. This is exactly what social science should be about, and I especially appreciate how you’ve made your work accessible to a lay audience like this. This is a model of how science should be communicated to the public.
Now you start off with, I guess, a presumption that moral judgements can be divided into thick and thin concepts; the “pedant” may be concerned that thick moral judgements are loaded with contested meanings that can’t be isolated in statistical surveys, but your research focuses only on the “thin” conception; narrow, well-defined, atomistic judgements that are empirically accessible. You state that there is broad consensus about what constitutes kindness, honesty and respect (you then write etc. — it’s not exactly clear to me how to continue the series, but from your supplementary materials, I take it to include such terms as “niceness”, “goodness”, “ethical”, “hardworking”, “selfish/selfishness”, “values”, “standards”, “safer place”). Should any so-called pedant be concerned about how substantive moral disagreements affect your results, you offer that “you get the same thing” by substituting “morality” with any of the terms you’ve identified on which we all agree, and helpfully add that “those consensual parts, by the way, are also what regular folks mean when they talk about moral decline.”
Unfortunately, this premise fails on both accounts. First of all, those terms are no less thickly loaded with contested meanings, and while you’re right that everyone agrees that honesty and kindness is good, this superficial agreement was not the pedant’s problem in the first place. After all, everyone also agrees that it’s better to be moral than not moral, so that can’t have been the problem. Rather, as with the thick concept of morality sui generis, the problem with terms like kindness, honesty and respect is that people disagree massively about how to cash them out. For one person, kindness and respect might mean you use preferred gender pronouns, give trigger warnings, and do not tolerate bigoted speech; for another, it might mean you emphasize the importance of civility, free speech, and tolerate a broader set of worldviews and opinions. When these people talk about kindness and respect, they are not talking about the same thing. Obviously everyone thinks it’s bad for “our government and business leaders lie to us”, but again, people disagree massively about what honesty even *means* in this case; the very epistemic norms that people rely on to determine whether someone is being truthful are in tension with one another (e.g., one person might believe a claim about reality if it is ‘emotionally true’, even if some details of the claim are strictly speaking false. Someone else, on the other hand, might believe such erroneous details makes the claim false, and if knowingly made, the claimant dishonest.) This fundamental disagreement goes a long way towards explaining why people disagree so strongly and intractably over who is lying to them and when, whether it be in politics, medicine, media, etc.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you do not have good reason to think that this is what people really mean when you ask them questions like “Right now, do you think the state of moral values in this country as a whole is getting better or getting worse?” Sure, results of questionable bearing from (uncited) pollsters may suggest that when people are asked about what they mean by ‘moral decline’, they use words other than ‘moral’ to explain what they mean. But I’m not sure what, if any, implications that has for your premise, nor do I know what to make of it generally, other than that pollster respondents have the surprising good sense not to use circular reasoning in their explanations. It certainly doesn’t mean people are generally in agreement with one another about what it is they think is declining when they talk of moral decline; nor does it mean that moral decline so-conceived doesn’t ultimately have anything important to do with those thick and loaded concepts of moral judgement sui generis that concern the pedant, and that you’ve dismissed as outside the scope of your research. It’s probably fair to say that people generally speaking don’t have any clear idea about what exactly it is that is declining in moral decline— a typical respondent might require a considerable amount of introspection to clarify and determine exactly what they really mean by such a thing, and I say that not to undercut the veridical wisdom of crowds, but precisely the opposite - the sophistication with which people employ intuitive ideas like ‘moral decline’ tends to far outpace their ability to articulate them. So on balance, there is basically no reason to think that people are, contrary to the literal interpretation of the question and others much like it in your supplementary materials, thinking of that ‘thin’, shallow, atomistic concept of morality that reduces to kindness, honesty or respect narrowly conceived, rather than (a) more holistic judgements of people’s entire moral character, or (b) of the collective moral character of social groups as demographic, institutional and political entities. And well, your entreaty to the pedant notwithstanding, if either (a) or (b) holds for such questions, that poses serious problems for your research. With respect to (a), it’s rather common for people to think that somebody can be kind, honest and respectful in their actions, but also be a bad person with foul morals; that might be the case if, for instance, they harbor deeply bigoted and prejudicial beliefs. And as for (b), it’s common to believe the collective actions of large groups of people can reflect powerfully on the moral character of the individuals that group is composed of; for instance, a very common sentiment among liberals is that Republican voter behavior betrays bad moral judgement and constitutes morally bad political action, which, in turn, reflects negatively on the moral character of each individual voter within that demographic.
It’s too bad that you didn’t take this objection more seriously, because it deflates the force of your otherwise compelling conclusions. I think you'd have been well served by consulting a colleague or two in the philosophy department before publishing this. As it stands, your research is vulnerably dependent on the faulty premise that you’ve managed to isolate an empirically privileged “thin” component of ethical judgements from within the structure of survey respondent’s reasoning about moral decline. Your psychological explanation for the ‘illusion’ of moral decline is no less a casualty of this overreaching reductionism: Of course it’s true that your kids are extremely unlikely to be shot at by a school shooter, but that does not in any way mean that we are exhibiting some kind of *bias* when we attribute great significance to those rare but horrifying instances in which mass shooters kill school children, or that some kind of bias is present when we attach great moral importance to an event in which a man is lying on the ground, struggling to breathe and pleading for his mother, while uniformed officers press on his neck and mock his humanity. These events weigh heavily on our collective moral conscience because they are substantive moral events that reflect on the moral values of our entire society, rather than because of some weird psychological quirk for which it is the task of social psychologists to diagnose and cure. It’s not at all irrational to draw conclusions about societal values on the basis of events like this, and on the basis of who we elect, how we govern, how we handle human and civic rights, how we treat and think of our political rivals, online and off, how we behave on social media in general, how we treat family relationships and obligations, how we behave towards the poor, towards people who are different from us. All of these collective social grounds are continuous with the sort of personal, moral judgements that we make at the level of individuals, and none of that is captured by superficial questions like “are people generally helpful, or are they looking out for themselves”; or “have you donated blood in the past 12 months”, or “allowed a stranger ahead of you in line”, or “given food or money to a homeless person”. That’s not what people are thinking about when you ask them far reaching questions like “Do you think the country is making progress”.
PS You want to hear some real pedantry — you mentioned that there are exactly two possible explanations for the historical record of social observers lamenting general moral decline: either morality has, in fact, been declining worldwide for millennia, or, the appearance of moral decline is a mere psychological illusion. But in fact, there are several other options. One is that moral values oscillate. This could be understood in a general sense, that is all moral values oscillate over time and are periodic over long time scales; or it could understood in the narrow sense that different values decline and recover at different times, and it’s on those particular declining values which social observers focus in their laments. Another option is that moral systems are alive and multidimensional, and subject to kaleidoscopic shifting over time, so that morality really *is* constantly in decline from a relative point of view that privileges present and conservative moral frames. And finally some mixture of these options (including the psychological illusion option) is always possible, and in my opinion, far more plausible than the BEAM mechanism alone.
1. There’s a spatial version of this too! I did a cross-national honesty experiment and asked subjects to predict others’ honesty. People reliably thought their own nation was less honest than others.
2. Trust *has* declined, right? Including trust in institutions? Maybe people know this but aren’t very good at estimating exactly when it happened?
Thank you for this excellent essay ( and thanks for making it easier to read than the published paper) - I will be saying ‘these are the good days right now!’ A lot more often.....
things ARE better now, I think -- also maybe the worst stick out more, due to the better goodness overall... like the worst is red thread in a tapestry- in the old days the tapestry was mostly red...and now that the blue goodness thread is increasing, the red becomes the foreground instead of the background...more noticeable. Your stuff is always super thought-provoking! I love it! Thank you, Adam!
I think this is a great question. As you said, however, morality can be defined differently to different people in different times. Is morality just another word for being nice? When I think of moral virtues, I think “lie, cheat and steal”. I also think of chastity and modesty.
Social norms have changed considerably over the last 200 years. How many of our grandparents, grandparents would look at today and think we are living is a moral and virtuous world? The words we use in public (I.e. songs, movies), the way people dress and present themselves in public (I.e. porn, hookup culture.) And things like divorce, living together without being married, etc. As well as abortion, teaching children about sex in grade school, free condoms, free needles, drug free zones. Just the fact that social norms have changed in such a way could be the answer to question.
Thanks for this wonderful piece! Always also puzzled me.
One question. How come people at the same time display such a great belief in progress?
And a recommendation to add to Hartley: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139024884
Give me a break!
What does it mean if you only want to kill half the politicians?
I wonder whether more attention should be paid to the different ways in which people use terms such as respect, honest and kindness.
Very interesting article, thank you. Also thank you for providing free access to the scientific article, as well as writing an essay for the laymen. I wish more scientists would do that.
My major beef with the article is that you do not sufficiently account for the rationalization around morality. There is a lot of rationalization around it, because everybody wants to appear to be moral, even if they are not.
Any decline in the morality appears to start from redefinition of the morality. So, if you measure decline in morality using post-decline (today's) consensus definition of morality (like you appear to be doing), the result will always be that the morality has not declined.
The neutral way to measure morality is to use pre-decline consensus definition of morality. This is probably difficult to find out directly, post hoc. But we may observe such consensus indirectly, from traditional social customs. To find out change in morality, we need to pick a social custom which a post-decline conservative interprets as a signal in the decrease in morals. As an example, we can observe that certain kind of rejection in Finnish traditional social dances, which is against the traditional customs, is in the rise.
I wrote a more nuanced take on your article, with practical examples from social dancing .
I can see a lot of work and thought went into this, but unfortunately I have to push back on it. There is no illusion of moral decline. Public sentiment is not a sound basis for whether or not a society is experiencing moral decline or not. Such studies can only tell us the public's perception of the current moral state of society. If I list out all the reliability issues with public testimony here, I would essentially end up repeating all the arguments you used to justify concluding moral decline as illusory. Certainly there has to be a better way to evaluate the moral coherency of a society that isn't reliant on something as fickle as public testimony.
Also, what was the purpose of interjecting the following non sequitur:
>(This is exactly what aspiring despots do, by the way: they cry catastrophe as a way of justifying their extreme measures. “Things are going to hell, but make me king and I’ll fix it all.”)<
Ok, if we are going to engage in game theory, why not show the other side of that equation? Let's turn that around for a second: If the despots are in charge, what's stopping them from twisting every institution, both public and private, to gaslight the populace into believing everything is Okay?
If a society is truly going through moral decline, then what we should see is ever increasing forms of lawlessness emerging despite the volume of edicts on the books. More so, as the governing regime begins losing legitimacy (i.e. moral coherency, or the illusion thereof) then the regime will turn towards hard power to subjugate the masses.
Do we have any evidence of such events?
Well... There has been ever increasing censorship on the internet (I might even get banned for making this post); the FBI has become notoriously involved in scandals that show political motivations (i.e. abuse of police powers); even the DOJ and judicial branch have been shown to engage in varying punitive measures dependent on who the defendant is.
So, maybe the illusion is the morality of the current system, and more-and-more people are becoming aware of such corruption on an intuitive level.
The essence of governance is morality. Whenever and wherever there exists a decline of morality, then that should be reflected in the governing institutions of the people (which does not have to be limited to the public realm).