The Myth of Moral Decline: Why we believe we are getting worse and how that can used to make us worse.The Myth of Moral Decline:

One thing that seems to never change is the idea that we, as a nation or culture, are in a state of moral decline. According to polling done in 2023, 83% of people believe that the US is in a state of moral decline. However, the research on the topic highlights the fact that that is simply untrue. But that doesn’t stop people from believing it even though we are statistically morally progressing over time. 

Ultimately, the state of moral values is going to be a subjective outlook on one’s view on the world and our nation. But, if 83% of people think that morality is getting worse, does that mean it is true?

Who thinks things are getting worse? 

Surprisingly, if we thought it was simply one political party thinking that the US is in moral decline, as we might expect with a conservative outlook that views holding only older values is the way forward, we would be wrong. 

2023 polls have shown that 73% of Democrats and 80% of independents agree with the 97% of Republicans that the US is facing a moral decline. This isn’t something new. Basically, every decade and nation in which the perception of moral decline was researched has held the belief that they are in a moral decline. 

A possible explanation for this is that people on one end of the political spectrum see progress as a moral negative, whereas those on the other end see slow progress as a moral negative. However, over the course of the last century, objective observations on people’s action, such as the number of murders, genocides, and instances of slavery are, in fact, lower than what they were previously. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a way to quantify more mundane instances of morality such as helping a friend move. But in big picture things, we are getting better as a species. 

What causes these views? 

There are a couple reasons that influence our perspective of moral decline. First, we as a species have a psychological tendency to remember positive events more than negative events. 

Simply put, we don’t remember things being as bad, because we don’t remember them like we remember positive events. This plays a significant role in how we understand our own place in history as we look back on the way that thing “used to be.” So, our memories trick us into thinking that the past was in fact more positive than it actually was. 

This isn’t necessarily a negative thing. A psychological influence telling us that we could be better is one thing that helps us try to be better. 

Second, the sensationalization of our news and entertainment has reinforced our memories by focusing on the negatives of the present and romanticizing things of the past for profit. It’s nearly impossible to know the positives in our world if we are only being told the negative. 

On top of this, social media trained us by rewarding us with more engagement and reach if we use more extreme and negative language. These things work together to give us the perception that things are worse than they once were. 

How it’s problematic.

A huge issue with this is the perception of moral decline can be used to demonize movements and people. Over the last few decades, we have seen strides in things like LGBTQ2IA+ rights, growing resistance to white supremacy, and a growing concern over the ecological damage we are doing to the planet. 

However, those who are “on the fence” about certain social issues believe that morality is declining, that belief can be used to get them to align with a “traditional” stance. Thus, if a person is 40 years old and believes that the culture has been in moral decline over the last 30 years, that person is easily manipulated into believing that these efforts are the effects of moral decline. 

Obviously, the logic is “morality has gotten worse over the last 30 years and these changes have come at the same time; they must be connected.”  

Perception and moral idealism. 

For those who do see queer rights and Black Lives Matter as the result of moral failures, their view is reinforced by the perception of moral decline even if these are signs of moral progress. A general truth about humanity is that we believe that we, as individuals, have the belief that we are morally superior to those who hold other beliefs. 

So, those who see the effects of social justice as a net negative will believe that the world is becoming more morally depraved as progress occurs. So, to some, moral progress is seen as a decline. 

Outrage is progress. 

The effects of progress and the furthering of equality has always been met with opposition. Often that opposition results in larger political pushes like we see today. 

Over the last 30 years, there have been strides to increase equality throughout the US. That progress has still not been enough for full equality and thus people still need to work toward full equality. However, this push also causes those who idealize the morality of the past to react in an “equal but opposite reaction.” 

So, in a weird way, the growing public attacks on reproductive rights, DEI, and queer rights, or even the doubling down on capital punishment, is a sign that society is morally progressing. 

What can be done? 

The only activity that has shown to increase the perception of moral progress is to get to know the people who are seen as the “morally bankrupt.” 

This clearly does not always work as there are quite a few stories of politicians who have met with trans kids and their families and voted to take away their medical care the very next day. However, on the individual level, getting to know others is the only activity that has been shown to change the way people view the humanity of others. 

Many of us who were raised conservative only left conservativism after expanding our understanding of others that forced us to go outside our conservative tradition. 

But it wasn’t just learning information. It is learning, listening, and internalizing the experiences and perspectives of others, which is something that we need to continue to do. 

So, ignore the moral panic. We are experiencing moral progress. Not as quickly as the marginalized deserve, but we are moving.
And listen to others. We all have more to learn. 

Kalie May Hargrove