Moral Acceptability

M.S. on the Democracy in America blog at The Economist examines the results of a recent Gallup poll on the moral acceptability of various controversial items. M.S. is struck by the fact that more Americans (11% favoring and 86% opposing) find polygamy morally acceptable than extramarital affairs (7% to 91%). M.S. concludes that, “the extremely high “Morally wrong/acceptable” ratio there suggests to me that judgmental puritanism is in pretty good shape in America these days.” That seems a bit unfair, especially when the author agrees that affairs probably are wrong! I’m also concerned about how much the results are affected by bias: maybe people more readily admit to moral concerns about gambling or suicide, but are less likely to say that infidelity is morally acceptable. The pornography results, for example, show that 66% consider it morally unacceptable, but I imagine some of that number have viewed pornography without too many moral qualms, even if they wouldn’t own up to that for a survey.

With respect to moral judgment of polygamy and infidelity, though, the difference between the two results is quite small. It also could be based on a reasonable principle: polygamy may involve a relationship between consenting adults who aren’t harming anyone in the process, while an affair implies harm to someone. Some married couples may agree not to be monogamous, but I doubt respondents have that scenario in mind when asked about the morality of an “affair”. Personally, I’m concerned that polygamy is often harmful, even though consenting adults are involved, but this may only be because of the publicity I’ve seen given to poor examples (e.g. where girls are groomed for and pressured into such relationships at a young age, and not encouraged to make free choices about their lives).

In general, I’m bothered by the notion that objecting to cheating on a spouse is “puritanical” or “judgmental”. If people want to enter open marriages, that’s their business. However, when people have chosen a monogamous marriage, they are promising to be faithful. It does not seem excessively judgmental simply to ask people to uphold those promises, and to conclude that violation of such a promise is not morally acceptable. This doesn’t mean we have to “shun” those who make mistakes–few of us are morally perfect, after all! But it does mean that we should value fidelity and take its violation seriously.

M.S. also says that, “The second-craziest number is the finding that a solid majority of people find animal cloning “morally wrong”, and another solid majority finds medical testing on animals “morally acceptable”. Cloning a bunny is evil, but pouring mascara in its eyes is apparently okay.”

When I hear “medical testing”, however, cosmetics safety doesn’t spring to mind. Instead, I think of things like testing new drugs that could be needed to save human lives. In addition, the connections may not be as clear between animal cloning and human life-saving medical research. So, a moral weighing of the loss of animal lives against the potential loss of human lives may occur when these questions are asked, which would explain the differences in result. Animal cloning may also be seen as a step towards the development of human cloning, which people may morally oppose for additional reasons.


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