June 20, 2014 | Posted in Ethics | By

“[V]ice does not lose its nature, though it becomes ever so fashionable.”

John Wesley

On May 30, Gallup released a poll on America’s changing views of morality.

The poll showed a record-high in “moral acceptability” on issues like premarital sex, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia.

Of course, this poll should raise a number of questions. Is something right or wrong just because a large percentage of the population says so? No. Once upon a time we would have called the findings of this poll evidence of “moral decay” in America. Today we just say that Americans’ morals are shifting.

So what happens when a society decides to change morality? What happens when people increasingly call evil “good”? Well, let’s look at a few examples.

While most people probably still agree divorce is unpleasant or it’s better for a child to be reared by a mom and a dad rather than a single parent, both have become more and more acceptable.

With same-sex marriage, we see state marriage laws being struck down; more television shows promoting the gay lifestyle; and more reluctance on the part of Christians to speak out against homosexuality for fear of being labeled a “bigot.” Thus, the homosexual lifestyle becomes more acceptable.

On marriage, divorce, and parenthood, society is establishing new norms. Where does this lead?

According to Gallup, 69% of respondents rated divorce as “morally acceptable.” The trend we have seen over the past few decades is divorce devalues marriage. As divorce becomes more and more acceptable, people see marriage as less and less significant, because the commitment a man and woman make to each other when they marry ceases to be as meaningful.

This has led more young people to live together either as a prelude to or in place of marriage. So, before saying “I do,” they live with their partner, share bills and finances, engage in premarital sex, perhaps dabble with parenthood, and finally, if all that “works out,” then discuss marriage.

But wait. If things are going so smoothly, why disrupt the relationship with a legal contract? When marriage loses is covenantal qualities, it loses its significance. People miss all the good a committed marriage relationship brings to a family and to a community. Given the instability cohabitation and divorce bring to the table, we should consider carefully what it looks like when people accept divorce in record-high numbers.

Compare divorce’s acceptance with the widespread non-acceptance of extramarital affairs. Extramarital affairs ranked as declining in acceptability at 7%, or “highly unacceptable.” Where does this opposition come from?

Do people oppose extramarital affairs because they believe marriage is a sacred institution? If that’s the case, why is divorce so acceptable? The reason people rate extramarital affairs as unacceptable must be something else—most likely a combination of social stigma and the simple fact that most people probably would not want to be cheated on.

If people weren’t publicly shamed for cheating on their spouse, would more people do just that? To say “No” is probably naïve.

As we’ve written recently, people seem to be basing their morality on feelings. That’s dangerous.

Take, for instance, physician-assisted suicide—listed in Gallup’s poll as “contentious” at a 52% acceptability rate. What happens if more people decide they “feel” comfortable with the idea of a doctor or nurse helping a patient kill themself? Where does that lead us? Gallup found the vast majority of people still consider suicide wrong; will that change if physician-assisted suicide becomes acceptable? Could physician-assisted suicide devalue human life in much the same way divorce has devalued marriage? Quite possibly.

Imagine if Americans played football the way they treat morality. Imagine if the rules changed based on the feelings of the players and the fans. Sometimes getting to the ten-yard line might be “close enough” for a touchdown; other times, you might have to run the ball clear through the end zone. Grabbing a face mask might not be a penalty depending on how well we liked the player in question.

Without concrete rules to govern how the game is played, football as we know it probably wouldn’t last long.

The same is true in life: Morals and ethics help keep order. Knowing right from wrong is part of what makes life livable. Moral living benefits each of us personally, and it makes communities stronger and more cohesive. If morality is something fluid that ebbs and flows with personal feelings and social stigmas, how can we make sound public policy? If what is “right” today might be “wrong” tomorrow, how can we have stable lives or build a stable society?

We can’t.

Jerry is the founder and president of Family Council. He began Family Council in 1989 after a successful effort to amend the Arkansas Constitution to prevent the use of public funds for abortions. He and his wife reside in Little Rock. They have four sons.