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Posted by on Apr 23, 2014 in Featured, Philosophy | 2 comments

On Pew’s Global report on morality

PG_14.04.11_MoralityHomePage_260x2601The Pew Research Center recently released their 2013 Global Attitudes Survey, summarising responses from 40 117 respondents in 40 countries to various moral issues. Here are some thoughts on the Pew results – mostly as they relate to South Africa, but those in the rest of the world will hopefully still find something of interest here.

The survey is fairly robust, in that there were at least 800 respondents in each country, and care seems to have been taken in the sampling methodology. Statisticians can no doubt find plenty to complain about, and if you’d like to seek out those opportunities for yourself, the survey methods are documented here (pdf). I’ll take them at face value, simply for the purposes of making the point that South Africa appears to be far less morally conservative than I feared, and also surprisingly tolerant in some regards.

By comparison with the rest of Africa, on all the topics surveyed, South Africa came out as most tolerant on all topics except the permissibility of abortion and divorce, where Senegal “beat” us in both instances. Selecting any particular topic on the global summary table allows you to highlight a region (Africa, Europe, etc.), and also to order by immoral, moral and “not a moral issue”, so I’ll leave you to explore that at your leisure, and focus simply on South Africa by contrast to the global median percentages, as captured below (the sorting of topics is different, and cannot be adjusted, sorry).

Pew - global morality

Pew Global Morality – all countries

Pew South Africa

Pew Global Morality – South Africa

When interpreting these results, some of you might also find it interesting to note that according to a different Pew survey released earlier this year, 75% of South Africans declared that it was necessary to believe in God to be a moral person (with a paltry 21% saying it wasn’t). So, the first thing to note, perhaps, is that believing in God seems to be sufficient – you don’t have to pay much attention to what she tells you to do, at least if we judge by the apparent lack of condemnation surveyed towards premarital sex and divorce, and the relative tolerance of extramarital affairs when compared with the global results.

Among the results that I found interesting were:

  • Extramarital sex: 65% of South Africans thought this morally unacceptable, compared with a 78% global mean. Could this have anything to do with displacement and separation of families thanks to a history of migrant labour, whereby families are forced into accepting what might otherwise be unacceptable dalliances while away from home? Any other theories out there?
  • Gambling: Only 40% of SAns thought this unacceptable, compared to a 62% global mean. This one surprised me, as I used to work in the field of gambling research, and had a sense that there was a fairly strong moral stigma towards gambling, depending, of course, on the class and/or region of the country being spoken of. Here, it would certainly be useful to know more about the demographics of those surveyed.
  • Homosexuality: 62% of SAns thought being gay morally unacceptable, versus a 59% global mean. You hopefully share my disappointment that this figure isn’t lower, especially given South Africa’s moral leadership (in a limited, but important sense) in recognising gay marriage long before many other countries did, and in stipulating equality in terms of sexual orientation in the Constitution. I guess it just goes to show that documents like the Constitution are more aspirational than actually representative of the views of the citizenry.
  • Divorce: Here, South Africans show themselves to be surprisingly judgemental.  40% of us thought divorce morally unacceptable, compared to 24% as a global mean. Is this a manifestation of the religion-based morality mentioned earlier, where – no matter whether you have a bunch of extramarital affairs or not (see above) – you nevertheless need to stand by your (wo)man?

Two items attracted a 25% or higher vote for “not a moral issue” – alcohol use and gambling. Of course, we’d perhaps all like to refine the survey questions, in that “alcohol use” is a different thing to “alcohol abuse”, just as recreational gambling is a different thing to gambling that ends up depriving your family of food or a home.

But the one thing that’s to my mind not a moral issue in any remotely plausible way – homosexuality – only attracted a 12% response agreeing with my view. As I remarked to a journalist who called for comment earlier today, if there’s one thing that this survey goes to show, it’s that the vast majority of people still regard morality and judgements of rightness and wrongness as deriving from God(s), cultures and established norms, rather than being summary judgements regarding the benefits and harms that might accrue to us and other sentient creatures as a result of particular actions.

Morality, in other words, might still – for most people – be simple prejudice dressed up in a language that makes it appear (slightly) more sophisticated than that. Regardless of anything else, we need to keep reminding ourselves and others that moral judgements – just like any judgements – can be better or worse justified, and that we owe it to ourselves and each other to aim for “better”.