Gallup finds taboos increasingly accepted in America

Believe it or not, this isn’t another article about Bruce / Caitlyn Jenner, though the wider question of gender bending could probably be squirreled away in here somewhere. Gallup took time out from polling people about the presidential candidates they like and asked Americans their annual set of questions on taboo subjects and how accepting we tend to be of actions which have been traditionally shunned. If you only went by the headline (Once Taboo, Some Behaviors Now More Acceptable in U.S.) you might think that we’ve suddenly morphed into a nation of hedonists, but the phrase “more acceptable” doesn’t really translate into “accepted.”

While a select few actions remain deeply taboo for much of the country, there has been an increasing shift to moral acceptability for some of these over time. Such actions include suicide (which 19% of Americans call “morally acceptable”), polygamy (16%) and cloning humans (15%). On the other hand, “married men and women having an affair” has remained at the bottom of a list of 19 moral behaviors Gallup has measured, with only 8% considering it morally acceptable.

To some extent, these changing social mores have affected even behaviors that a vast majority of the country routinely judges as “morally wrong.” Since 2003, the proportion of U.S. adults saying polygamy is morally acceptable has increased by nine percentage points. Since 2001, cloning humans has seen an increase of eight points; and suicide, a six-point gain. Still, each of these items retains its essence of moral repugnancy in the nation’s social consciousness, as resounding majorities describe each of these behaviors as morally wrong.

Here’s their graph which covers only four of the nineteen taboos in question over more than a decade.


The most “popular” taboo (which is an admittedly horrible description) is still suicide, with nearly one in five finding it morally acceptable. But from the wording of the survey I would guess that a lot of respondents are rolling end of life decisions into that as opposed to younger, healthy people taking their own lives. (Then again, as you’ll see in the table at the end of this article, they specifically ask about doctor assisted suicide as a separate question, and it’s now considered acceptably by a majority of Americans, so that may not be the explanation.) The biggest jump over that period, though, is for polygamy, with a ten percent increase since 2003. I’d love to hazard a guess where that one is coming from, but there’s nothing really obvious which comes to mind. It may be the popularity of television shows such as Big Love and Sister Wives. Perhaps if some other shows were produced which depicted life for women in places like Afghanistan, where the practice is widespread, or the young girls escaping the compounds in Utah, the favorability numbers would sag a bit. Or perhaps it’s just that the media depiction of marriage has become rather fluid of late. It could also relate to the rather staggering statistic which shows that more than 60% of people find having a baby out of wedlock to be morally acceptable. It seems challenging to develop any hard metrics on such a question.

The most interesting item on the list for me, though, is adultery. That remains stubbornly unpopular with Americans, with less than one in ten finding cheating to be acceptable. That should be good news if you’re worried about the social fabric, but no matter how much people may frown upon it, there doesn’t seem to be much motivation to punish people like Bill Clinton. He remains wildly popular across America despite being one of the most famous adulterers in the history of the nation since Hester Prynne. Adultery isn’t just a sin from a religious perspective… it’s a fundamental betrayal of trust committed against the one person who should be first and foremost in your life. That’s something that everyone can relate to on a personal level.

Support for human cloning has more than doubled, but I can’t even begin to guess why that would be shifting. Maybe because people are thinking of it in terms of helping infertile couples procreate, rather than visions of organ harvesting farms or man replacing God in the creation game? I’ll toss that one over to the readers for their thoughts. Anyway, here’s the rest of the list for your consideration.


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