On Pew’s Global report on morality (including South Africa)

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. A local journalist called me for comment this morning, but as usual, only soundbites will survive and besides, many readers of Synapses might never spot the resulting article in any event. So, here are some thoughts on the Pew results as they relate to South Africa.

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 the journalist 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”.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

4 replies on “On Pew’s Global report on morality (including South Africa)”

Could you expand a bit more on the distinction between “morally acceptable” and “not a moral issue” ? I would have thought if homosexuality were better suited to the latter category, pre-marital sex would also be (as would contraception use and divorce).

This does makes sense if “morally acceptable” means “morally desirable”, but I think these should be different ideas.

Finally, if something is not a moral issue, then, in the interests of individual freedom, isn’t it moral to consider them morally acceptable?

Rory, I obviously can’t clarify regarding what Pew might have meant, but as for myself – and in short – we need there to be harms and/or benefits for something to be a moral issue. My point above is that for homosexuality (in and of itself) it’s difficult to see any potential harms/benefits arising from that sexual arrangement when compared to any other.

Pre-marital sex (arguably) could involve people making commitments to each other of a physical sort that are misleading in other sorts of commitment areas (I don’t think they do, but as I imply above, one could at least make a poor case of this sort). Likewise, someone could argue that widespread availability of condoms encourages irresponsible sex (again, they’d be wrong, but I can see a potential argument that I can’t see with homosexuality).

On your final question, you’re presuming a moral norm from the outset – namely that individual freedom is a good. I happen to agree with you, but still, you should perhaps note that assumption. But yes, I’d agree that we should at least consider those issues permissible, even if you wanted to steer away from the stronger term, acceptable.

Thanks for the answer.

OK, I think I see—whether one’s partner is of the same or different sex doesn’t have different benefits or harms, so it’s not a moral issue.

One weak counter-argument is that being openly gay in some countries will lead to punishment for oneself and one’s partner, and perhaps hardship for one’s family and friends.

While reading your answer, I thought of something else: being gay or straight is a personal attribute, like being tall or short; following the idea that one needs harm or benefit to make moral judgements, just being straight or gay can’t be a moral issue. The other categories are activities or actions, and so in those cases one cannot rule out moral judgements in the same way. However, I suppose one can assume that “homosexuality” in this context implies activity, not only a personal state.

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