Study: Generational Gap in Determining Morality

by Avery Foley on May 24, 2017

How do you determine right from wrong?

A new study by Lifeway Research reports how Americans of varying ages determine morality. What they found was a wide generation gap between how those over 45 and those under 35 determine right from wrong.

Of those over 45, more than 6 in 10 “say right and wrong do not change.” But for the younger population group, less than 40% would agree with this claim. According to Lifeway Research’s executive director Scott McConnell,

Older Americans grew up at time when ideas about morality were more stable. . . . That’s no longer true for younger Americans.

We are shifting very fast from a world where right and wrong didn’t change to a world where right and wrong are relative. . . . We are not all on the same page when it comes to morality. And we haven’t reckoned with what that means.

There’s been a significant shift in Western thinking from absolute morality, grounded in God and his Word, to relative morality where morality is based in human opinion and therefore can, and does, change.

Interestingly, this same study found that the vast majority of both older and younger Americans are concerned about declining morality in this nation. It seems that even if they don’t agree on the stability of morality over time, both population segments agree that something is wrong.

How Do You Determine Right from Wrong?

This research also asked participants how they determine right from wrong, allowing them to choose as many options as they wanted from a list. Here’s a sampling of what they found:

  • 52% chose “nothing specific—what is right and wrong does not change”
  • 32% selected “whether a person gets hurt”
  • 24% chose “whether there is a law against it”
  • 20% answered “whether the benefits outweigh the costs”

When asked which was the most important factor in determining personal morality, 48% chose “nothing specific—what is right and wrong does not change,” while 20% chose “whether a person gets hurt,” 8% answered “whether the benefits outweigh the costs,” and a mere 7% selected “whether there is a law against it.”

What Influences Your View of Right and Wrong?

Participants were also asked about the most important factor that has “shaped their beliefs about shared moral standards in American society.” Not surprisingly, parents won out with 39% of respondents saying their parents were the most important influence on their beliefs. After parents came

  • religious beliefs at 26%
  • personal feelings at 18%
  • friends at 4%

Parents, you are the single most significant factor in shaping the morality of your children! This is a heavy responsibility. But it should never be about what you, as a parent, see is right and wrong. As believers, it should always go back to God’s Word. Certain things are right and wrong—and this doesn’t change—not because we as parents say so, but because our Creator and Heavenly Father says so in his Word.

When Man Sets the Rules

There’s a lot of confusion in this nation about how we determine right from wrong. For the majority of people, particularly the younger demographic, the standard is no longer God and his Word. If this is the standard, then mankind determines right and wrong—we set the rules. This leads to a morality that shifts as the culture shifts or as our personal thinking changes. It leads to a culture like the one described in the book of Judges: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

This “anything goes” mentality pervades our culture.

This “anything goes” mentality pervades our culture. Just turn on your TV, and it doesn’t take long to see it! As a recent example, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese released a commercial as part of their Swear Like a Mother campaign for Mother’s Day. According to a Kraft study, 74% of moms admit to swearing in front of their kids, but Kraft assures us “sometimes we just have to swear, and that’s okay. Nobody’s [bleeped expletive] perfect.” Here we see an example of this redefinition of morality. Swearing is fine because everyone does it. Since we’re not perfect anyway, why not?

This is very different from God’s Word which, while acknowledging we are not perfect (Romans 3:10), holds us to a higher standard (Matthew 5:48) and says the following:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4)

When God Sets the Rules

There doesn’t need to be confusion regarding morality because God’s Word gives us an unchanging standard. Because God is our Creator, he sets the rules. But he hasn’t left us to wonder what they are. In his Word he has provided rules, principles, and standards that we can use to solve any moral or ethical dilemma.

As Christians, this culture, our parents, or our feelings shouldn’t dictate our morality. We need to turn to the Word of our Creator, for God has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).


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