Is America Less Moralistic Now, or Has Its Code Just Changed?

The new politics of gambling, marijuana, and other values issues
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Are the American people more suspicious than they once were of moralism in public policy? So Ross Douthat argues in a column about legalized gambling and marijuana. The spread of casinos is driven by states seeking revenue and gaming lobbyists pressing their agenda, whereas weed legalization is driven by activists, "influenced by empathy for the terminally ill, and hastened by public exhaustion with the drug war," Douthat writes. "But both have been made possible by the same trend in American attitudes: the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy."         

It's a plausible theory, but the last line about moralism makes me want to quibble. Maybe Americans want public policy to reflect their moral judgments as much as ever, but they no longer regard smoking marijuana or casino gambling—or sodomy, gay marriage, or pornography consumption—as morally suspect. At the same time, maybe jurisdictions are implementing tough new laws in other areas—mandates to recycle, laws against dog-fighting, marital-rape statutes, trans-fat bans—because people still favor codifying their moral beliefs into law. Citizens don't harbor suspicion toward moralism so much as toward parts of traditional morality. On gambling, Gallup finds that 61 percent of Americans regard it as morally acceptable. Even if everyone who found casinos morally unacceptable voted to codify their moral judgment in law it wouldn't be sufficient to win the day.

There are, of course, small-government libertarians like Ron Paul who insist that the state ought to stay silent on certain matters even if they are in fact immoral. Perhaps that faction has grown in recent years.

What's definitely grown larger is the subset of Americans who not only disagree with the notion that gay marriage or smoking marijuana or watching pornography is immoral, but can't even understand the moral logic of traditionalists.

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On gay marriage, many would go so far as to say that it is immoral to prohibit same-sex unions. Their determination to moralistically press their advantage is why traditionalists like Rod Dreher now worry that cultural conservatives will be compelled by anti-discrimination law to participate. 

Or take health care. Lots of Obamacare advocates insisted during the debate over the legislation that America has a moral imperative to provide coverage to the uninsured, and castigated opponents of the law as immoral people partly culpable for needless deaths. 

Then there are areas of policy where the traditional morality of social conservatives squares with the moral beliefs of a substantial faction of reformers. Public opinion hasn't shifted on abortion like it has on gay marriage. On torture, orthodox Catholics and progressives are in substantial moral agreement. The country expresses opposition to pedophilia more moralistically now than ever. And on gun control and immigration reform, would-be reformers have made highly moralistic pitches to the public and are likely to keep doing so.

Traditionalists have seen their ability to control social norms decline precipitously in my lifetime, and given the way they conceive of moral behavior, you can see how, looking around, they'd conclude that moralism is dead. 

I'm not so sure. I still see a lot of policy fights framed in highly moralistic language and arguments. And insofar as traditionalists are losing ground, it's often because what they regard as immoral strikes a majority as morally unobjectionable. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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