How Kevorkian and assisted suicide fit into America's mixed moral landscape

A recent Gallup survey of hot-button cultural issues such as doctor-assisted suicide, abortion, gay relations, and pornography reveal surprising generational differences.

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Actors pretending to be protesters are shown on the set of "You Don't Know Jack" during filming in Pontiac, Mich. The cast and crew were in metro Detroit in 2009 to do scenes for the biopic about Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide advocate who died today.

What's the single most controversial cultural issue in America? According to a Gallup survey conducted last month, it's doctor-assisted suicide, the issue symbolized by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who died today. Nearly half of Americans say it's morally acceptable, while the other half say it's morally wrong.

Gallup examined other issues, too, from gambling and premarital sex to cloning humans and medical testing on animals. It analyzed responses according to political affiliation and age.

When it comes to moral issues, it's no shocker that Democrats and Republicans see things differently. Sixty-five percent of Democrats said out-of-wedlock births are "morally acceptable," while just 35 percent of Republicans agreed. The gap on abortion was even wider: 55 to 18.

What is surprising is the nature of America's generational gap on hot-button social questions. The size of the gap is large but largely expected: Young people are almost always morally more liberal than their parents or grandparents. It's the pattern of the gap that's striking. To see details, click on the chart at left:

If it feels good, do it?

When it comes to pornography, gay/lesbian relations, premarital sex, and gambling, 18-to-34 year-olds are much more likely than older respondents to perceive them as morally acceptable. The gap is particularly high when it comes to polygamy, which nearly 1 in 5 young Americans say is OK. On the flip side, the young frown on medical testing on animals, the death penalty, and use of animal fur for clothing.

So are young adults just more liberal? Not exactly. Their scores for abortion are relatively conservative – fewer than half say it's morally acceptable – and their views on extramarital affairs are virtually identical with those of other generations.

If there's a single keynote to this cohort, it's the harm principle. Stemming from the English thinker John Stuart Mill's book, "On Liberty," the harm principle states that individuals are free to act in any way – so long as that behavior doesn't harm others.

"That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others," Mill wrote. "In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

Values in tension

One implication of Mill's argument is that "If it's consensual, it's OK." A generation that embraces this ethic is thus quite open to polygamy, which is technically consensual, but quite opposed to medical testing on animals, which (to the extent animals are judged to share basic human rights) is not. But what about extramarital affairs, which young people overwhelmingly find objectionable? Affairs are arguably consensual, but they deceptively defy a marriage contract and are intrinsically harmful to spouses and children. Similar ethical thinking that places a high value on protecting vulnerable parties seems to be at work on abortion and especially suicide, which young people perceive in even more conservative terms than seniors.

Generational attitudes are fluid – and strongly shaped by culture. Ten years ago, TV shows like "Big Love" and "Sister Wives" that have softened our perceptions of polygamy didn't exist. And today's young people may not recall polygamy's long history of harm to women – not to mention society.

But an even stronger influence than watching television is becoming a parent, which is why moral attitudes often grow more conservative as people age. So here's a safe prediction: In 30 years, today's younger generation (who will then be ages 48 to 64) will be fretting over what the latest Gallup survey shows about teenage values.

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