What does the UK think is right and wrong? The BBC reveals a snapshot of morality in 2019

The BBC today reveals the findings of a major new survey exploring the moral framework of the UK in 2019 offering an unprecedented insight into the morals and values of the British population.

Published: 21 November 2019
The BBC’s Year of Beliefs has explored and celebrated the multiple expressions of faith and belief in modern Britain and has examined a complex range of ethical issues affecting people’s lives.
— Alison Kirkham

The nationwide survey of 3,655 adults aged 16+ was conducted by ComRes as part of the BBC’s Year Of Beliefs.

Respondents were asked to answer questions on their values and morals and their attitudes to a range of issues including relationships, work, the environment, consumer ethics and life and death.

The survey suggests that while 70% of adults agree it’s important for people to have a moral framework in their lives, what people believe to be right or wrong differs greatly. The findings indicate that age is most likely to define people’s morality with marked differences in attitudes to the issues across the generations.

The subject on which the UK is most united is infidelity - with 83% of adults feeling a significant responsibility to be faithful to their partner.

Actually living by our values does seem to be a challenge. Despite most people having a strong sense of right and wrong (58%), behaviour doesn’t always live up to intentions – for example, three in five adults (60%) who say they have been unfaithful to their partner also say it is never acceptable to cheat.

In terms of behaviour, values and morals, people who say they are members of an organised religion are generally more likely to stick to their principles, with infidelity, for example, appearing to be lower amongst this group – 17% of those who describe themselves as belonging to a faith report being unfaithful compared to 23% of those who don’t.

Overall, the majority of adults in the UK believe in tolerance, with 69% of those surveyed saying people should be free to live their lives as they want, as long as that doesn’t harm others.

The BBC has created an interactive online tool for users to explore the results of the survey, which can be found here.

Alison Kirkham, BBC Controller of Factual Commissioning, says: “The BBC’s Year Of Beliefs has explored and celebrated the multiple expressions of faith and belief in modern Britain and has examined a complex range of ethical issues affecting people’s lives. The findings of the morality survey are an important part of this, providing a snapshot of our ethics and values and what we really think about some of the most pressing issues of our time. With our age emerging as being most likely to define our morality, this survey gives a revealing insight into how different generations view hotly debated topics such as the environment, relationships and the online world.”

RG

Highlights from each survey area

Values and Morals

  • The public seem to hold themselves to a higher moral standard than others: behaviours that people may deem “acceptable for others” they are consistently more likely to say are “unacceptable for themselves” - such as watching porn, taking illegal drugs and paying for sex.
  • However, people don’t always practise what they preach. 43% of those who admitted to taking illegal drugs also deemed it to be “unacceptable for themselves”. 60% of those who report being unfaithful did so despite also believing infidelity is never acceptable.
  • 32% of people believe that their right to express their views is more important than their impact on other people. Men are considerably more likely to hold this view than women (38% of men versus 27% of women).
  • And when it comes to gender, 35% of the population (38% of men and 33% of women) feel men and women are born to have different roles.

Relationships

  • 18% of the population admit to being unfaithful. Women are more likely (80%) than men (64%) to say that it is never acceptable to be unfaithful to your partner.
  • In instances of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, 73% of those surveyed said they would intervene if they witnessed a colleague touch another colleague in an unwanted sexual manner.
  • Across all scenarios surveyed (e.g. a senior colleague making sexual comments towards a colleague; a group of men shouting sexual comments at a woman on the street etc) young people were always more likely to say they would intervene.

The environment and consumer ethics

  • When it comes to the environment, those aged 55+ are most likely to feel significant responsibility to protect the planet for future generations, with the figures suggesting that youth activism hasn’t yet translated into mass behaviour change. For example, young people are less likely to reject fast fashion and single use items than older people, though they are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan.
  • Overall, our commitment to changing small behaviours that could have a positive effect on the environment is not very strong. 71% of people think it is acceptable to drive when it would be just as easy to walk and 65% of people say it is acceptable to use single-use items like cutlery, plates, cups, straws etc.
  • Additionally, those who claim to feel a “significant responsibility” towards the future of the planet are almost as likely to carry out environmentally unfriendly behaviour as the rest of the population - e.g. 65% of the overall population think it is acceptable to use single-use plates, cutlery etc and 62% of those who feel “significant responsibility” to the future of the planet said the same.

The Online World

  • The public take a dim view of cyberbullying on the basis of someone’s appearance, with 79% of those surveyed saying it’s never acceptable to aggressively comment on or criticise a man’s appearance online or on social media and 80% saying the same about women.
  • It is also widely viewed as unacceptable to lie about your age or appearance on a dating profile (69% said unacceptable) or to log onto a partner’s email or social medial accounts without permission (69% said unacceptable).
  • In terms of what people post online, two thirds of people believe it is acceptable to only show the positive side of your life online (67%) with younger people particularly accepting (76% of 16-34s).

Life and Death

  • In matters of life and death the survey indicates that 59% of UK adults think that capital punishment is justifiable; 78% believe that assisted dying in the face of terminal illness is justifiable; 73% believe that abortion is justifiable. However, nearly half (49%) of respondents believe that suicide is never justifiable in any circumstance.
  • Suicide is viewed as more acceptable amongst young adults (45% of 16-34s compared to 29% of the over 55s) and those without religious beliefs (45% of those who defined themselves as non-religious versus 34% of those who are members of an organised religion.)
  • Over half of adults think it is acceptable to change or choose the genes of a baby if it may affect their lifespan (52%) or prevent a disability (53%). However, the UK is not comfortable with the concept of “designer babies” and over 70% still find it unacceptable to alter genes on the basis of gender (73%), intelligence (73%) or physical appearance (78%).

Immigration

  • Generally, the survey suggests that young people (16-34) are more liberal in their views towards immigration than their elders (55+).
  • Older people (55+) are most likely to say that we should limit how many people we welcome to the UK (72%), and that as a nation we should prioritise those who are born in the UK over those who are not (69%).
  • Young people (16-34) are most likely to say that we have a duty to welcome those from less fortunate circumstances (56%) and that it is right for immigrants to have access to public services such as the NHS (53%).

Work

  • 40% of respondents would take a sick day purely because they need a break, not because they are genuinely ill. On average, young people (16-34) are most likely to do this - with over half (51%) admitting to this behaviour.
  • In a potential show of a cooperative workplace culture, 66% of respondents would not tell on their colleagues who are pulling a sickie, however, more than one in ten (15%) claim that they would.
  • The least acceptable workplace behaviour is taking credit for work that was not your own, with only 12% of respondents claiming that they would do this. Men are more likely (15%) than women (9%) to accept undeserved praise.

The survey was conducted by ComRes for the BBC. A total of 3655 adults (16+) from across the UK were surveyed. The survey included a nationally representative sample of adults aged 16+. Data has been weighted by age, gender, region, ethnicity and religion.

The survey was conducted between 16 and 28 May 2019.

A full, in-depth deck of findings and the raw data set can be found on the ComRes website