History and Background of the Morality Index

(C)Copyright 2002 by Carl Drews
Last update: March 15, 2004

Contents:Beginnings Events Personal

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In the late 1990s I would hear political and religious commentators decrying the great decline in American morality. In their view, the United States had dropped to very low levels of moral behavior never before seen in our history. At the time, President Bill Clinton was immersed in a sex scandal involving a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. President Clinton was eventually impeached by Congress but acquitted by the Senate. I think the scandal influenced the views of the pundits greatly.

The "great decline in American morality" viewpoint puzzled me, because I knew that the crime rate was way down in this country! There were several encouraging signs, too: a drop in the abortion rate, efforts to clean up the environment, students organizing prayer meetings, and an upsurge in attendance at some Christian churches. Statistically, we Americans were safer than we'd ever been in our history. The world was pretty much at peace. Why all the cynical and depressing views on morality?

I would try to point out the good signs, but usually the response would be to point to a number of recent news items: robberies, murders, abductions, scandals, and so on. Obviously those things are terrible if they happen to you, but they are news because they are unusual. They don't necessarily reflect the overall morality of this country at large. I call this the "throw-down-the-newspaper" methodology: one reads a few depressing stories in the morning paper, throws down the newspaper in disgust, and mutters, "This country is in sad shape."

As far as I could tell, the "great moral decline" viewpoint seemed to suggest that the United States had reached its moral peak sometime during the 1950s. This was the era of Ward and June Cleaver, when Dad drove off to work at his Good Job while Mom stayed home and did the housework wearing her pearl necklace. From that high point, there has been a steady and continuous decline in morality. Perhaps President Ronald Reagan arrested the decline somewhat during his years in office, but the decline resumed during the 1990s. Putting this viewpoint quantitatively, we obtain the morality graph below:

I am not making up this attitude. I first heard it expressed in 1965 in the protest song "Eve of Destruction", by Barry McGuire and P.F. Sloan. During the years after the song there was a lot of domestic unrest, and a Six-Day War in the Mideast. But 37 years later it's obvious that Barry McGuire was wrong. We are not now destroyed.

More recently there was a news story on CNN.com in October 2002 describing Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore's defense of a Ten Commandments monument that he had installed in the state Judicial Building. The following article is from October 17:
The CNN article states: "Moore spent more than three hours on the stand, quoting from the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and James Madison. The conservative Christian took aim at the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to ban prayer in schools as one of the federal rulings he said contributed to moral deterioration in America over the past 40 or 50 years."

I agreed that the United States had reached its moral peak in the 1950s. My viewpoint began in the 1920s, the "Roaring Twenties" of excess and Prohibition violations. As I saw it, this country was not behaving very well during that time. During the 1930s the Great Depression dominated the American culture. I have been struck by the correlation during the 1990s between good economic times and a low crime rate, and I reasoned that the flip side of that same correlation existed back then - not that my parents' generation during the Depression was so immoral, but times were tough! Morality took a sharp turn upward during World War II. "Don't you know there's a war on?" Americans came together to defeat the Axis Powers and restore freedom to the world. The moral surge of World War II continued during the 1950s as victorious soldiers came home, married their grateful sweehearts, and started to take care of all their children.

The 1960s saw a dramatic plunge in morality to the lowest levels ever. In my view, the 1960s were characterized by assassinations, unrest, war protests, and various hippie movements. This moral drop reached its nadir in the early 1970s, with the Watergate scandal that eventually led President Richard Nixon to resign. President Jimmy Carter began the moral recovery and President Ronald Reagan continued to encourage it during the 1980s. During the 1990s this country saw good economic times and a steady drop in the crime rate. As I write this in October 2002, the economy has taken a downward turn. Sure enough, the latest figures indicate that the crime rate has turned upwards again.

This is my viewpoint in October 2002. I have read the news since high school, and I'm familiar with the social events of the twentieth century. But I have not yet collected a single datum specifically for the Morality Index. The graph below records my non-quantitative view of American morality before beginning this project. It captures my bias and pre-conceived notions. I was born in 1960. Does it show?

We'll see what happens when the data starts coming in. I will be miffed if the political commentators are right and I'm wrong, but I will accept it. Of course I will be gratified if my pre-drawn graph looks pretty much like the actual graph. I will be most disappointed if the Morality Index comes out to be a random walk, a graph drifting aimlessly along with no correlation to real events that we can see. I will be thrilled if the Morality Index goes up and down at notable periods in history. Because that result will mean that the Morality Index has some predictive value, some usefulness, and some meaning!

The study of morals is called moralogy. That makes me a moralogist.


Sometime in the spring of 2002 I got the idea to create a numerical index to measure morality. My inspiration was the Consumer Price Index, which is a composite measure of the cost of weekly groceries and other necessary items for the average household. Could I do something similar with morality? I settled on the Ten Commandments as the moral code that would be the basis of the index. I also got the idea to represent the adherence to each commandment with a positive and negative component. We want to penalize the index when people do bad things, but we also want to credit the index when they do something good. That's fair.

On June 24, 2002 I registered the domain name moralityindex.com. During that summer I was working on a few other web projects. In October 2002 I began work in earnest on the Morality Index.

As I begin this project the task ahead seems daunting. How can I possibly measure the morality of a nation of 281 million people? At times like these I think back to the "throw-down-the-newspaper" methodology, and I know I can at least do better than that! If I merely post the United States crime rate I will do better than that. So I forge ahead.

I haven't the foggiest idea how I'm going to measure the Second Commandment (about taking the Lord's name in vain). There is no governmental department that keeps track of how often American citizens curse and swear. But I do have a pretty good idea how I'm going to measure killing and stealing, as well as the positive components of those commandments. I will be gathering collected statistics, not collecting them myself. Hopefully I will get some ideas about the harder-to-measure commandments as I complete the easier ones. Probably the most difficult problem will be the lack of reliable data.

I'm expecting a lot of hate mail over the Morality Index. People won't like it if the index doesn't match their opinion of what's happening to this nation. Atheists won't like it because the Ten Commandments espouse monotheism. Various Christian denominations won't like it if I don't count certain bad behaviors that they object to. These are my expectations. Maybe I'll be wrong about them.


I graduated from Stanford University in 1982 with a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering. I took a statistics course as part of the engineering breadth requirements. I have worked professionally developing software since then. About half of my work experience has been in discrete-event simulation.

In my current job I do data mining. I process large data sets and try to extract useful patterns from what seems at first glance to be a mass of unorganized information. We use Bayesian networks to look for trends in the data, correlations that might enable us to make a useful prediction. I am familiar with sampling methods and correlation tests. Although I am not a statistician, I know how to make use of their work.

I'm a sinful human being, just like everyone else on this planet. The Morality Index strikes at my behavior like it strikes at anyone else's. I've done things in my life that I'm not proud of. As a Christian, I believe that God offers us forgiveness and redemption. If I didn't believe that, I couldn't do this project. (My family and I are members of an Anglican church.)

This project originally got started when a software developer got ticked off at political and religious commentators. It's not a very noble beginning, is it? And yet - I believe in a God who can bring forth good out of what we consider evil (see Genesis 50:20 and Acts 2:22-24). If I do my job here, and do it well, I believe God will use it to turn people's hearts toward Him. This is the same God who used a terrible event - the crucifixion of His son Jesus - to free all mankind from sin and death. That's why we call the day on which this happened "Good Friday". Praise God!

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