Morality Policy Making

The central claim of a growing and aggressive research field of morality policy is that there is a class of value- or morality-based policies that can be distinguished from non-morality policies, and that “these distinguishing characteristics can be used to explain and predict political behavior in morality policy arenas” (Tatalovich & Daynes 7). The central classification of morality policy research is rather simpler: It needs only to be able to distinguish a morality from a non-morality policy. Its classification need is thus un-dimensional rather than multidimensional.

The core theoretical premise is that something is a morality policy or it is not. This difference is enough to provide systematic insights into political behavior in the morality policy arena.The complexity inherent in sorting policies even into just two categories is considerable. This complexity is made apparent by the major classification approaches currently used in this field.

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All are direct intellectual descendants of the original Lowi framework and highlight the problems of subjective classification. Tatalovich and Daynes define morality policies as those that involve non-economic values, are “politicized by single-issue interest groups, and are cases in which the federal judiciary becomes the primary decision maker” (Tatalovich & Daynes 12). Meier and Mooney define morality policies as those dealing with first principles (i.e. , fundamental beliefs of right and wrong), high salience, and low information costs (Meier 16).

These characteristics combine to produce politics with low barriers to participation and situations in which groups compete to control the coercive powers of the government to force their value systems on others. Lowi argues that morality policies are created by a political interaction that can apply to any of the categories in his original typology (questions of typology will be discussed later). Lowi maintains that “what separates morality politics from ‘mainstream’ politics in policy categories is the distribution of preferences.

Mainstream politics are characterized by a bell-shaped curve of preferences in which the political process can negotiate something close to the mean and adopt it as policy Morality politics invert the bell curve so that preferences are concentrated in the tails, and politics becomes radicalized due to the lack of common ground” (Lowi 21).Each classification approach is useful, but none provides a universal guideline for deciding what is and what is not a morality policy. The subjective element of classification is shown by the relationship of each approach to the original Lowi framework. The Tatolovich and Daynes approach classifies morality policy as a particular type of regulatory policy (their term is social regulatory policy rather than morality policy).

The Meier/Mooney approach classifies morality policy as a form of redistributive policy, though the redistribution of values rather than more tangible resources. These two classification schemes thus begin from separate cells in the original framework. Lowi expands morality policy to all four cells. The differing identifying characteristics associated with each approach do little to clarify things (Bachrach 632-34).

Virtually any policy will fit at least some of these criteria. Although the varying classification schemes have produced broad agreements on some morality policy classifications (abortion rights, for example), others remain very much in the eye of the beholder (Bachrach 34).  Universal health care can be (and has been) portrayed as an economic issue. By the Tatalovich and Daynes criteria, it can be excluded as a morality policy.

Yet issues of fundamental rights are often involved into health care reform policies, so depending on specifics, it might meet the Meier/Mooney criteria. Is universal health care a morality policy? A regulatory policy? A redistributive policy? All three? Currently, there are no objective means to resolve such questions.Despite these problems, the basic classification challenge for morality policy is still a simplified version of the larger question for typologies generally: How can one objectively distinguish between a morality and a non-morality policy? The taxonomic approach to this question is to explore whether there is any empirical basis to such categories; “the primary obstacle to undertaking this challenge is the persuasive arguments of previous research that policies are separated by perceived rather than by objective differences” (Morgan, D. & Meier 144-48).

Surveys, of course, have been widely used to gather and analyze perceptual data. Though no standardized ‘morality policy’ survey instrument exists, this does not mean one cannot be created. As a basic starting point, it seems reasonable to make use of the raw materials offered by previous scholarship — “that is, a survey instrument based on the conceptual classification approaches” (Carson 9). “These have repeatedly been demonstrated to be useful in conceptually organizing research, and it is relatively simple to give them an actual empirical dimension by using them as the basis for a survey instrument.

If these can be used to measure perceptions of policy and these in turn used to detect general patterns that systematically reflect morality and non-morality policy characteristics, they may provide the basis for general empirical classification scheme–that is, taxonomy” (Navarro 139-143).Whereas constructing a survey instrument is a surmountable obstacle, doing so provides little direction as to what or who it should be measuring, and this issue is central to achieving an empirical classification system. “The status of a particular issue as a morality policy is determined and bounded by the active groups in particular policy subsystems at particular points in time” (this approach is virtually universal, for example, in the studies included in Tatalovich & Daynes 12, and in Mooney 28-32). Scholars, in other words, use the social constructions of a group or set of groups actively involved in a policy arena to determine what constitutes a morality policy.

Yet operationalizing morality politics in this fashion essentially eliminates any general classification scheme by definition because in virtually any political conflict factions can be found who view it in value-based terms. “Virtually any regulatory or redistributive policy deals with a clash of values between individual liberty and the government’s interests in constraining this liberty in the name of the common interest” (thus, in Lowi’s scheme the likelihood of government coercion is high for both policy types) (Lowi 32-35).

Generally, there will be little difficulty in finding some group attaching moral social constructions to issues surrounding such value conflicts, and a researcher can thus classify just about every ‘redistributive’ or ‘regulatory’ policy as a morality policy. This puts morality politics research squarely into the ‘postdictive trap’ identified by Greenberg and cuts it off from the general theoretical promise inherent in its Lowian roots.

The theory reveals itself to be a heuristic—“useful for reducing complexity and ordering systematic research but unlikely to yield any results outside of the particular case and time under study” (Greenberg 34).In order to transcend this problem and move towards a taxonomic classification system that empirically sorts policy issues into morality or non-morality categories, it is critical to identify elements that “can be considered characteristics of the policy rather than of the individual” (Nelson 23).

These elements have to be general characteristics, that is, at a minimum “a set of mental constructions widely shared across a social community that serve to define the political environment and boundaries of policy arenas and are not dependent upon a particular group or set of elites in a particular policy subsystem” (Bachrach 645). As the 40-year history of the policy typology literature repeatedly demonstrates, this is a tall order and may well be an ‘impossible’ obstacle.

The motivation for taking on the long odds, though, is simple: “Solve this problem and Lowi’s initial objective of beginning the search for a general theory of politics is realistically resurrected” (Bachrach 646-47).That resurrection is not the purpose here, merely the investigation of its possibility. With this limited objective in mind, the characteristics that supposedly distinguish morality politics do offer some hope for the project. There is considerable evidence suggesting morality policies are defined by more than the groups active in a given policy subsystem.

Low information costs and high saliency mean policy subsystems involving morality issues are going to be “highly permeable because outsiders are easily mobilized by an appeal to first principles, or zero sum, us-against-them terms” (Baumgartner ; Jones 47). This means experts, elites, or a single group will have a limited ability to single-handedly control what is and is not framed as a morality policy. Lawmakers, for example, are tightly constrained by public opinion in making decisions on morality policy, especially when public opinion is divided. Mooney and Lee find the link a little weaker when public opinion is more consensual, but one-sided morality policy issues (Mooney and Lee 142-145) – what Meier terms the “politics of sin”–give policymakers even less room to deviate from perceived public opinion (Meier 43-46).

On issues such as pornography or drugs, there is only “one” correct position–few policymakers champion the benefits of XXX movies or crack cocaine–and citizens publicly support such positions even when their private behavior does not (Smith 45-49). Thus, there seems sufficient existing evidence to argue that a class of value-based policies defined by general rather than particular social constructions may exist. Elites and groups may view any number of issues in morality-based terms, but scholars consistently note that “their ability to generate general patterns of morality-based political behavior beyond the behavior of the group(s) used for classification purposes is dependent on a broader acceptance of a given issue’s value status” (Schattachneider 87-91).So, a set of issues may exist that is broadly defined as morality policies by a general electorate.

If so, it should be possible to isolate and identify these policies by measuring individual perceptions with a survey that combines the approaches. This assumption does not exclude the possibility that some individuals or groups will view some issues classified as non-morality policies in morality-based terms. It means that this particular social construction is not broadly shared and that only a general view can be treated as a quality of a policy as well as property of individual perception (Mohr 39-40). And, critically, “it is these general qualities that hold the potential to empirically distinguish between morality and non-morality policies and to generate testable hypotheses about the patterns of political behavior associated with morality policy” (Rhode & Minow 191-94).

The big question, of course, is whether any such general qualities exist, and if they do, whether they can be isolated and used to generate a classification scheme using standard taxonomic methods (Smith 56). Even more specific hypothesizes are possible with a little more information about the morality policies. If they are consensus issues-an overwhelming majority favors one side–governments should respond quickly, adopting the consensus preference promptly and with little attempt to accommodate minority interests. If it is a non-consensus issue, high levels of conflict and “policy chum”-government constantly revisiting the issue but finding little in the way of satisfactory resolution–are predicted.

“Hypotheses should even get down to the level of predicting policy outcomes” (Smith 57).  For example, if a consensus issue is built upon a weak correlation between publicly expressed preferences and private behavior–that is, a “sin” issue such as drugs or pornography–the issue is predicted to be highly popular but unlikely to achieve its policy objectives (Smith 58-59).Such specifics have exciting possibilities, but more to the point for present purposes is the creation of two policy categories and “the subsequent generation of comparative, empirically testable hypotheses on the theoretical expectations of how they differ, something the existing literature with its focus on specific policy arenas has rarely done” (Meier 63).

The process of creating two clear policy categories achieves this by making classification more empirical and less subjective, something that can produce some surprises. Gambling, for example, might be classified as a non-morality policy. This does not mean that in the targeted political unit no groups will view gambling in moral terms. The claim is that these groups are unable to frame the issue broadly in morality terms, and political patterns surrounding gambling policy will reflect economic concerns, accommodation and compromise among differing interests, and an important role for experts. If the claim is borne out, it lends itself to a much clearer picture of what is and is not a morality policy (Rhode & Minow 197-210).

Making these clear distinctions would make possible a more systematic empirical test of one of the central claims of morality politics research–that the distinguishing characteristics of this set of policies produces a predictable pattern of political activity. The test generated by the analysis is clear: The politics surrounding the proposals for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, universal health care, and legalized prostitution should produce behavioral patterns and perhaps even policy outcomes that are empirically distinguishable from the non-morality policies (Kingdon 97-99).

That seems to gain some traction on criticisms of Steinberger on the tendency towards “post hoc prediction,” or the tendency to pick policies on the basis of a historical record of political activity that fits with the researchers’ conception of how the typology functions (Steinberger 63-65).There is no doubt that the classification problem morality politics scholars inherited from the broader literature on policy typologies is still a significant distance from being solved, and it may well be that a universally agreed upon solution may not be possible.

Nonetheless, there is enough here to suggest that it is possible to get empirical leverage on the broader problem of policy classification. Those possibilities may be opened by future studies that address the limitations of the analysis presented here (Kingdon 103).The broad contours of policy adoption are similar for all types of public policies (Mooney & Lee 74-79), but morality policies are distinctive in certain ways. Previous research indicates that innovations that have economic impacts are affected by basic economic and population characteristics (e. g., wealth, urbanism, population size, education, and others).

In contrast, morality policies such as abortion, gambling, and PAS (right to die – assistance) are driven more by public opinion, mass media coverage, the strength of relevant interest groups, the political vulnerability of elected officials, and sometimes by ideology (Meier & Johnson 231-237; Meier & McFarlane 178-179).

The differences between these types of policies develop from the high salience of morality policies: “unlike many economic and foreign affairs issues, morality policies are relatively easy to understand, and due to fundamental differences in personal experiences and socialization they are prone to widespread disagreement on core values” (Meier 185; also mentioned Tatalovich & Daynes 234-237).

Works Cited

  1. Bachrach, P. Lowian roots. Decisions and non-decisions: An analytical framework. American Political Science Review, 57(2), 1989, 632-642.
  2. Baumgartner, F. R., & Jones, B. D. (1993). Agendas and instability in American politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Carson, R. Morality Policy Making. Hastings Center Report, 22(2), 7-9.
  4. Glick, H. Perception, Alternate Taxons. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  5. Kingdon, J. Agendas, alternatives, and public policies (2nd ed. ). New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995.
  6. Lowi, R. Morality Policy. New York: Viking Press, 1997.
  7. Meier, K. & Johnson, C. The politics of demon rum. American Politics Quarterly, 18(4), 1990.
  8. Meier, K. & McFarlane, D. The politics of funding abortion: State responses to the political environment. American Politics Quarterly, 21(1), 1993.
  9. Meier, K. The politics of sin. Armonk NY: M. E. Sharing Pressing, 1994.
  10. Tatalovich, R. The politics of abortion in the United States and Canada. New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

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Morality Policy Making. (2017, Apr 10). Retrieved from