Exploring the moral landscape with recursive partitioning

I’ve mentioned the World Values Survey before. Lately, I’ve been taking another look at this fascinating dataset, specifically at the questions on morality. The chart below provides an analysis of responses to the question “Is abortion justifiable?” These responses ranged from 1 (“never justifiable”) to 10 (“always justifiable”). I looked at the most recent data for Australia and the United States, plus one European country (the Netherlands) and one African country (Zambia), using recursive partitioning with the rpart package of R, together with my own tree-drawing code.

Attitude data such as this is often explained using political orientation, but political orientation is itself really more of an effect than a cause. Instead, I used age, sex, marital status, education level, language spoken at home, number of children, and religion as explanatory variables, with some grouping of my own. Demographic weightings were those provided in the dataset.

For the United States (US), the overall average response was 4.8 (as at 2011, having risen from 4.0 in 1995). However, among more religious people, who attended religious services at least weekly, the average response was lower. This group was mostly, but not entirely, Christian, and the area of the box on the chart gives an approximate indication of the group’s size (according to Pew Forum, this group has been slowly shrinking in size, down to 36% in 2014). The average response was 3.0 for those in the group who also engaged in daily prayer, and 4.3 for those who did not. Among those who attended religious services less than weekly, the responses varied by education level. The average response was 4.8 for those with education up to high school; 6.9 for those with at least some tertiary education who were Buddhist (B), Hindu (H), Jewish (J), Muslim (M), or “None” (N); and 5.4 for those with at least some tertiary education who were Catholic (C), Orthodox (Or), Protestant (P), or Other (Ot).

For Australia (AU), the overall average response was 5.8 (as at 2012, having risen from 4.3 in 1981), with a pattern broadly similar to the US. Here the “more religious” category included those attending religious services at least monthly (but it was still smaller a smaller group than in the US). The average response was 2.7 for those in the group who also engaged in daily prayer, and 4.6 for those who did not. The group most supportive of abortion were those attending religious services less than monthly, with at least some tertiary education, and speaking English or a European language at home. Those speaking Non-European languages at home clustered with the religious group (and those with at least some tertiary education speaking Non-European languages at home are a growing segment of the population, increasing from 6.2% of adults in the 2011 Census to 8.3% of adults in the 2016 Census).

For the Netherlands (NL), the overall average response was 6.5 (as at 2012). Those most opposed to abortion either attended religious services at least weekly (3.2), or were Hindu or Muslim (3.3). Then came those who either attended religious services monthly (5.2), or who attended religious services less often, but were still Catholic (C), Orthodox (Or), Protestant (P), or Other (Ot), and had not completed high school (5.3). The group most supportive of abortion were those attending religious services less than monthly, with at least some tertiary education, and who were Buddhist, Jewish, or “None” (7.9).

For Zambia (ZM), opposition to abortion was strong, with an overall average response of 3.2 (as at 2007). It was highest for those whose marital status was “separated” (4.5), and lowest for those aged 28 and up whose marital status was anything else (2.8).

Of the explanatory variables I used, all except sex, age, and number of children were important in at least one country. However, sex was important for “Is prostitution justifiable?” or “Is violence against other people justifiable?” Age was important for “Is homosexuality justifiable?” or “Is sex before marriage justifiable?” Number of children was important for “Is divorce justifiable?” or “Is suicide justifiable?” For example, here is an analysis of attitudes to divorce:


4 thoughts on “Exploring the moral landscape with recursive partitioning

    • “Liberals” are not included in the analysis, but you can draw the conclusion that deeply religious people are conservative on moral issues, irrespective of which religion.

      • Of course that carries the pre-assumption that disapproving of such things is the morally correct position, which is clearly not always true. It could be argued that to be neutral is the correct position as it allows you to sympathise with all sides of the debate. My liberals was with a small “l”, I’m not sure if you were using a capital because it started a sentence or not.

      • The analysis in the post does not refer to “liberals” of any kind. It simply shows that, in general, deeply religious people (in the sense of praying and attending religious services often) are more conservative (in the sense of saying “no”) on a wide range of moral issues. However, other factors also come into play. As a further example, here is the analysis for “Is suicide justifiable?.”

        And, obviously, a purely statistical analysis like the one in the blog post has nothing to say about the moral question of whether abortion, suicide, and divorce are actually wrong.

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