60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: Ethics

A new poll on ethics asks Americans tough questions about their morality including whether they would report illegal immigrants living next door

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for August 2014. This month's poll is about ethics, a set of moral principles and values that help to govern how a person behaves within their society. Knowing the difference between right and wrong goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and some people think we're still paying for that one.

The great Greek thinkers -- Socrates, Plato and Aristotle -- were among the first of the Western philosophers to describe the need for self examination and self awareness to achieve moral virtue which they believed was necessary to achieving happiness. Unfortunately, human nature also creates plenty of unethical characters who can wreak havoc on the moral code (for examples watch the CBS Evening News almost any night).

What are America's ethics? They can be found in the actions of so many of our citizens who donate their time and money to people in need. The Bill of Rights is another good place to look and you can add decency, hard work, fair play and equality to the mix. America's ethics change slowly over time (hopefully for the better) and reflect the dynamism of our people and evolving society. Some people think that when it comes to Washington, the term political ethics could be considered to be an oxymoron. That said, it's all we've got and many are hoping that after the midterm elections the newly elected Congress will come together and pass some bipartisan legislation using some of the bedrock ethics that so many Americans already agree on. What do you think is the biggest ethical misjudgment in American history? We look forward to hearing your answers to this question and many others. And now the results of our poll...

Moral Mistakes

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Thirty-eight percent of Americans think that slavery was the biggest ethical misjudgment in American history. Twenty percent said it was the treatment of Native Americans followed by the Vietnam War 13 percent, the Iraq War 11 percent, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven percent. There have been a lot of questionable actions and policies in America's history that are hard to defend. But even when they are considered through the prism of time in eras with different moral codes, our treatment of Native Americans and African Americans is indefensible to the majority of Americans.

Food for Thought

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Americans are evenly divided when it comes to determining which of these actions by fast food restaurants is ethically worse. Forty-eight percent (56 percent Democrats) think that underpaying their workers is worse and 47 percent (58 percent Republican) think that serving unhealthy food is worse. Serving unhealthy food is not necessarily unethical. Plenty of stores sell only donuts or candy or foods that are guilty pleasures that are all right every now and then. If fast food restaurants don't serve some healthy items patrons can vote with their feet. The debate in America about what constitutes a living wage is another question altogether. When push comes to shove, the American people are usually on the side of the underdog.

NSA Leak

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By a 2-to-1 margin (54 percent to 27 percent) Americans do not think that Edward Snowden acted ethically when he leaked information about a secret government surveillance program. The remaining 19 percent said they did not know or had no opinion. Americans aged 45 and over were slightly more disposed to say he acted unethically while those under 45 were slightly more willing to say that he acted ethically. It is a complex story that is far from over. If nothing else, the whole episode confirms our worst fears voiced by Joseph Heller in "Catch 22" that just because we're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not after us.

The worst!

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Who is ethically the worst from the list of choices? Nearly six out of 10 Americans think it's a doctor who prescribes unnecessary medication for financial gain. Next up with 30 percent is a stockbroker who defrauds investors. Only four percent said a student who cheats and a scant two percent said a writer who plagiarizes. Although very dishonest, the student and writer are mostly hurting themselves. Americans have little regard for the stockbroker who puts innocent people's financial health in jeopardy and twice the contempt for the doctor who threatens their physical health.

Neighbors

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Nearly seven out of 10 Americans said they would not report a family next door that they liked if they found out they were living in the country illegally. As the poll indicates, Americans are a compassionate people, but the debate over illegal immigration is intensifying.

Spy of a Spouse?

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Here's a sticky wicket, to peek or not to peek, that is the question. Nearly eight in 10 Americans say that it is never acceptable to look at a spouse's emails or texts unless it is an emergency. That leaves only 12 percent that say that it's all right to look when you're suspicious and five percent that admit they would peruse their partner's missives whenever they could get away with it. That's bad news for private investigators, it looks like the days of having to look for lipstick on his collar or hotel receipts from her handbag can be replaced by the click of a mouse.

Parental decisions

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How far would you go for your child? Half of those asked would let their kids win at board games. Only one in five would provide a sick note so they could attend a sporting event (c'mon even for the playoffs?), seven percent said they would write their child's college application essay for them and three percent would provide an alibi for a petty crime. Maybe the most effective and ethical way to help a child (OK, go ahead and throw a game of Sorry or Monopoly) is to let them be accountable for their own actions. Unless, of course, the World Series game you have tickets for falls on a school day.

White lies

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According to over half of Americans (55 percent), the most appropriate subject to lie about when talking to young children is Santa Claus. Next with 20 percent is why Mommy and Daddy aren't talking, followed by death (eight percent) and God (six percent). The majority of Americans think that it is acceptable and appropriate to tell a "white lie" to preserve the innocent beliefs of young children. Santa Claus is so popular he should get his own designer lie, let's call it the "red and white lie."

Sin City

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Despite positive efforts to portray itself as a family friendly destination, 36 percent of Americans still chose "Sin City," Las Vegas from the list as seeming to care the least about it's reputation. Twenty-two percent chose Tehran and it's authoritarian theocracy followed by the rowdy and randy nightlife of Bangkok (17 percent) and the relaxed attitudes about sex and drugs in Amsterdam (11 percent).

Express Lane Exasperation

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Although this question will not make the top 100 list of ethical quandaries, it does cut to one of life's more annoying sights, the express lane cheater. A solid majority of Americans (58 percent) think that more than one of the exact same item counts as another item. Let's settle this major ethical dilemma once and for all. How's this for a compromise? Two boxes of Cheerios are two items and a bag with six apples in it is one item. How do you like them apples?

Hard Decisions

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Now, this one could be very high on the top 100 list of ethical quandaries. From the list provided, 45 percent of Americans feel that the people who are the sickest should get top priority when it comes to life-saving organ transplants. Next in order are younger people with 24 percent, parents of young children with 16 percent, people who lead healthy lives with six percent and Dick Cheney was the recipient of two percent of the vote. Americans believe in fair play and nearly half chose need as the top criterion for receiving a transplant. A close second was youth either with regard to the age of the recipient or the age of their children. Transplants based on merit merited little support whether in the form of healthy living or national prominence.


This poll was conducted by telephone from June 11-15, 2014 among 1,017 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. The error for other subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls. Read more about this poll.

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