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date: 27 May 2019

Morality Policy

Summary and Keywords

Morality policies are a specific set of public issues that provoke fierce debates over the “right way” of living. Popular examples are the referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland in 2015, the conflict on abortion policy in Poland in 2016, the reform on prostitution policy in France in 2016, and the legalization of assisted dying in Canada in 2016. Future moral questions concern the use of CRISPR in gene editing of embryos, transgender rights, the regulation of self-driving cars with a hands-off regulation, and the involvement of robots in elderly care.

Morality policy analysis is a relatively new field of study that struggles with finding a clear-cut definition and delimitation of morality issues from nonmorality issues. The lowest common denominator is that value conflicts over “first principles” and “battles between right and wrong” are indicative of this type of policy, while monetary values fade into the background. Based on this definition, four groups of typical value-loaded topics can be identified, issues related to: life and death (e.g., assisted dying, abortion policy, artificial reproduction, capital punishment), gender and sexuality (e.g., homosexuality, prostitution, pornography, sex education, transgender rights), addictive behavior (e.g., drug policy, gambling policy), and limitations on individual self-determination (e.g., gun policy, veil policy, Islamic religious education).

The basic analytical question that drives the scholarly community is the popular proposition that “policies determine politics.” In other words, the underlying key interest is whether morality policies provoke different political processes than “nonmorality” issues. At first, scholars from the United States started to explore this question, which was also known as “culture wars.” Later on, since the early 2000s, the enquiry expanded in Europe. Thus, a growing number of researchers are investigating policymaking processes for morality issues and are evaluating traditional explanatory factors from the field of comparative public policy analysis. These factors include, among others, the influence of political parties and party cleavage structures, interest groups and societal mobilization, and institutional as well as cultural variables (e.g., religion, value change, and cultural modernization). In most cases, a uniform and direct impact of these factors is controversial, which is probably related to disagreement about the classification of public issues as moral problems. Discussion of this problem would benefit from contributions from other fields, such as research on religion and politics, the literature on gender and politics, legislative behavior, and political psychology.

Aside from a more careful review of traditional explanations of morality policy change, including in particular the role of political institutions, it would be enriching to widen the analytical focus and investigate other stages of the policy cycle. The implementation phase is particularly interesting because morality policy outputs often suffer from legal vagueness, which leaves wide room for discretion by street-level bureaucrats or other third parties. Moreover, an increasing number of cross-policy comparisons (including comparisons between morality and nonmorality issues), as well as an alternative set of methodological tools (e.g., social experiments, network analysis, and quantitative content analysis), would enrich our understanding of morality policymaking.

Keywords: moral values, culture wars, policy change, party cleavage, religion, policy implementation, abortion policy, prostitution policy, stem cell research, same-sex partnerships


Regulations on issues like abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, and same-sex partnerships are commonly referred to as morality policies, and they provoke value-loaded conflicts in daily politics. For example: Is it morally “right” to acknowledge sex-work as regular job? Is it morally “right” to allow abortions? Should we allow medical experiments with embryos if the medical gains might outweigh the “human loss”? Or will such experiments contradict our fundamental value system? Similar debates will arise with regard to the regulation of transgender rights, self-steering cars with a hands-off regulation, the involvement of robots in elderly care, or the use of CRISPR in gene editing of embryos.1 Hence, morality policies are a specific set of public issues that provoke fierce debates over the “right way” of living.

Morality policies started to enter political agendas in Europe in the mid-20th century. Since then, they have garnered increasing attention in the party manifestos and electoral campaigns of different European countries (see Figure 1).2 Clear-cut examples are Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The main driver of increased political attention on morality policies is a comprehensive process of societal transformation, which includes trends in secularization, societal value changes, and technological modernization. It brought to the forefront a new set of moral values and societal norms, such as sexual freedom, female emancipation, and protection of societal minorities (Inglehart & Baker, 2000). This change in value priorities motivated reflection on existing, as well as new, public problems related to fundamental moral values and hence, the (re-)emergence of so-called morality policies on societal and political agendas.

Morality PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 1. Salience of morality policies in party manifestos in Europe (1940–2015).

Compilation based on Volkens et al.(2016; CMP-Data).

While the (re-)emergence of morality policies on political agendas is largely uncontested, several questions and problems have guided the young research field of morality policy analysis:

  • Which topics are commonly associated with morality policies?

  • What are the main goals of morality policies?

  • What are the main analytical angles through which morality policies are examined?

  • What are the key explanatory factors for morality policy change? And do they deviate from explanations relevant for “nonmorality” issues?

  • What are the remaining key controversies?

  • What does the way forward look like?

To address these questions, the article is organized as follows: The definition and goals of morality policy are discussed first. Then, the discussion turns to the main analytical angles employed and the explanatory factors for morality policy change. This is followed by discussion of the remaining key controversies and the avenues for future research. The final section summarizes the key findings.

Definition and Goals of Morality Policies

One of the major challenges of morality policy analysis is the classification of public questions as morality policies. There is broad agreement on one principal characteristic of morality policies but the concrete classification of topics remains contested. The primary agreement is that societal value conflicts, rather than diverging material interests, shape the political processes of morality policies (Knill, 2013; Meier, 1994; Mooney, 2001a; Tatalovich & Daynes, 2011). In other words, value conflicts over “first principles” and “battles between right and wrong” are indicative of this type of policy, while monetary values fade into the background (Meier, 1994, p. 4). Accordingly, the primary goal of morality policymaking is to solve value-laden public conflicts and to agree on concrete policy solutions. It means also that morality policies do not deal with the individual ethics of politicians or their violations of accepted norms of morality. Hence, the field does not address how to deal with corrupt politicians or other people in public life who violate moral standards (Hörster, 2008, pp. 8–10; Münkler, 2000; Studlar, Cagossi, & Duval, 2013).

Besides this general agreement, some scholars tried to structure the debate by linking morality policies with Lowi’s (1964) popular classification of public policies (distributive or redistributive versus regulatory policies). Tatalovich and Daynes (1998) picked up the argument and introduced a new subcategory, so-called social regulatory policies. The authors explained that “what is being regulated is not an economic transaction but a social relationship” (Smith & Tatalovich, 2003, p. 14). Thus, morality policies have in common the fact that legal authorities “affirm, modify, or replace community values, moral practices, and norms of interpersonal conduct” (Smith & Tatalovich, 2003, p. 14). In other words, morality policies are perceived as a particular category of regulatory policy in which a government regulates the behavior of citizens instead of the conduct of businesses that coincides with patterns of politics known from the debate on redistributive policies. Lowi (1998, p. xiii) reflected on this idea in the foreword to Tatalovich and Daynes’ (1998) prominent book on moral controversies and critically responded that a fifth policy type is not necessary because all policy types can be part of a process of radicalization through the use of moral arguments and rhetoric, and thus can be considered as morality issues in one or the other moment. In Lowi’s (1998, p. xvi) view, all policies work along two dimensions of politics, the “mainstream mode” and the “radicalization mode,” and the dominance of one mode over the other depends on its strategic attractiveness for political actors (for more details, see Figures 3 and 4 in Lowi, 1998). A process of radicalization is associated with extremes “precisely because people who insist on getting to the root of things are likely to express themselves intensely, rejecting the rules and procedures designed to produce compromise—in other words, rejecting mainstream or ordinary politics” (Lowi, 1998, p. xvi). In sum, while acknowledging that “typical” morality policies regulate social behavior, Lowi (1998) believed that any issue—distributive, redistributive, or constituent in nature—can be radicalized by political actors and therefore may become a “classical” morality issue.

Lowi’s (1998) new approach is very promising because it allows an answer to the “So what?” question that morality policy scholars are often faced with. Assuming that all policy types may be radicalized and hence may face similar pattern of politics as classical morality issues, the findings of morality policy studies should be of interest for all public policy scholars. However, this approach does not determine how to identify morality issues in advance without examining the politics around them first.

Other scholars who have also linked the debate on morality policies to Lowi’s early typology include Kenneth Meier, who is a founder of the morality policy literature and has trained the younger cohort of prominent U.S. scholars in the field. In his popular work The Politics of Sin (Meier, 1994), which explored drug and alcohol policy in the United States, Meier coined the term morality policy, and most importantly also put forward a definition of morality policy that has found broad application and that partly links up to Lowi’s typology of policy types. Meier distinguished between “one-sided” and “two-sided” morality policies: in the former category, everybody is opposed to deviant behavior, and in the latter category, two points of view are considered legitimate by different groups of actors. Accordingly, when we deal with “two-sided” morality policies, “one segment of society attempts by government fiat to impose their values on the rest of society” and “as such they are a form of redistributive policy that is rarely viewed as redistributive because the policies redistribute values rather than income” (Meier, 1994, pp. 246–247). The younger generation of morality policy scholars acknowledged the distinction between the two types of morality issues, while the related idea of value redistribution found less acceptance. Especially in the European context, there are hardly any studies theorizing on, or operationalizing, the concept in more detail. Thus, there is still discussion about the concrete classification of morality policies with regard to Lowi’s typology and the added value of such a classification for the research community more generally.

In consequence, due to the rather vague agreement—that conflicts over fundamental values are the central feature of morality policies in contrast to “ordinary” policies—a broad debate has arisen about the definition and selection of morality policies (see Heichel, Knill, & Schmitt, 2013). What issues are typical morality policies? And how can we identify them? The literature proposes three different analytical approaches for identifying morality policies, emphasizing politics, policy substance, and framing.

First, some researchers have acknowledged politics as the determining criterion surrounding an issue (Knill, 2013; Mooney, 2001a). Mooney (2001b, pp. 7–9) defined morality policies as issues involving “clashes of first principles on technically simple and salient public policy with high citizen participation.” Specifically, Mooney (2001b, p. 7) claimed to observe a degree of consensus among scholars on a few simple characteristics of morality policy. His first point was that morality policies are technically simpler than most nonmorality policies. Although all morality policies share certain technical and instrumental implications, controversial moral questions are far more prominent and dominate the political and social debates. Mooney’s second point was that, given the conflict over first principles, the debate on morality issues is highly salient to the general public. Third, these policies are related to higher levels of citizen participation (Mooney, 2001b).

Knill (2013) introduced another classification of morality policy, also emphasizing the role of politics, and particularly the underlying interest constellation within a field. While so-called manifest morality policies are characterized by a mode of decision-making that is strongly shaped by value conflicts (e.g., abortion policy, homosexuality), for so-called latent morality policies, value conflicts are not the “order of the day.” However, latent morality policies contain elements that can easily be “morally exploited” (e.g., issues such as gambling, pornography, gun control, and drug regulations; Knill, 2013, p. 314). Knill’s (2013) approach is analytically innovative and valuable, especially in pragmatic research terms. Mooney’s (2001a) proposal and the general idea of selection of morality policies based on particular characteristics of the politics around them, however, runs the risk of endogeneity: When morality policies are selected on the basis of particularities in the policymaking process, an analysis of Lowi’s proposition of “policies determine politics” becomes obsolete.

On the other hand, several scholars defended an approach that concentrates on the substance of an issue, meaning that issues are defined a priori as morality policies (cf. Engeli, Green-Pedersen, & Larsen, 2012b; Heichel et al., 2013). The literature provides a long list of obvious morality policies, which can be classified into four subfields: issues of life and death (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment), issues of sexual behavior (e.g., homosexuality, prostitution, pornography, transgender rights), issues related to addictive behavior (e.g., gambling and drug consumption), and topics that reference the relationship between individual freedom and collective values (e.g., religious education, gun control, veil policy; Heichel et al., 2013). Engeli, Green-Pedersen, and Larsen (2012a, pp. 25–26) restricted the field to topics that address questions related to death, reproduction, and marriage because then the debate is most likely linked to the conflict between religious and secular groups. Thus, abortion, euthanasia, assisted reproductive technology (ART), and same-sex marriage are typical morality policies. Other issues that partially touch upon first principles, such as questions related to the individual’s right to self-determination (e.g., prostitution or passive smoking), are excluded from the analysis. These issues would not necessarily link up to the religious–secular conflict (Engeli, Green-Pedersen, & Larsen, 2012c, p. 24). Permoser (2019) built up on this idea but criticizes that the understanding of secular-religious party conflicts is too narrow. Based on political theory, the author argues that the divisions within modern societies over key principles of political liberalism is the main source of morality policy conflicts. Assuming that religion is a definitional trait of morality policies, they are embedded into more fundamental questions about how modern states should be organized: on the one hand, there is the primacy of individualism, religious freedom and state neutrality and on the other hand, responsibility of the state to protecting collective goods and up-hold the moral order. This idea is certainly highly innovative for the morality policy research but still needs more empirical grounding. So all in all, this second tradition is very useful in research pragmatic terms but it will always be confronted with the question whether the selected issue is indeed a morality policy characterized by conflicts about fundamental values and linkable to the religious–secular party political conflict line respectively the principal challenges of political liberalism.

Finally, a third group of scientists highlighted the importance of issue framing, a tradition rooted in arguments broached in early research projects. As Mooney (2001b, p. 4) explained, when “at least one advocacy coalition involved in the debate defines the issue as threatening one of its core values,” the policy can be defined as a morality issue. In other words, the perceptions and the fundamental values of the involved actors and the problem framing are decisive for the classification of morality issues. This argument has been applied and extended in more recent research (Burlone & Richmond, 2018; Euchner, Heichel, Nebel, & Raschzok, 2013; Ferraiolo, 2013; Grohs, 2019; Herrmann, 2002; Mucciaroni, 2011; Roh & Berry, 2008). Mucciaroni (2011) claimed that morality policies do not exist per se; rather, they are the product of a strategic approach on the part of political actors. Along that line, Euchner et al. (2013) found that the utilization of value-based arguments varies over time, potentially resulting in shifts in the classification of policies. This in turn means that scholars investigating the causes of morality policy change must be very careful in selecting the issues. For example, Herrmann (2002, p. 7) concluded that “gambling has managed to shift itself from the category of ‘sin’ to the category of leisure activity.” Meier (2001, p. 25) added that most policies are multidimensional, allowing transformations from policies regulating “sin” to normal policies, a conclusion that largely coincides with Lowi’s (1998) principal idea of radicalization.

In sum, most scholars agree that conflicts over fundamental values are the central feature of morality policies, and that the solution of these conflicts based on a commonly agreed set of moral understandings is their primary goal. The associations of morality policies with Lowi’s (1964) three-tier scheme and the classification of concrete public problems as morality issues remain diffuse and often contested in the literature. This is a major challenge in scholarship on morality policies that is further illustrated in the following discussions.

Analytical Angles and Explanatory Factors for Morality Policymaking

Prominent Analytical Angles

The basic analytical question that drives the scholarly community goes back to Lowi’s (1964) proposition that “policies determine politics.” Thus, the underlying key interest is whether morality policies provoke different political processes than “nonmorality” issues, and different analytical angles have been used in investigating this key interest. The majority of research has been dedicated to analysis of morality policy change, including the extent, the direction, and the timing of policy reforms (Hennig, 2012; Knill, Adam, & Hurka, 2015; Knill, Heichel, Preidel, & Nebel, 2015; Mooney, 2001a; Ozzano & Giorgi, 2016; Tatalovich & Daynes, 2011). The second group of studies examined processes of agenda setting, political attention, and policy framing (Engeli et al., 2012b; Euchner et al., 2013; Euchner, 2019; Euchner & Preidel, 2017; Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996; Mucciaroni, 2011). A third, much smaller, group of scholars has explored legislative behavior and patterns of voting (including roll-call votes) with regard to morality policies (Baumann, Debus, & Müller, 2015; Haider-Markel, 1999; Mondo & Close, 2018; Plumb, 2015; Rapp, Traunmüller, Freitag, & Vatter, 2014). Apart from the last group of researchers, most scholars have evaluated traditional explanatory factors from the field of comparative public policy analysis to explore output decisions and politicization patterns. The factors include, among others, the influence of political parties and party cleavage structures, institutional factors, interest groups, and societal mobilization, as well as variables related to cultural transformation and modernization (e.g., secularization, value change, and cultural modernization).

In most cases, a uniform and direct impact of these factors is controversial. The controversy might be caused by the different modes of operationalizing the dependent and independent variables. For instance, the explanatory power of religion for morality policy change very much depends on how the religious factor is operationalized, and therefore on how religious values and preferences may channel into the political system. Some claim that the traditional, three-tier scheme of the state–church relationship cannot account for different regulation approaches with regard to abortion policy (Minkenberg, 2002). Others, by contrast, argue that the state–church relationship, considered in the context of its historical development in a country, and in particular the role of churches in times of democratic transition, accounts for the power of Christian churches in politics (Grzymala-Busse, 2015, 2016). This example illustrates that some scholars are interested in policy output decisions at specific points in time, whereas others employ a more long-term perspective on morality policy change. Accordingly, it is necessary to differentiate carefully between the focus of interest and the way of operationalization in order to evaluate the explanatory power of traditional independent variables in comparative public policy analysis. In other policy fields, a similar issue is known as the “dependent variable problem” (for social policy, see Green-Pedersen, 2002). Keeping in mind these general considerations, the following sections review briefly the literature on the most important explanatory factors examined in the field so far.

The Influence of Political Parties

Researchers subscribing to the “parties matter” hypothesis claim that changes in the ideological color of the government determine policy change (Hibbs, 1977). This expectation has also been examined in the realm of morality policy output decisions. A number of sophisticated studies have determined that leftist parties tend to be more liberal on morality issues and thereby influence the direction of policy change (Adams, 1997; Budde, Heichel, Hurka, & Knill, 2017; Fink, 2009; Hildebrandt, 2016; Lindaman, & Haider-Markel, 2002). Other authors have emphasized the importance of Christian Democratic parties as a blocking force for a country’s path toward regulatory permissiveness in morality policies (Budde, Heichel, et al., 2017; Fink, 2009; Schiffino, Ramjoué, & Varone, 2009; Varone, Rothmayr, & Montpetit, 2006). Fink (2008), for instance, explored embryonic stem cell policies in Western Europe. The author revealed that, in addition to the influence of the Catholic Church, left-wing government parties were negatively correlated with restrictive policies until the 1990s. Christian Democratic participation in government, however, can explain the variance over time much better.

Varone et al. (2006) found support for a more general logic of the parties matter hypothesis: they claimed that the variation in restrictiveness of ART policies depended on the congruence in issue positions among governments. The authors suggested that large disagreement in the government coalition implies a process of nondecision and thus results in a permissive policy design, because “everything is allowed, since nothing is strictly forbidden” (Varone et al., 2006, p. 324). Engeli, Green-Pedersen, and Larsen (2013) showed that countries without religious parties have regulated morality policies less permissively than countries with religious parties, such as Spain and the Netherlands. The authors argued that a strong conflict line between secular and religious parties turns morality issues into a question of macro politics, which increases the level of issue attention and the probability of comprehensive reforms. Budde, Heichel, et al. (2017) complemented these findings regarding party political cleavages and critically concluded that “morality policy is located at the interface of different cleavages, including not only left–right and secular–religious dimensions, but also the conflicts between materialism and postmaterialism, green–alternative–libertarian and traditional–authoritarian–nationalist (GAL-TAN) parties, and integration and demarcation.”

Finally, a second group of studies examined the effect of political parties on the politicization of morality issues (e.g., Engeli et al., 2012b; Euchner, 2019; Euchner & Preidel, 2017; Hurka, Knill, & Rivière, 2018; van Kersbergen & Lindberg, 2015). The most prominent work in that regard was the volume edited by Engeli et al. (2012b). The authors argued that countries with a strong religious–secular party cleavage are faced with higher levels of morality policy attention in politics because secular parties can easily challenge their main religious opponents with these issues. In strategic terms, it is unattractive for religious parties to defend religious positions in public due to the shrinking religious voter base. The framework of the so-called secular and religious world has found large scholarly attention and broad acceptance among morality scholars, but as a natural consequence it has also faced criticism and suggestions for improvement. Euchner (2019), for instance, enriched the framework by illustrating for the “religious world” that it is mainly the minority party (i.e., opposition) that politicizes morality issues, and most intensively in instances in which the government can be divided on these issues. This means that morality policies do not per se find high parliamentary attention in the religious world, but only in specific instances. Moreover, the use of morality issues strategically is not limited to secular parties only, but is also visible in religious parties, and particularly religious niche parties. Hurka et al. (2018) opted to take into consideration the institutional venue (party politics or parliamentary politics) through which morality policies are channeled into the political system in order to explain why we still observe high levels of morality policy attention in the secular world. This led the authors to propose two additional “worlds,” the “traditionalist world” and the “unsecular world.” The former world encompasses countries in which a secular–religious party cleavage is absent, but where morality policies are still strongly politicized within the party political venue, while in the latter world, a secular–religious party cleavage is present, but morality policies are mainly discussed and solved within the parliamentary arena.

In sum, several studies have demonstrated that the color of government parties and most likely also the party political cleavage point to the direction of policy change and may explain the speed of the decision-making process. For the extent of policy change, clear-cut empirical evidence is missing. Moreover, a much smaller number of scholars deal with the link between morality policy attention and political parties.

The “Institution Matters” Hypothesis

The impact of political institutions on morality policy outputs is a second explanatory factor receiving attention, although its effect is discussed critically. Overall, the literature converges toward the conclusion that institutional configurations do not exert any systematic or direct effect on policy content, particularly when a larger number of morality policies and countries are analyzed (see Hurka, Adam, & Knill, 2017; Montpetit, Rothmayr, & Varone, 2007; Stetson, 2001). However, some authors found an indirect effect on the speed of change of one or more morality policies (Banchoff, 2005; Engeli, 2009; McGann & Sandholtz, 2012; Rothmayr, Varone, Serdült, Timmermans, & Bleiklie, 2004; Schmitt, Euchner, & Preidel, 2013; Studlar et al., 2013; Studlar & Burns, 2015; Varone et al., 2006) and observed differences among morality policies with regard to the institutional venue(s) through which they enter the political system (Studlar et al., 2013; Studlar & Cagossi, 2018).

Engeli (2009), for example, discussed the effect of federalism on the permissiveness of policies regulating ART, revealing that four typically federal systems (Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium) strongly vary in their regulatory approaches. Instead, the study found that a large number of institutional arenas appear to be useful for the opponents of permissive approaches, allowing them to more easily delay the decision-making process (cf. also Studlar & Burns, 2015). Several years later, Engeli (2012) further developed the argument on the mediating role of institutions in her investigation of abortion and ART policies in France and Switzerland. Varone et al. (2006) supported this argument in an empirical analysis of the regulation of ART policy in eleven European and North American countries. Besides the congruence in governmental positions, the number of arenas for the decision-making rules (power sharing or majority) is relevant. The “power-sharing principle” in political systems makes policymaking processes slower and less frequent because a consensus has to be negotiated. Hurka et al. (2016) complemented these studies with a large-N approach and a different operationalization of the dependent variable. The authors were interested in the punctuations of morality policy change and hence the dynamic of the extent of change over time. They discovered that institutional features operating at the country level are irrelevant, while domain-specific variables are key explanations. “Specifically, punctuations are particularly pronounced in areas of manifest morality policy, that is, policies characterized by strong value conflicts, whereas punctuations are less pronounced for latent morality policies, that is, policies in which other dimensions of conflict are present next to the value dimension” (Hurka et al., 2016, p. 1).

By conceptualizing institutions very comprehensively (i.e., taking into account the government regime, federalism, court system, or the popularity of referenda) and exploring the effect across a larger number of countries and issues, Studlar and Cagossi (2018) discovered that morality policies may access the political system through very different venues, and that, for some issues, some venues are more accessible than others (e.g., euthanasia policy seems to be debated mainly in the legislative and the juridical arena, while same-sex marriage is primarily an issue of party division and legislative initiatives; Studlar et al., 2013; Studlar & Burns, 2015; Studlar & Cagossi, 2018, p. 73). Despite these very interesting findings of how morality issues may access political systems and are processed within them, it is still very difficult to pin down a general pattern of the influence of institutions on morality policy politicization or change that is valid for a large number of issues and countries. In consequence, there is still some room for digging deeper into the research question regarding the relevance of political institutions for morality policy regulation.

The Impact of Social Movements and Interest Groups

The impact of social movements and interest groups is discussed prominently in the literature on morality policymaking (Ayoub, 2016; Carmines & Stimson, 1980; Glick, 1999, p. 751; Gormley, 1986, p. 603; Haider-Markel, 2001, p. 121; Paternotte,, 2011). Most often, the research is limited to single morality policies due to a lack of cross-policy comparative data. The field of homosexual and same-sex partnership rights, as well as transgender rights, for instance, encompasses many studies due to very powerful interest groups, such as the Catholic Church and well-organized LGBT movements (Ayoub, 2016; Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996; Hennig, 2012; Paternotte, 2011; Soule, 2004; Taylor, Lewis, & Haider-Markel, 2018). In the field of prostitution policy, several studies have emphasized the importance of the women’s movement and the engagement of feminists in parliament (Euchner, 2015; McBride & Mazur, 2010; Outshoorn, 2004a, 2004c, 2005). In the field of assisted dying and abortion policy, by contrast, the interests of the medical community are decisive (Engeli, 2009; Euchner & Preidel, 2018). Some scholars argue that the influence of interest groups depends on their personnel and financial resources as well as their capacity to mobilize members and outsiders at the national as well as at the international level (Euchner & Preidel, 2018; Soule, 2004). Other studies demonstrate that this influence depends on factors like institutional access opportunities, public opinion, or the general salience of the topic (Ayoub, 2016; Engeli, 2009, 2012; Fink, 2009; Haider-Markel, 2001; Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996; Knill & Preidel, 2014; Lindaman, 2007; Mooney & Lee, 2000; Norrander & Wilcox, 1999). An additional explanation concerns the internationalization of interest groups and their policy ideas, which may stimulate processes of norm diffusion (Ayoub, 2016; Kollman, 2016, 2009; Paternotte & Kollman, 2013).

Regarding interest groups’ opportunities for access to the political system, McBride and Mazur (2010) discovered, for instance, that the establishment of a women’s policy agency within a political system facilitates the transfer of the demands of feminist interest groups into the political system and thus influences policy outputs concerning abortion, job training, and prostitution. Schmitt et al. (2013) and Fink (2009) confirmed this logic for interest groups that defend more restrictive policies in the field of prostitution, same-sex partnership rights, and stem cell research. These authors showed that, in political systems in which the Catholic Church has very close ties to the political arena or even the right to propose political initiatives (as in Italy), these groups are able to block policy reforms in their role as “societal veto players” (Knill & Preidel, 2014; cf. also Knill, Preidel, & Nebel, 2014).

The cohesiveness of interest groups is another aspect determining their effect on policymaking processes (Ayoub, 2016; Engeli, 2009; Outshoorn, 2001; Outshoorn, 2004c, 2004b; Valiente, 2004; Varone et al., 2006). In a study of abortion and ART policy in Europe, Engeli (2009) concluded that the coherence of the medical community and the women’s movement is decisive in instances in which institutional arrangements do not exert a systematic and direct effect. With regard to prostitution policy, several studies have demonstrated that the cohesiveness of interest groups is central in influencing policy decisions. In many countries, the women’s movement is deeply divided on prostitution. Consequently, the different interest groups often weaken each other and thereby limit their influence on policy decisions (Valiente, 2004). In sum, the link between interest group activity and policy change is long and not very strong. Moreover, there are indefinite conclusions about the role of issue salience in this process, and, generally, the direction of change is more interesting than the extent of morality policy change.

Political Culture: The Religious Factor

The political culture of a country, and in particular the religious characteristics of a nation state, are regularly discussed as key explanations of morality policy regulation. This is certainly a promising path because several scholars consider religion the key source of morality policy conflicts, and thus an important part of the identification of (many) morality policies (Engeli et al., 2012a; Mooney, 2001b, p. 4). As literature review shows, the link between the religious factor and morality policy regulation is far from being self-evident, particularly when a larger number of countries are compared. Religion seems to channel into morality policy processes through very different routes and routines that seem to depend very much on a country-specific context and on the morality policy focused on.

This is also the reason why “the religious factor” is operationalized in very different ways. Sometimes religious influence is operationalized through a focus on religious political parties or through the conception of the Catholic Church as an interest group (Engeli et al., 2012b; Hennig, 2012; Knill et al., 2014; Ozzano, 2016; Ozzano & Giorgi, 2016; Schmitt et al., 2013). Aside from these analytical angles, religion is also conceptualized as the closeness of the state–church relationship (Grzymala-Busse, 2015, 2016; Minkenberg, 2003), the type of religion or religious denomination (Budde, Knill, Fernández-i-Marín, & Preidel, 2017; Euchner & Preidel, 2017; Frendreis & Tatalovich, 2010; Haider-Markel, 1999; Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996; Hildebrandt, 2015; Meier & McFarlane, 1993), the degree of religiosity, which roughly approximates the level of individual secularization within a country (Budde, Knill, et al., 2017; Knill, Fernández-i-Marín, Budde, & Heichel, 2018; Rapp et al., 2014).

In short, religion matters, but so far mainly the type of religious denomination or religion prevailing in a country exerts the most stable effect across a larger number of countries and policies. Religious denomination impacts significantly not only on patterns of morality policy voting or politicization but also on the permissiveness of morality policy outputs. However, we have to carefully distinguish between different religious denominations. In the United States, for instance, Evangelical Protestants most systematically inhibit liberal reform processes with regard to morality issues (Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996). In Germany, Catholics have a more restrictive and uniform position toward morality policy liberalization than Lutheran Protestants (Euchner & Preidel, 2017), whereas in England, the Anglican Church is the main and most influential opponent of permissive morality policy reforms (Davie, 2000; cf. Davie, 2015). In the same line, Muslim majority countries seem to be laggards in morality policy liberalization compared to countries where Christian communities prevail (Hildebrandt, 2015). While there is a clear picture visible on the relationship between the permissiveness of morality policy regulation and the religious denomination or religion prevailing within a geographical area, there is still some room to theorize in more detail on this idea and to distinguish more carefully among Christian denominations, Islam, and the Orthodox Church, as well as East Asian religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism (but see Budde, Knill, et al., 2017).

Second, the historical development of the relationship between state and church seems to have a large explanatory power. A historically trustful relationship between church and state seems to hamper the process of morality policy liberalization, because Christian churches remain relatively powerful in these countries (Euchner, 2018; Grzymala-Busse, 2015, 2016). Such trustful relationships are, however, not necessarily reflected in the popular three-tier system of the state–church relationship (i.e., state–church, cooperative model, laicist model), which is often of limited explanatory power (Budde, Knill, et al., 2017; Minkenberg, 2003). Moreover, and in the same line, a religious–secular party cleavage in a country may foster the politicization of these issues and the likelihood of using morality policies in party competitive terms (Engeli et al., 2012b). However, this picture is contingent on the power position of the initiating actors (majority versus minority) and the chances of dividing the government with the specific morality policy (Euchner, 2019). These very interesting insights, which are somewhat Europe-centrist, may profit from being put into a larger comparative context, beyond the Western world.

Overall, religious factors are comparably influential, although the exact conceptualization is key for explanatory leverage with regard to morality policy change and permissiveness. Moreover, there is still room for more detailed examinations of specific religious denominations or religions beyond the Western European context (i.e., Orthodox Church, or Islam), the state–church relationship, and the idea of morality policies as strategic instruments in postsecular times.

In summary, an overview illustrates two aspects. First, the reasons for morality policy change received much more attention in the scientific community than the question of politicization. Moreover, some explanatory factors received more systematic examination than others, such as, for example, the role of interest groups, religion, or political parties. Institutional characteristics of political systems are more seldom the focus of scholarly interest and seem to be less influential. Additionally, it is difficult to make any final statements about whether morality politics coincide with different political processes than “nonmorality” policies, as Lowi (1964) would argue, because cross-policy studies are largely lacking.

Additional Key Controversies and Avenues for Future Research

The key controversy that research on morality policies has faced is the question of the added value of its classification as a separate policy type. What is its contribution to public policy analysis? Is this research in fact able to contribute to Lowi’s idea (1964) that policies determine politics? Do morality issues substantially differ from ordinary policies?

On the one hand, morality policy analysis is interesting per se, as it picks up “tricky” public problems that have been ignored for a long time. All these policy studies provide important insights into the politics surrounding, and the regulatory substance of, certain value-laden questions (e.g., regulation of assisted dying or embryonic stem cell research). However, these studies have encountered difficulties in making any statement on the differences between morality and nonmorality policies. First, the focus on one or a few value-laden questions hinders more far-reaching conclusions. Second, and more importantly, the classification of public problems as morality policies is often contested due to the variety of definitions in the literature. To overcome this weakness, future studies should reflect more carefully on the classification of public problems as morality issues and consider their convertibility over time3; they should develop cross-policy designs, because they allow comparison of not only different value-laden questions but also morality and nonmorality issues in one analysis; and, at the same time, they should be brave in identifying new topics and analyzing them in light of the minimal consensus existing on the definition of morality policies (e.g., transgender rights, regulation of CRISPR, robots in elderly care).

Cross-policy comparisons not only will allow a response to one of the key questions that motivated the establishment of morality policy research but also will enable us to advance new and long-established theoretical concepts. This includes, for instance, the concept of “policy compensation.” While some morality policy scholars pick up the idea of policy compensation with regard to criminal sanctions (Knill, Adam, et al., 2015), the scientific community lacks a contrasting examination within different policy fields. Theoretically, one could expect compensation effects between relatively “cheap” morality policy reforms and comparable “expensive” social policy changes (e.g., pensions, unemployment insurance, or family benefits). Cuts in social benefits might be compensated through a more liberal or generous handling of value-loaded questions. This is only one example of how cross-policy comparisons between morality policy and “ordinary” issues could advance scholarly debates in the field of comparative public policy analysis, but many more are imaginable.

Besides these recommendations on how to solve one of the key controversies in the field and to advance public policy analysis more generally, the research on morality policy research would profit from three additional avenues. Some of these suggestions are motivated by inconclusive findings of previous studies, while other suggestions point out new ways forward for the young research field. Generally, the research will profit from an intensified exchange with other subdisciplines.

A first promising way forward is a more detailed examination of the role of political institutions in the process of morality policymaking. As outlined in the previous discussion, political institutions seem not to exert any (direct) effect on morality policy output decisions when conceptualized according “veto-player logic” (Hurka et al., 2016). But there seem to be different dynamics for how morality policies are processed within political systems, depending on the institutional setup of the country and the specific issue under consideration (Studlar et al., 2013; Studlar & Cagossi, 2018).

A promising way forward to advance these highly interesting findings is to conceptualize institutions as containers of certain moral values and templates, as suggested by historical and sociological institutionalism (Hall & Taylor, 1996). Such a conception of institutions allows us to better understand how the (historically grown) institutional context, including the different constellations of venues, deals with normative values and cognitive scripts, and how this institutional treatment of moral values affects the transmission and development of policy solutions. For instance, the composition of the Supreme Court of the United States (i.e., the balance between justices nominated by the Republican Party and by the Democratic Party) seriously affects the prevalence of religious values and principles, which in turn may impact on final court decisions related to morality policies, and especially on those morality policies that enter the legislative arena through juridical venues. Furthermore, some institutions were founded on religious ideas and principles, which might still be reflected in inner organizational processes and structures (cf. the German Basic Law and the separate constitutions of the German states).

In that sense, institutions not only are fundamentals that block and facilitate the transmission of certain policy ideas but also actively shape the formulation of policy ideas, depending on their value orientation. Such an analytical perspective clarifies the association of a country’s political, juridical, and administrative apparatus with religious values and moral templates for societal phenomena and how variation in moral templates across venues and issues may finally influence morality policy outputs. A couple of studies from political scientists have tried to push morality policy research in this direction; they explored classical morality policies, such as same-sex partnership rights and abortion policy, in addition to (Islamic) religious education and veil policy in Europe as well as in the United States and Canada (Blumenthal, 2009; Euchner, 2018; Grzymala-Busse, 2015; Schwartz & Tatalovich, 2018).4 Sociological research as well as the subdisciplines of political psychology and public administration could offer fertile ground for further development of this research agenda.

A second way forward concerns the analysis of the implementation of morality policies. This policy stage has been largely overlooked, although it is particularly interesting for this type of policy (but see Debus, Knill, & Tosun, 2012; Grohs, Adam, & Knill, 2016; Meier & McFarlane, 1993; Tatalovich & Studlar, 1995; Wagenaar & Altink, 2012; Wald, Button, & Rienzo, 2001). Morality policy output decision are often characterized by vague legal formulations and therefore are prone to administrative drift (Euchner & Preidel, 2018; Wagenaar & Altink, 2012). Moreover, the historically grown institutional setup—including individual moral templates of responsible bureaucrats and policymakers—may also challenge a uniform implementation process (Euchner, 2018). Second, an analysis of the implementation process for morality policies allows linkage to the research on regulatory governance and the impact of private actors. Popular private actors in morality policy implementation are religious communities, such as the Catholic and the Protestant Church and their welfare organizations (e.g., Caritas and Diakonie), as well as NGOs or the medical community (Engeli & Rothmayr, 2016; Euchner & Preidel, 2018). In consequence, the scholarly community would profit from a closer exchange with researchers in the field of regulatory governance, because they could borrow theoretical concepts and evaluate them for a new field of policies. Promising concepts may include “expertise” or “regulatory capacity,” but also questions related to “political trust” in private actors as well as the “legitimation” of them when they take over public tasks that are key for defining the general moral order of a country.

Finally, another promising and socially relevant way forward is a closer examination of the links among populist parties, religion, and morality policies in Europe. All typical populist parties in Europe, such as the AfD in Germany, the FPÖ in Austria, and the PVV in the Netherlands, emphasize Christian values and norms and their importance for German, Austrian, and Dutch identity (cf. volume edited by Marzouki, McDonnell, & Roy, 2016). Their basic premise is that Muslim citizens, and especially refugees, are different and should assimilate or leave the country. Paradoxically, these value-conservative parties reject stronger European integration or a core European identity—even though they emphasize Christian values as the main heritage that unifies a country’s people. Thus, one may ask what is the understanding of religion and religious values for these populist parties, especially their party leaders? Is religion in fact part of their core identity or is religion used as a source of political mobilization and scandalization? And what does it mean in terms of their preferences for morality policies?

The new populist wave in Europe equals a new process of societal transformation. It is not only an indicator of a “too fast and intensive” process of Europeanization for some citizens but also a sign of a too “far-reaching” modernization of value-loaded questions. The “losers” of globalization (Kriesi et al., 2012) may not only protest against economic and political modernization (in the European Union) but also against the abandoning of traditional moral values regarding marriage, family, and questions of life and death (Kriesi, 2010). Accordingly, the European Union must steer the economic market in a fair way (e.g., increase the equality of opportunity) and at the same define fundamental European core values that should be reflected in multilevel policymaking processes (Foret & Calligaro, 2018; Euchner & Engeli, 2018). This third way forward in morality policy research will profit from a close exchange with the literature on party competition, Europeanization, and religion and politics.


Morality policies are a specific set of public issues that provoke fierce debates over the “right way” of living (Knill, 2013; Meier, 1994; Mooney, 2001a). Exemplary questions are: Is it morally “right” to permit active euthanasia? Is it morally “right” to allow a woman to abort her unborn child? Should we permit the use of CRISPR in gene editing of embryos if the medical gains might outweigh the “human loss”? How should we deal with autonomous cars and with robots in elderly care? Who is legally and morally responsible if accidents happen and human beings are injured?

A common characteristic of all these public problems is that economic interests are secondary, while moral values prevail in the political and societal debate (Knill, 2013; Mooney, 2001a). Besides the agreement on this characteristic of morality policies, a more specific delineation is missing. The literature disagrees on additional characteristics and the concrete approach to identifying value-laden issues (see part 2 “Definition and Goals of Morality Policies”). This picture has not changed since an increasing number of European researchers have started to analyze value-loaded questions in different European states. The enlargement of the scientific community has increased the diversity of analytical angles through which morality policies are examined and has advanced the evaluation of typical explanatory factors (see part 3 “Analytical Angles and Explanatory Factors for Morality Policymaking”). Cross-country approaches have shown that interest groups, religion, and political parties are particularly decisive in morality policy change. Institutional characteristics of political systems seem to be less influential.

Although morality policies have found large scholarly attention in the last decades and the field has advanced empirically as well as theoretically, several key controversies remain unsolved. The most important controversy arises around the question of what we can learn from morality policy research more generally. Although there have been important insights into the policy sustenance of long-ignored public problems, the disagreement on the identification of morality policies challenges the identification of broader patterns of political processes. There is excellent research that compares different value-loaded issues, systematic comparisons between morality and nonmorality issues are largely lacking. Additional avenues for future research include an in-depth examination of political institutions as sociological entities, the implementation of morality policies, and interlinkage with processes of Europeanization and the rise of populist parties.


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(1.) CRISPR stands for “clustered regulatory interspaced short palindromic repeats.”

(2.) The CMP project codes morality policies as any statement on the regulation of “immorality and unseemly behavior” (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) and the role of religious institutions in state and society, as well as relationships, sex, and reproduction (Volkens et al., 2016). In order words, besides typical moral questions relating to sexuality or questions of life and death, policies defining the role of religious institutions in the state and society are also included (e.g., religious education, religious schools, religious hospitals).

(3.) Knill (2013) offered one option. He differentiated between “manifest” and “latent” morality policies and hence, between issues that are always related with value-loaded conflicts and issues, which are more volatile with regard to the prominence of moral values. One criticism of this approach might be that some of the public policies identified as manifest morality policy may lose their moral potential over time. For instance, questions like abortion policy or assisted dying may be discussed less contentiously in the long-term future as consensus develops about the social acceptance of these issues, as has happened with pornography and gambling policy.

(4.) Tatalovich and Schwartz (Schwartz & Tatalovich, 2018) explored the question of the rise and fall of morality politics in the United States and Canada, and they not only investigated processes of agenda setting and policy decision-making but also went one step further and examined when a policy is terminated. Thus, they explored the whole “life cycle of morality policies” and proposed a heuristic distinguishing among five different processes: origin and emergence, establishment and legitimation, decline in salience or impact, resurgence, and resolution (Schwartz & Tatalovich, 2018, p. 4). In their highly interesting book and the related journal article, the scholars employed a historical perspective that took into account both political and societal actors. In the journal article, Tatalovich (2017, p. 680) argued that, for a moral conflict to be terminated, it needs an authoritative legal resolution and particularly a “political opportunity structure being blocked from usage by counter-movements.” The second part of this idea is particularly highly promising, especially for the European context, and when the aim is to explain the rise and fall of morality policies in the political arena as well as in the societal arena more generally.