Morality Policy

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105

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Concept description

Stephanie Slocum-Schaffer (2018, reference below, link on right), in the Center for the Study of Federalism Encyclopedia, defines morality policy as “any policy that seeks to use the coercive power of government to impose or legitimize one set of fundamental values or norms over a competing set (or sets) of values or norms.”

She writes:

“One key distinction of morality policy is the fundamental nature of the competing values; these policies represent the clash of deeply held, core beliefs rather than a simple conflict over the best or most efficient means for government to achieve its policy ends. A second key distinction is that, although morality policy most often takes the form of governmental regulation, it does not take the usual form of regulation of economic behavior but rather regulation of social relationships or interpersonal conduct. These two distinctions of morality policy ensure a third important trait of the policy type: the average citizen knows something about these policies, usually forms a strongly held opinion about these issues, and is often willing to take political action to enforce his or her view. High levels of public engagement and conflict are thus easily seen in connection with all of the major types of morality policy, including abortion, gun control, LGBTQI rights and same-sex marriage, capital punishment, school prayer, pornography, gambling, sex education, the right to die, affirmative action, and religious liberty cases.”

Christoph Knill (2013) describes morality policy issues as “issues in which political conflicts are shaped by debates over first principle; i.e., value conflicts are more important than instrumental considerations of policy design.”

Knill distinguishes between:

  1. “Manifest morality policies refer to issues in which value conflicts constitute the standard mode of political decision-making. Economic costs and benefits are dispersed broadly across different societal groups; i.e., material gains and losses are of minor importance. Individual values and beliefs, by contrast, play a central role. On the one hand, they are inherently relevant, constituting the basic criterion that determines individual preferences. On the other hand, values are relevant as instrument of social and political power. Different actors and groups (e.g., liberals, conservatives or churches) may gain or lose power if certain values prevail or change. As a result of this constellation, even minor issues referring to instrument choices or the calibration of instruments (e.g., shifts in the time frame after fertilization in which abortions are still considered legal) are very likely to trigger fundamental value conflicts. Typical cases are so-called ‘life and death’ issues, matters of family and sexuality or religious education. Often, these issues are closely related to religious orientations, also implying that conflicts refer to beliefs rather than scientific evidence.
  2. “Latent morality policies by contrast, refer to issues in which value conflicts are not the order of the day, but – under certain conditions – might break out. Similar to volcano eruptions, there is a potential that policy debates are framed as moral conflict. These issues are typically characterized by the combination of concentrated economic benefits and highly dispersed costs, hence implying an important economic dimension for certain groups. This constellation favours that political debates are framed as instrumental, focusing on the design of effective solutions to existing problems. At the same time, however, the regulatory matter contains elements that can easily be ‘morally exploited’. Competing advocacy coalitions might try to shift the political debate from an instrumental one towards a value conflict in order to achieve their economic or political objectives. Actors opposing this strategy, by contrast, may seek to de-moralize political debates, e.g., by emphasizing health issues or economic matters. Typical fields in which such constellations prevail refer to gambling, pornography, gun control or drug regulation. While values as such are of minor importance, they might be used instrumentally. As value conflicts are hardly accessible to compromise solutions, their activation might be an important strategy to block unpleasant reform initiatives. Gun producers, the tobacco industry or casinos, for instance, may resort to individual freedoms in order to fend off attempts of stricter regulation. At the same time, public interest groups might rely upon value frames as instruments of societal mobilization to get certain issues on the political agenda. Depending on actor preferences, policy moralization may either be used to increase the chances of decision gridlock for issues already on the agenda, or to get topics on the agenda in the first place.”

Knill states:

“Latent morality policies might either be framed as morality or non-morality issues, depending on the underlying constellation of interest. This does not mean, however, that each non-morality issue can easily become a morality policy. What distinguishes both manifest and latent morality policies from non-morality policies is their connectivity to value issues, or what I would refer to as cultural opportunity structures.

“Cultural opportunity structures can be understood as specific configurations of cultural value dispositions and their institutional representation (via established interest groups, social movements, religious organizations, the institutional relationship between state and churches, the existence of confessional parties) that define issue- or country-specific resources for social mobilization. These resources can be considered high for both manifest and latent morality policies, but low for non-morality issues, like technical standardization or administrative reform policies. Hence, the existence of non-morality policies does not necessarily presuppose the prevalence of conflicts over tangible resources, but the presence of strong cultural constraints on value-based social mobilization.”

See also Regulatory Compliance and Enforcement Challenges in Social Policy.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Stephanie A Slocum-Schaffer (2018), Morality Policy, Center for the Study of Federalism Encyclopedia, at, accessed 28 December 2018.

Christopher Knill, The study of Morality Policy: Analytical Implications from a Public Policy Perspective, Journal of European Public Policy, March 2013, Volume, 20(Issue3), p.309-317, abstract at, accessed 28 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified on 28 December 2018.

Image: Stephanie A Slocum-Schaffer (2018), Morality Policy, Center for the Study of Federalism Encyclopedia, at, accessed 28 December 2018.