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Morality policy researchers have long grappled with the difficulty of determining objective or empirical criteria for classifying policies with moral content. A newer, but related, critique has suggested that we cannot classify morality policies by their substantive content, because policy debates employ moral frames for strategic purposes. This paper joins this debate by using Moral Foundations Theory to conduct quantitative content analyses of the supporting and opposing arguments in Voter Guides that accompanied referenda on enacting (1) the death penalty, (2) same-sex marriage, (3) physician-assisted suicide, (4) Official English, (5) recreational marijuana, (6) medical marijuana, (7) abortion funding bans, (8) tribal gaming, (9) minimum wage increase, (10) Right to Work legislation, and (11) property tax limits. MFT quantitative content analysis shows that frames with ostensibly instrumental arguments hold moral content. Our findings endorse the argument that researchers should differentiate between pure and mixed morality policies and other non-morality policies with decidedly less moral content.
Scholars have not precisely defined morality policy, and Smith (Policy Stud J 30(3):379–395, 2002) urged an empirical taxonomy be used to identify those policies. We argue that Moral Foundations Theory offers a methodology for empirically identifying issues with moral content. We inventory 15 issues in parliamentary studies of “conscience” voting, 14 morality policies in western democracies compiled by Studlar (in: Mooney (ed) The public clash of private values: the politics of morality policy, Chatham House Publishers, New York, 2001), and then survey MFT empirical studies to identify 22 issues with moral content. Based on this universe of 37 issues, three journals are content analyzed to determine the coverage given them and to outline productive lines for future research.