I had a lot of papers to grade last week. It took me longer than I expected but I thought I did a good job of giving insightful advice and feedback. When I finished, I felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I gave myself a good pat on the back. And then, instead of seizing the moment and doing more wonderful things, … well, I ate a big bowl of ice cream.
I didn’t realize it at the time but I was engaging in moral licensing (also known as moral self-licensing or simply self-licensing). I had done something that I felt good about and, therefore, I could indulge myself in a not-so-good activity. After all, I earned it.
It’s not so bad when I eat a bowl of ice cream. I’m not hurting anyone else. Rather, I’m creating an incentive to stay focused and get the job done. I withhold the reward until the task is complete. That’s not so bad, is it?
But what if it goes farther? As Anna Merritt and her colleagues write, “Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.”
According to Norman Goldfarb, moral licensing works in two ways:
Moral credentials – by doing good deeds, I establish my moral bona fides. I have the credentials that prove (to me, if no one else) that I’m a moral person. A person with such credentials wouldn’t do anything immoral. So, if I do something bad, well… it must be a mistake, not a moral failure.
Moral credits – as Goldfarb puts it, “a person’s good deeds put moral dollars in a moral bank that can be withdrawn later to pay for immoral acts.”
Using credits or credentials, I can do immoral things and still conceive of myself as a moral and upstanding person. So, why not do them?
Much of the literature on moral licensing focuses on “past good deeds” that grant absolution for future not-so-good deeds. But there’s also a future dimension to licensing. I’m going to church tomorrow, so I can take advantage of someone tonight. I’m going on a diet next week, so I can pig out this week. In Goldfarb’s terminology, we can bank moral credits even before they occur. We just have to think about them.
There’s also a judgmental aspect to self-licensing. A fascinating study by Kendall Eskine at Loyola (New Orleans) suggests that eating organic foods makes you more judgmental. Research participants sampled a variety of organic and nonorganic foods. Those who sampled, “… organic foods volunteered significantly less time to help a needy stranger, and they judged moral transgressions significantly harsher than those who viewed nonorganic foods.” Doing good deeds – for ourselves or others – builds our moral credentials and can make us feel superior to those who don’t meet our same high standards. We criticize them more harshly than we otherwise would.
Doing good deeds, then, can lead to a life of immorality and hypocrisy. That’s not what I learned in Boy Scouts. Apparently, however, this is another factory-installed bias. It’s who we are. It’s baked into our DNA.
Like our other biases, the only answer is awareness. We can’t flush this behavior out of our systems. It’s in too deep. But we can be aware of it. We can apply self-awareness to self-licensing. We can take our time and think about our thinking. If we do, then perhaps moral behavior will lead to moral behavior instead of the opposite.