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  • Writer's pictureAndy Clark

I Just Learned About Moral Licencing

Thanks to Cass Hebron, author of The Green Fix newsletter, I recently discovered the concept of "Moral Licencing" (and now, because I've often kept my mouth shut on contentious issues in the past, I feel it'll be ok to get a bit preachy about it).

Moral Licencing is a weird element of human behavior, in which people who have accrued a personal history of behaving 'morally' positively feel able to act in a 'morally' negative way in a certain instance - the crux of the issue being that they would not undertake that negative behaviour if they didn't have the accrued positive behavior to kind of balance-things-out.

For example, an individual might feel 'licensed' to say a cruel thing to someone if they have a history of showing that they care about that person. Someone might feel 'licensed' to order a decadent chocolate fudge cake if they've been doing well on their diet and only had a salad for lunch. Someone might feel 'licensed' to agree with a contentiously sexist or racist statement, if they have a record of supporting equality.

The research on this is fascinating, and the ways that 'psychological licensing', 'self-licensing and 'moral licensing' (all fairly equivalent as far as this article's concerned) play out under lab conditions is as incredible as it is diverse. Participants in numerous studies have been shown to make objectively racist decisions significantly more when given the opportunity to present themselves as not-racist before making the decision (Monin & Miller 2001). Particpants were more likely to cheat and steal following an opportunity to shop more ethically ( Mazar & Zhong). Participants have even become less generous and more selfish after being tasked with recalling an occasion when they acted kindly (Jordan, Mullen & Murnighan 2009).

Imagine that - that having the opportunity to be good, or even having the opportunity to recall or imagine being good, can cause an otherwise well-meaning human to act badly!

It seems utterly ridiculous, but then how many times have you heard someone say (or said yourself) "I've been really good all week, so I deserve <insert decadent treat here>"?

In an equally day-to-day sense, our fellow humans will consciously (or otherwise) try to demonstrate their moral credentials before undertaking a morally contentious action or statement; the idea being that one can contextualise or 'frame' their imminent action within a position of ethical superiority - even when the action is, objectively, immoral.

There are many complicated ways that someone might articulate their position of ethical certainty, but if pushed for time, energy, or actual evidence, many people might settle for something along the lines of:

"I'm not racist, but..."

(We all know from experience that whatever follows is usually, objectively, quite racist.)

The individual in question might also recall evidence of a time when they acted in a non-racist way, or reference "some of their best friends" as a way of establishing non-racist credentials. Observers may wonder whether the confidently 'not-racist' person is recalling these credentials for our, or for their own, benefit - the research suggests it's both (Bradley, King & Hebl, 2009).

Those are issues that we encounter in conversation - but there's plenty of evidence that a moral license doesn't require public utterance or action to establish. Just thinking to oneself about your history of good behavior - or even thinking about good behavior that you might like to do in the future - can be enough to give you the moral self-confidence you need to do something objectively bad (Khan and Dhar, 2007).

When you think about it, our fellow humans are doing this all the time - and it doesn't always go smoothly. It happens in politics or celebrity society when someone widely believed to be a 'good' person does or says something that contradicts that 'good' persona or defies social norms of courtesy - often the narrative will refer to the person in question as 'showing their true colours' (suggesting to me that their moral credit was poorly accounted).

By now, I hope you're thinking how terribly interesting this all is. But you may also be wondering why I'm banging on about this in my environmental blog.

Here's a recent example of some textbook moral licensing, relating to environmentalism, at the political level:

Outrage, as you are undoubtedly aware, was widespread among anyone who recognises the climate crisis as a fairly big deal.

But it's the way that the action has been, and is still being justified, that makes it so absurd. The current government are often quick to laud their net-zero targets and 25-year environment plan which, while admittedly [legally] necessary and better than the nothing that we had before, are a) severely lacking in ambition and b) still to be enacted and don't yet have a clear set plan of how they're to be achieved.

Furthermore, the opening of a new coal mine is of course a very bad thing in an environmental context - but it's unrelated issues, such as local and national economies and employment, that are used as evidence for the 'goodness' of the idea, as if good done in those other areas counterbalance the damage done to the environment. In fact it goes even further than that - so much so that they're no longer seen as separate issues, with employment in the coal and steel industries being dragged into the environmental context, and these 'good' credentials for the economy are treated like 'good' environmental credentials; as if local employment benefits don't just counterbalance, but actually offset environmental damage.

For the record, a few more jobs are not logically, morally, or actually sufficient to negate the perpetuation of climate destruction.

But that's my political tirade over; what I really want you to do is to consider moral licensing in the environmental context in your own life. I don't mean for you to feel blamed for anything by the way, or like you should be overcome with guilt for simply being human; this is a bizarre and innate human behavior and we're all 'guilty' of it. All we can do is acknowledge our inherent flaws, and then do our best to consciously override them.

Because changing your impact on the world for the better requires some conscious change - but also, with consideration to moral licensing, it requires some reconsideration of what you hold as 'good', 'bad', and especially, a 'treat'.

I return to the example I gave earlier - something that many of us utter frequently;

"I've done x, so I deserve a treat of y."

Improving your environmental impact, for most people, at first, involves the lamentable challenge of giving up a number of things that you habitually enjoy. Meat, fast-fashion or cheap flights, for example.

I used to absolutely love steak. I was damn good at preparing the perfect steak at home (Sirloin was the cut of choice, but I'd be happy with rump through to fillet if I could treat it right), and going out to a newly-discovered steakhouse was as much of a delight.

I then watched Cowspiracy, followed by Racing Extinction, and conceded that I wasn't being much of a serious environmentalist if I continued to eat red meat. But I really liked steak - and it was tied up in family values and traditions, so I consoled myself to just greatly reduce the amount of red meat I ate - I saved it for "special occasions".

And therein lies the problem - I continued to want to eat steak, I built up anticipation and I relished every mouthful when I allowed myself this 'guilty pleasure'. In so doing, I was exercising a moral license that I felt I deserved from my usual efforts of not eating steak - and I perceived it as an effort to not eat steak. The whole thing, frankly, was difficult, and while many fellow steak-eaters expressed their pleasure at my eating steak with them on certain occasions, it was also glaringly hypocritical to others - "you won't take a flight to Ireland but you'll eat Irish beef?" and other questions mounted up; and for all the validity of my considerations, the hypocrisy remained. The guilt of this 'guilty pleasure' was growing - and the pleasure was noticeably shrinking.

Eventually I had enough of feeling conflicted, and I just stopped eating steak outright. And you know what, I don't miss it anymore. I remember what it was like to enjoy eating steak, but I have no desire to eat it anymore.

I've fallen out of love with steak.

I've kicked the addiction.

As long as you're perceiving a negative behaviour - in this context, something environmentally damaging like eating meat or flying - as inherently more pleasurable than painful, you'll long for it and it'll be harder to quit; you'll be fighting an addiction.

I may be misusing the term 'addiction' very slightly here, 'deeply ingrained, psychological and behavioural habituation' might be more accurate, but I'll stand by it. Common advice for kicking an addiction is to replace the object of addiction with some other action (in terms of breaking the habitual behaviors of addiction anyway) - and that's essentially what I'm proposing here. I don't miss steak at all because I replaced it with the enjoyment of a plethora of other wonderful foods.

Moral Licencing will have a hold on you, and will influence your behaviors to potentially environmentally detrimental consequences, as long as you continue to allow yourself to maintain a habituated perception of what constitutes 'good' and 'bad', and 'pleasure' and 'pain'. By which I mean, if you continue to indulge an association of pleasure with a 'bad' behavior, you'll find ways to justify your indulgence.

If, however, you break your association of pleasure with an ultimately 'bad' behavior, you're just left with good things to do.

Because if you tell yourself "I did x good thing so I deserve y bad thing", you're doing two things to yourself (I say with personal experience):

  1. You're making it harder to let go of the bad thing, reinforcing how nice you think it is, and tangling yourself up in the conflictions that increasingly come with indulging it.

  2. You're reducing your ability to feel good about doing the good thing, because you're telling yourself that you'd rather have the bad thing. You deserve to just feel great for doing a good thing!

So get out of your own head. Kick the devil off your shoulder. Take the pleasure out of guilty pleasure, and put it somewhere better.

You deserve to just feel great for being a great person.

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