Moral Licensing: When Doing Good Leads To Doing Bad

Have you ever eaten a bunch of ice cream and said it’s okay because you worked out that day? Or have you ever been rude to someone and justified it by thinking that you are actually a good person? I just listened to the first episode of the podcast Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell in which he analyzes a concept called moral licensing. Co-authors Philipp Simbrunner and Bodo Schlegelmilch of a scientific paper titled Moral licensing: a culture-moderated meta-analysis write that “Moral licensing is a cognitive bias, which enables individuals to behave immorally without threatening their self-image of being a moral person.” In other words, people justify doing something bad, or behaving badly, because their past ‘good’ behavior somehow offsets their current ‘bad’ behavior

Tal Cohen writes “The act of doing something morally good (i.e voting for a woman as PM, having friends from diverse backgrounds, giving to charity) gives us the license to then publicly or unconsciously hold opinions that directly oppose those sentiments.” The issue of moral licensing goes far beyond you justifying a junk food binge late at night, reaching into the highest levels of society and encompassing some of the biggest issues in western civilization, such as sexism, racism, equality, opportunity, and corporate power. But whether the issues are society wide or do not reach beyond your kitchen cupboard, moral licensing is something we should all pay more attention to.

The maiden voyage of Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History tells the tale of Elizabeth Thompson (later Elizabeth Butler) and her famous painting Roll Call from the late 1800’s (listen to the episode here https://www.pushkin.fm/episode/the-lady-vanishes/). “The Roll Call captured the imagination of the country when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, turning the artist into a national celebrity. So popular was the painting that a policeman had to be stationed before it to hold back the crowds and it went on to tour the country in triumph,” writes the Royal Collection Trust – the organization that manages, among other things, the official art collection of Her Majesty the Queen of England. Gladwell explains that the public reaction to Roll Call in 1874 is similar to “… people camping out in line for two days to buy Beyoncé tickets, or the kind of frenzy the Beatles faced when they first came to America.”

The Royal Academy of Arts had displayed female artist’s work before, but Elizabeth Thompson had seemingly broken through the male dominated doors to become a national celebrity. Roll Call was displayed in the prestigious Gallery 2, at eye level; a major accomplishment for any artist and groundbreaking for a female artist. While the Royal Academy had two women among its founding 34 members – Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser – no woman had ever been elected into the Academy by a vote of its members. Kauffmann and Moser, despite their excellent talents as individual artists (both were painters), were looked at as only being members because they were already within the social circle of the art scene through connections with family and friends. “Despite both women’s artistic eminence, they were excluded from many of the key aspects of the Academy simply due to their gender. They were not permitted into the Life Room to study and draw nude models, for example – key to practising the human form,” writes Helen Record in her article A brief history of women at the Royal Academy for artuk.org. Kauffman and Moser couldn’t even attend the Academy’s formal dinners. Then, 67 years after Kauffman’s and 55 years after Moser’s deaths, Elizabeth Thompson stormed into the scene and became a national sensation. Surely if someone was to become the first woman elected into the Royal Academy, it would be Thompson. Right?

Actually, “It was not until 1922 that Annie Swynnerton (1844–1933) became the first woman to be elected to the RA,” writes Helen Record. How could Elizabeth Thompson take the British art world by storm, and still not be elected into the Royal Academy? In an article written by Tal Cohen for the University of Melbourne, he writes “A great analogy is the ‘closed door’. Imagine you run a prestigious art club that everyone is trying to get into. With a closed-door attitude towards women, the club remains men-only and will pretty soon be called out for being sexist, . But open the door (just once) to a woman, and you can put those accusations to rest. That is the story of Elizabeth Butler and the Royal Academy of Arts, London.” What Cohen is describing is known as tokenism. The official definition of tokenism by Merriam-Webster is “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort.” Butler became the token woman that, despite not being elected to the Royal Academy later, had been allowed to enter the world of her male peers. Those same male peers now had moral license to continue denying other women into their inner circle. In their eyes, the male members of the Royal Academy had let a woman in, although not officially. Therefore, they could deny other women.

Gladwell’s other shining example of moral licensing is Julia Gillard, the first woman to be elected Prime Minister of Australia. Following her election, Gillard’s term as PM was full of very public and blatant sexism, misogyny, and criticism by her male counterparts in government. Blair Williams writes for the journalism website theconversation.com that “The more prominent examples include broadcaster Alan Jones saying Gillard should be put in a “chaff bag” and taken “out to sea”. A menu at a Liberal National Party fundraiser described a dish as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”. The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, publicly gave a talk while standing in front of sexist signs, including one that said “Ditch the Witch.” In a moment of poetic justice, Gillard gave a 15 minute speech in front of Australian parliament in which she blasted Tony Abbot’s sexism on national television right to his face. The speech has gone viral and I encourage you to watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNuPcf8L00.

What did Australia learn about sexism in the highest offices of government from Gillard’s term as PM? Apparently very little, because Tony Abbott himself became PM for two years following Gillard’s successor. We can see other examples of moral licensing in the public realm. “Harvey Weinstein donated millions of dollars to the Democratic party, and went to a Women’s March in January,” writes Lindsay Dodgson for Business Insider. Dodgson also writes “Louis C.K. supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and was often praised for his feminist style jokes about men being the ultimate danger to women.” Both Weinstein and Louis C.K. have a series of sexual misconduct against women accusations against them. “Weinstein was convicted in New York in February 2020 for sexual assault and rape and was sentenced to 23 years in prison,” writes Jill Serjeant for Reuters.

So how do we avoid letting moral licensing negatively affect our lives? The first step is to be aware of it in the first place. The next time you feel like you can ‘get away with something’ because you have built up some kind of moral bank account that you can now withdraw from, stop and think about it. Think about why you are allowing yourself to do something that might not be the best decision. Sometimes it just comes down to being lazy; such as if you feel too tired to cook a healthy dinner after work and order greasy takeout on UberEats and then justify that decision because you ‘worked hard that day’ or ‘went for a run earlier.’ Working hard and going for a run were both good decisions. Use those to build the habit of making MORE good decisions rather than the habit of making a bad decision because you have the moral license to do so. Shawn Healy, PhD, writes “Make it a habit: Establish a pattern of behavior that is consistent with the positive behavior you want as your norm.” Lindsay Dodgson writes that “we tend to get into the habit of balancing out our good and bad decisions.” Instead, we should get into the habit of always making better decisions by practicing making better decisions.

Another way to avoid moral licensing pitfalls is to change the way you label things as good or bad. Erin Falconer writes for pickthebrain.com that “It’s best to stop putting “good” and “bad” labels on every single thing that  you do, and start focusing on whether your actions will get you closer to achieving your goals or not, because this way it’s easier to avoid the trap of giving yourself rewards that sabotage your efforts.” Labels such as good and bad change based on goals and perceptions. So instead, consider whether or not your decisions are helping you get where you want to go. Practice making decisions that are steps in the right direction and then don’t take a step backwards because you feel like you ‘deserve it.’

Falconer also writes “Our brains are  hard-wired to look for shortcuts (it’s a way of preserving  energy), and therefore when you rejoice in the fact that you have made a significant progress towards your goals, your brain happily takes it as a sign that work is done, time to chill out.” I think it is important to celebrate progress and success. However, that celebration should not be at odds with further progress and success.

Reading about moral licensing has taught me to be more self aware about how my actions line up with the person I want to be. It is easy to sabotage who we want to be because of who we have been before. It is easy to take the short path. In episode 100 of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, Brene Brown says “… he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest but rises the fastest.” Tim replies by saying “Totally agree. Well, I think the only way to ensure long-term comfort is to have continual short-term discomfort.”

Moral licensing gives us the ability to choose comfort over discomfort in the short term which ultimately hurts us in the long term. We justify little things here and there which may not have any immediate negative affect. However, by continuing to justify those little things you are building habits and systems in your life to continue justifying even more things. It is a slippery slope in the wrong direction.

I hope you take this knowledge and use it to become a better human.

Thank you for reading,

Tyson Simmons

Sources and Inspiration

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