“The subconscious phenomenon whereby increased confidence and security in one’s self-image or self-concept tends to make that individual worry less about the consequences of subsequent immoral behavior and, therefore, more likely to make immoral choices and act immorally.” – Wikipedia
Moral licensing is ubiquitous in the world. It’s the idea that by doing something you’ve deemed “good,” however small, you have now built up the capital to do something you would consider “bad.” I was only made aware of this concept recently, but now I notice myself falling into the trap over and over again.
The most obvious of these traps is eating habits: if I eat something healthy for lunch, I feel ok eating pizza for dinner. The risk and reward here make sense and can be justified depending on your diet plan. But what if that salad makes pizza ok… and then ice cream ok, too? You might have been better off not trying to eat healthy in the first place and having three relatively healthy meals instead.
This concept works with environmentalism as well. If you choose to drive a hybrid, subconsciously, you might feel ok using those plastic bags at the supermarket or taking an extra flight. Or maybe the company you work for donates to climate action, which allows you to get that 16-pack of disposable water bottles, right?
The problem with moral licensing is that often the “bad” thing that you feel justified in doing outweighs the impacts of the “good” one. Even if they are exactly equal, the goal should be net positive, not net equal.
Moral licensing doesn’t stop with environmentalism and eating habits. Many studies have been done on this concept like this 2015 meta-analysis and these three studies on moral licensing and racial attitudes:
Top-Down vs. Bottom Up
I’ve said this in previous blog posts and plan to cover this in much more detail in a later post, but it’s worth mentioning if this is the only one you’ve read.
From my last blog post:
“This is in no way arguing that the onus falls 100% on individuals. After all, if single-use plastics weren’t so ubiquitous, car manufacturers moved away from fossil fuels, and power companies invested in renewable energy as standard practice, the burden wouldn’t be so heavy on us. Pairing individual actions with top-down approaches are Always the most effective course of action.”
So let’s not pretend that consumers are entirely to blame for the predicament we’re in or that we alone can stop it. But with the right framing and steady determination and understanding, we can make a difference for ourselves and others.