The Roll Call, Elizabeth Thompson, 1874. One of the most celebrated British paintings of the 19th century, but later fell out of critical favour

Why Moral Licensing is Ever More Important

I just listened to an thoughtful podcast from Malcolm Gladwell. It talked about a social phenomenon where people do good things as an “excuse” to do bad things afterwards.

First mentioned by Monin & Miller (2001) it is defined by the following hypothesis:

People are more willing to express attitudes that could be viewed as prejudiced when their past behavior has established their credentials as nonprejudiced persons

You can find a detailed description here.

The podcast covers many examples of prejudices, starting with the famous painting Roll Call, created by Elizabeth Thompson in 1874. It became one of the most famous works of art in England, interestingly during a period dominated by male painters. Malcolm argues how the painting was selected among many other works, bought by Queen Victoria, and displayed prominently in the Royal Collection as a good deed to demonstrate support for a woman painter. After Roll Call no other painting from Thompson gained any prominence even though other works from her had equivalent quality, and no women gained access to the Royal Academy until 1922. Thompson ended up getting married and disappeared from public life.

Malcolm goes on to list many other examples (i.e. Jews in Germany, First female Australian Prime Minister) of Moral Licensing in our society.

The podcast helped me reflect on how we can check ourselves for this moral dilemma, and how we can catch ourselves feeling entitled to doing something we are not proud of because we have a “balance” of good deeds to withdraw from. I remember one time David Brooks saying in an interview with Tom Ashbrook the following:

Are we bad people? I don’t believe so. Most of us are good people, but we make mistakes and sometimes we do bad things.

Sometimes we may allow ourselves to act in a immoral way because we feel we developed reasonable goodwill to do so. It’s a sense of entitlement and it may give us some temporary relief, although it is dangerous when done in a deliberate way. Sometimes we do because we are tired, busy, angry, or other reasons. Unfortunately, I think we even do it unconsciously. In a world where we are ever more busy and distracted I think we would benefit from developing a Moral Licensing awareness as a way to live more virtuously.