When it feels good to be bad: how moral licensing stops progress

When Kamala Harris made her first speech as the first woman, Black person and South Asian to be elected vice president of the United States first, she said she might be the first woman to hold this office, but she won’t be the last. That’s likely true, and hopefully, many more women will finally be able to reach the opportunities history owes them. 

But history also shows a darker side to progress: that our euphoria from breaking a glass ceiling can wreak havoc. We subconsciously calculate our “moral credit” due to something called moral licensing (or self-licensing). If we do something good, we often feel like we’ve earned a right to do something bad – and our conscience will barely notice. 

The tricky part about morals

It’s challenging to research and analyze morality, as it’s an abstract, largely subjective concept that is not exactly quantifiable. With that in mind, popular YouTuber Michael Stevens decided to observe moral licensing in a series of mini-experiments that show what happens when you are asked to do the “right thing” minutes after you’ve already done a good deed. He teamed up with Dr. Kyle Standford from the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California and explained some fascinating patterns in our behavior. 

Would you let an innocent child take the blame for a serious problem you’ve created? Of course not. Turns out, you might think differently if you believe you’ve just donated a lump sum of money for a good cause. In the experiment, the participants were told they are a part of the group testing state-of-the-art VR equipment. Beforehand, they had a chance to donate a part of their payout, which many of them did. While in the waiting room, they were told not to let anyone inside. 

Stevens hired actors to create a situation where, when the participants do open the door, one of the VR sets gets stolen. When the staff starts panicking, a child comes forward and admits guilt. The reaction of the adult subjects? Many of them let the kid take the blame, and the subject who donated the most just watched the security taking the boy away. The shame was too much, so this person even refused to be included in the episode. 

Researchers debriefed the participants and noticed that some of them started distorting their memories of what happened – a subconscious mechanism that protects us in uncomfortable situations. “What subjects are most likely doing is confabulating to defend whatever behavior they engage in,” Kyle Standford explains. One participant even tried to protect the child, but when the boy insisted that he’s guilty, he gave up. “Even if we want to do the right thing, it doesn’t take much to step back and abandon that step of morality if, and when, we are given and out,” Stevens observes.

Stanford points out that it can be tempting to judge, but clearly, it’s a pattern anyone is susceptible to. “It’s much more possible than you’d think to get regular people to do things that they immediately feel regretful about,” he says. 

When we don’t give progress a chance

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell opens his podcast Revisionist History with an extraordinary story of the painting The Roll Call. Back in the 1800s, Elizabeth Thompson’s work achieved a remarkable feat: her masterpiece was one of the highlights of the Royal Academy show, an accomplishment reserved almost exclusively for men. Gladwell describes the excitement, the feeling of modernity, and open-mindedness back when women couldn’t even study fine arts. Elizabeth has a chance to enter the Royal Academy; it’s the talk of the town, and… She loses by only two votes. Yet everyone feels like progress was made; something unbelievable has happened, only two votes – next time for sure! 

But instead, Thompson’s subsequent work is overlooked, and she never gets in. Apparently, the male Academy members were concerned about etiquette – how would it even work, a woman among them? Scandalous! So they made sure this doesn’t happen again. “The Academy members pass new regulations to limit the privileges of any women who might get elected in the future because they’d proven their bona fides — they hung Roll Call on the line in Gallery Two. Who can doubt how open and progressive they are? Now, they can go back to the way they were,” Gladwell sums up.

Another example he shares is Julia Gillard’s story, Australia’s first – and so far, last – female PM. Her election was a huge deal, but soon, the gendered insults started. She became a “bloody bitch”, a CEO of a major Australian company called her an “unproductive old cow”, and a restaurant offered “Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail,” with a description of “small breasts, huge thighs”. Sexist remarks and cartoons became a new normal in what could only be described as a witch hunt. 

She fought back and faced her harshest critic, Tony Abbott, the leader of Australia’s opposition. In Parliament, she gave a scathing speech where she relentlessly listed all the appalling, misogynistic behavior she had to endure. 

“I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny of the leader of the opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself,” something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair. I was offended when the leader of the opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said, “Ditch the witch.” I was offended when the leader of the opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a “man’s bitch.” I was offended by those things. Misogyny, sexism, every day from this leader of opposition. Every day, in every way,” her speech goes. The whole country heard it. 

This was 2012. In 2013, Tony Abbott became the Prime Minister of Australia. And the door for women remained shut ever since. 

Stanford psychologists observed another strange pattern after the election of Barack Obama in the USA. Ironically, the collective euphoria of shaping a historical moment led to a disconcerting effect. Some people felt this justifies favoritism towards white people over black people. The researchers decided to dig deeper and found out that some people already had some negative feelings – your usual prejudice – about blacks but backed Obama anyway. It was primarily this group that took the opportunity to justify their racism. 

“This is the psychological equivalent of when people in casual conversation say something like ‘many of my best friends are black,'” said Daniel Effron, one of the study authors. “Our results suggest that people with more positive attitudes toward blacks are less likely to seize on moral credentials as an excuse to favor whites. It’s encouraging to know that endorsing Obama will not always result in the expression of views that are unfavorable to blacks. It’s only when moral credentials combine with negative racial attitudes that we have cause for concern,” he added. 

photo of a person sitting in chair

The downfall of Harvey Weinstein(s)

So far, we’ve been talking about behaviors that occur more or less without us knowing. But what about those who took moral licensing way further? Could some people consciously use good deeds as means to “buy” the right to act atrociously? 

We live in the #MeToo era, with new cases popping up in yet another country as years go by. The movement gained momentum in 2017 as a reaction to shocking revelations from a multitude of women who the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sexually abused. The producer, now serving his 23-year sentence in prison, was involved in many charitable endeavors. Some of them were even related to female empowerment, and he supported these women at the same time as he indulged in his position of power towards other women. 

When it was clear that he needed to defend himself publicly, he published an apology that screamed moral licensing. He mentioned that he hired a female lawyer who is tutoring him. He hoped his actions would “speak louder than words”—one of those actions: foundation for female directors. 

“One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC. While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year. It will be named after my mom, and I won’t disappoint her,” he said. 

The list goes on and on. Louis C.K., a high-profile comedian who admitted to masturbating in front of his young female colleagues without consent, was the epitome of a good guy and an ally to women. He was a supporter of his fellow comedian Tig Notaro, who suspects he released her album because “it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman.”

The director Joss Whedon has been making news recently for his inappropriate behavior towards women on Buffy the Vampire Slayer set. At the same time, he created iconic strong female characters. His ex-wife called him a hypocrite preaching feminist ideals, as he lead a double life, cheating on her with multiple women. “He always had a lot of female friends, but he told me it was because his mother raised him as a feminist, so he just liked women better. He said he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them,” Kai Cole wrote for The Wrap, describing how shocking it was when Whedon admitted to his numerous affairs later. Everyone believed he was one of the good guys, Cole says – and the director indeed worked hard to maintain that image. 

If you consider the moral licensing patterns we’ve looked at, it’s not difficult to imagine how some people manage to carry the weight of leading a double life. Sometimes, the two personas are entirely contradictory. Ironically, it’s the “good guy” or “good girl” side of ourselves that feels like a ticket to indulge ourselves. Be it an individual or a whole society. 

Taking a little step further only to justify slamming the door to progress is a shame. Especially today, when humanity is racing with time and complex moral dilemmas, often related to technology, appear every day. Perhaps it’s time for a reality check. 

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