February 9

Moral Licensing: Why We Justify the Ice Cream After the Gym

The paradox of moral licensing: the more we pat ourselves on the back for our goodness, the easier it becomes to turn a blind eye to our lapses.

“I worked really hard this week. So, I deserve to binge-watch five episodes of The Crown this weekend.”

“I ran 6 miles today. What’s the harm in eating an extra slice or two of this decadent chocolate cake?”

“I donated $3000 to my favorite charity. It’s okay to underreport my income on my taxes. I’m saving the Government some time AND donating more efficiently.”

Bargaining with yourself is a lot like trying to negotiate with a toddler. Both parties end up with more snacks than they probably should. Unknown.

Moral licensing

We all have ways of justifying some of our “less than model” actions to ourselves, especially when we feel we’ve otherwise displayed model behavior. This psychological bargaining we engage in with ourselves when we tell ourselves that it’s okay to be “bad” when we’ve otherwise been “good” is what experts refer to as moral licensing.

In published studies, researchers proved that people who “purchased from a green store were more likely to both steal and cheat in a subsequent task than did those who purchased conventional products.”

Moral licensing isn’t just restricted to our own actions. In another study, subordinates showed high tolerance and low condemnation toward supervisors who demonstrated prior ethical behaviors.

Exploring moral licensing

I can resist everything except temptation, and my negotiation skills with myself are legendary. Oscar Wilde.

It only takes a little self-awareness to realize how frequently we engage in moral licensing. We check our personal emails while at work because we deserve a break or skip workout days because “we’re better about working out now than we used to be two years ago.”

Every single time we transgress our values or ethics, we engage in some form of moral licensing.

Worse, we start to reward ourselves now for behaviors we plan to do later. “I’m going to go on a cucumber diet tomorrow, so let me enjoy this Big Mac, Fries, and large soda now.” And then conveniently forget the cucumbers the next day.

A slippery slope

Per se, having a couple of slices of chocolate cake, or binge-watching an entire season of True Detective is A-okay, as long as we’re honest about it. But if we start deluding ourselves about how we’ve “earned” our right to act in ways that contradict the values we’ve established for ourselves, we start traversing down a slippery slope.

Because then it’s a matter of time before we start congratulating ourselves that we only ate two extra slices of cake instead of more or that we only binge-watched one season instead of the whole show! Our ability to justify our actions is frankly unparalleled. And thanks to psychologists, there are good reasons for that.

We like to believe we are good people

Self-justification is fundamentally tied to the desire to maintain a positive self-image. We construct narratives that cast our actions in a favorable light because admitting that we make poor choices, in turn, can tarnish our self-image.

Let’s face it: most of us have fragile egos, something we don’t like to admit to anyone else, let alone ourselves. Moral licensing, in that sense, is a defense mechanism to protect our egos from bruising.

Dealing with moral licensing

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. Richard Feynman.

So, how do we catch ourselves from falling into the trap of moral licensing?

Be aware

Self-awareness is a prerequisite to identifying moral licensing. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to catch yourself in the act. Just pause for a second when you feel out of your comfort zone and watch how hard your brain tries to reel you back into comfort by handing you bargaining chips.

Have clear standards

Indulging in one drink after a long day may not be a big deal to most of us, but for a recovering alcoholic, it could be the death knell.

There should be some things on which you absolutely will not compromise. Decide for yourself what those values are.  

This article about moral dilemmas recounts how a non-profit organization, Growing Power, had to turn down a sizeable and potentially transformative donation from Monsanto because the organization’s beliefs contradicted Monsanto’s values. The article quotes a spokesperson who said

“We turned it down because of the kind of work we do, the belief in our vision...we advocate seed saving and slow food, and...if we accepted the Monsanto funds, we would have legitimized their work. Our youth look to us as role models. You’re no better than what you are trying to defeat if you do the same thing and get sucked into that system.”

It’s not easy to take a principled stand. More often than not, that may also mean we are willing to forgo some appealing rewards.

Avoid the trap of Comparative Ethics

Let’s not justify our actions because we know someone else has acted in a way that’s perceived as more objectionable. “It’s okay for me to skip workouts for a whole week because Sara, over there, doesn’t exercise at all.”

And finally,

It’s okay to live a little!

Avoid unnecessary guilt. Don’t complicate simple matters.

It’s better to spend a whole weekend watching Succession because you want to watch it instead of telling yourself you deserve to watch it because you worked so hard during the week.

Watch out for boomerangs. An all-too-restrictive lifestyle can backfire, as evidenced by the story in this NY Times article on revenge spending of an accountant who spent close to 10K booking cruises, airfares, and tickets to sporting events because she wanted to “get back at the pandemic” for stealing her joy.

It’s hard to escape the trap of moral licensing when you start feeling deprived of what life naturally owes you.

Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal. Robert A. Heinlein.



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