A.k.a. Why you should watch out for those who espouse a bit too much virtue.
Moral licensing is one of those pernicious little aspects about how our brains work. It’s not a phrase that you’ve probably heard of, unless you happened to listen to the first episode of Revisionist History (as I did), or were a psychology major.
If there’s ever a case to be made that some basis for psychology should find its way into high school or college curricula, moral licensing could be the lead.
So what is it? In short, moral licensing is an observed effect where humans who do something that seems virtuous then give themselves permission to discount doing something bad. The easiest visual for this is diet: eating a salad for lunch can lead someone to dismiss the greasy cheeseburger and fries they’ll eat for dinner.
This is a moral license.
That might just be cosmic balance, you might say. And you might be right. But the problem comes in when we also acknowledge that every human is much better at giving themselves credit for something good than blame for doing something bad. So when you play this behavior out, it tends not to balance.
Indeed, it’s been observed that simply being a part of a group where someone else does something good enables your mind to take credit for the virtue. At that point, the equation definitely won’t balance!
Moral licensing (or rather, the effects of it) has been observed in several areas at an experimental level and in real world outcomes. It also matches our learned experience and various clichés that exist for a reason. Those who signal the loudest are often not as virtuous as they may appear on the surface.