Thursday, November 15, 2018

Moral Licensing

Moral licensing seems to be a well-supported theory. When people do something virtuous – when they even think of doing something virtuous or belong to a group in which another member has done something virtuous – they are more likely to indulge themselves in subsequent decisions or even make evil decisions. The Wiki is pretty good but I think it misses a trick. As the research seems to be missing the same trick, I suppose that’s not surprising.

I note wryly that what they call virtuous and nonvirtuous acts have a leftward slant.  It doesn’t interfere with understanding the concept, and it provides some humor for nonliberals observing liberals getting caught out. One example is that people who voted for Barack Obama were more likely “to express views that favored whites at the expense of African-Americans.” One might ask how much of that was pre-loaded, just to be snarky, but I am convinced of the general premise anyway.  This is exactly how people think and act.

What surprised me was the strength of the effect, how many areas of our lives it affects, and that it might be cumulative. That is, people who do lots of “good things” might be increasingly likely to allow themselves special permissions.  The article mentioned driving an SUV to listen to a talk by Al Gore about climate – I think Al Gore’s personal lifestyle is itself a good example.  I also thought of people in Christian ministries who develop lavish lifestyles or take advantage of subordinates sexually.

The missing piece is that in some cases it is true.  It might be ridiculous to give oneself permission to have a high-calorie meal merely because it includes a diet coke, but it is not ridiculous to allow oneself the indulgence within a context of consistent good eating habits. Exceptions and exemptions are sometimes judicious, not mere excuses.  Not that even a lifetime of self-sacrifice authorizes an extramarital affair or theft, but consistent unprejudiced behavior should confer some benefit of the doubt in subsequent decisions. Some coaches favor their own race in decisions about roster or playing time, but others have a long record of evenhandedness and deserve not to be accused.  They may also know this, and rightfully resent being questioned.

Conservatives have accused liberals of this for decades, of caring little about someone’s personal behavior – not only the Ted Kennedy’s and Billary Clintons, but the average Democratic voter – so long as they voted the right way*. Now that argument is returned because of Donald Trump (and not only Trump). With #TimesUp and #MeToo, all bets are off now, seemingly. No more free passes for bad sexual behavior.  Domestic violence is apparently still okay for now, at least for Democrats.

It is more significant that it is common to all of us, and not just in politics. Politics is merely the place where there is more publicity. Permission-granting is hardwired into humans, likely as some defense against even appropriate feelings of guilt, because guilt can paralyze and keep one less fit to get back to work and feed the children. A little may not even be pathological; a moderate amount might be morally unjustified yet still have survival value; in large quantities I can’t see it doing anything but eroding civilized behavior.

*Especially about abortion, it seems.  That woman who said she would gladly give Bill Clinton a blowjob herself because of his necessary support on the issue of choice – Nina Burleigh, I just looked it up – I remember thinking that was pretty intense.  How many abortions did she think she was going to need?


james said...

I assume these have been successfully replicated. (The "mere exposure" line in the wiki caught my eye.)

IIRC Jesus had to warn us about that attitude: "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty."

Texan99 said...

I notice that I give my permission to be play hookey or even be a complete hermit for extended periods after I've fulfilled some arduous civic or social duty. I also find it easier to write off emotional vampires if I've provided really constructive help to someone pleasant lately.

Donna B. said...

I'm all for energy conservation because I'm cheap, but probably in an economically irrational way. I do like the idea that LED lights use less energy, but that's not why I've spent money installing them. I did that because I am hoping they live up to their hype and I won't have to change a lightbulb for 10 years. Hoping... but not counting on it. I think they cost more money upfront than they will ever save me in energy cost. I was NOT willing to use the spiral fluorescent bulbs. They were worse than having to change a bulb and they didn't last that long anyway. No amount of energy saving would have enticed me to use them.

I'm not saying I'm immune to the moral licensing trap, but I am saying that I acknowledge my selfishness. The best example I can give is that I didn't buy a 1998 Cadillac because it got 30 mpg on the highway, but that I liked the horsepower the NorthStar engine put out and the comfort of the seats. With the exception of my current vehicle (not anywhere near 30 mpg highway), horsepower and comfort were my requirements. I miss my Corvette... ya know? This vehicle I bought because I could load a wheelchair and walker easily, as well as get in and out easily. It's all about me. Really.

Recycling is similar -- I really don't care, but the fact that the city gave me two cans was awesome. I never had to worry again about not having enough room for all my trash. Overall, I'm a horrible person.

Armed Texan said...

Here's a anecdote to prove your point: I have a liberal friend here in state who despises homeless people. He will yell at them if he sees them panhandling at intersections and such. (Nashua has a few places that are reliably stocked with panhandlers and he and I worked together there years ago.) He says he feels no sympathy for them because a) he made it out of poverty from childhood and b) he pays taxes to give them services.

Of course, I agree on not giving money to panhandlers but that's because I know that most of them are addicts and/or mentally ill. I do feel sympathy for them and have worked with charities to help get them the real help they need. I also consistently vote against welfare of all kinds. So my moral license to abolish welfare comes from a) my charitable actions and b) b/c my principles inform me that forcibly taking money from people I do not know to give to people I do not know does not make me a moral person.