Moral Self-Licensing: The bad news about good ethics

The Einstein Monkey got you here, why not read on?
The bad newsabout good ethics- MORAL SELF-LICENSING

There isevidence that supports the notion that people are more likely to “misbehave”after they engages in what they perceives as ethical/moral conduct.  The theory, called “moral self-licensing”, predicts that people make note of theirgood behaviors and tend to act contrary to this soon thereafter.

Anexperiment in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reported that peoplewho expressed their support for presidential candidate Barack Obama were morelikely to later declare that whites would be better suited than blacks for ahypothetical job vacancy in a police department.  It seems that their support for a backcandidate won them “credit as non-racists”, and provided them with a “licenseto discriminate” in subsequent task.

A similareffect was found in a study measuring people’s propensity toward greed.  Students were asked to shop for items at oneof two online stores. Half of the students shopped at a store stocked with mostly“green” products and the remainder shopped at a store that carried “conventional”products.  After spending an allotted $25on products, the students were presented with various situations designed to measuretheir honesty and propensity toward greed. 
The studentswho shopped at the “green” store were more willing to 1) lie about theresult of a coin game in order to profit, 2) act greedy by allocating moremoney to themselves than to a partner and 3) steal more money from an envelopewhen asked to retrieve their winnings. 

The clearestlesson for all of us is that we should be “on guard” with respect to our ownactions.  We should recognize that our ownmoral acts may make us more likely to feel that we have earned the right (morallicense) to act selfishly, discriminatory toward others or immorally.  Self-awareness is the key to avoiding thistrap.

Here is thetitle, abstract citation, and the link to a good article if you’re interested inreading more about this phenomenon:
MoralSelf-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad

Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral. We review research on this moral self-licensing effect in the domains of political correctness, prosocial behavior, and consumer choice. We also discuss remaining theoretical tensions in the literature: Do good deeds reframe bad deeds (moral credentials) or merely balance them out (moral credits)? When does past behavior liberate and when does it constrain? Is self-licensing primarily for others’ benefit (self-presentational) or is it also a way for people to reassure themselves that they are moral people? Finally, we propose avenues for future research that could begin to address these unanswered questions.

Social andPersonality Psychology Compass 4/5 (2010): 344–357

Anna C. Merritt*, Daniel A. Effron, and Benoıˆt Monin
Stanford University

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