When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad

How do individuals face the ethical uncertainties of social life? When under the threat that their next action might be (or appear to be) morally dubious, individuals can derive confidence from their past moral behavior, such that an impeccable track record increases their propensity to engage in otherwise suspect actions. Such moral self-licensing (Monin & Miller, 2001) occurs when past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral. We argue that moral self-licensing occurs because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard. For example, when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways without fear of feeling heartless, selfish, or bigoted.
In this article, we review the state of research on moral self-licensing, first by documenting in some detail empirical demonstrations of self-licensing and kindred phenomena, then by analyzing remaining questions about the model, and finally by sketching out directions for future research to cast light on these unresolved issues.

Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad
Anna C. Merritt, Daniel A. Effron, and Benoıˆt Monin
Stanford University
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/5 (2010): 344–357, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00263.x

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

One comment

  1. Not long ago I came under criticism at this site for mentioning moral self-licensing in the context of ‘green’ activists.
    Now it looks like the topic has become, if not politically correct, at least permissible.

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