Good People Are The Worst: On Moral Licensing
It's probably been a while since you thought about the Hunger Games. If you remember, Katniss gets a nasty little surprise at the end when the new leader, Coin, decides to keep everything just the same.
She even wants to reboot the games.
As it turns out, the district she fought for never gave a damn about human rights or justice. They were just pretending. Or maybe something even darker happens. Once anyone gains power, they're doomed to abuse it. Worse, they don't even see themselves turning into what they despise.
Nobody really stands up to Coin, and it's not just because they're afraid. They can't bring themselves to believe the leader they put all of their faith in would turn out to be just another version of Coriolanus Snow.
Katniss has to do the unthinkable.
She kills Coin.
Back then, I'm sure most of us didn't count on winding up in a situation that grim. Well, here we are. We're watching the same story play out in our real lives. It's hard to feel used, especially when the president you entrusted to lead everyone out of a crisis decides to lead everyone to slaughter. His own wife sits at home with a disabling disease while he waltzes out to press conferences joking about not wearing a mask. He's asked when he's going to finally declare a climate emergency, as promised, and he says, "I practically did." Meanwhile, his own administration tells us that we don't have a constitutional right to a livable planet, just whatever the billionaires decide to do.
The doctor we trusted to tell us the truth instead misleads the public, one day telling us we have nothing to worry about, the next day wondering why more people won't wear a mask.
There's something going on here.
We've seen this before. We've seen it with politicians, billionaires, and influencers. It's not just about masks. They can own mansions and private jets. They can spend their entire lives amassing wealth while destroying the planet. They can establish nonprofits as vanity projects that impose their gilded view of the world on everyone else. They can pretend to solve problems while making them worse. If they publish one book on climate change...
Suddenly, they're a hero.
It's called moral licensing.
You can think of it as moral coasting. It plays out on mundane levels. If someone thinks they've been a super good person lately, they're more likely to do something not so good. They excuse their poor behavior. If they give someone a compliment, they're more likely to insult someone later. If they did something nice for a friend, they're more likely to be rude to a stranger. In the end, a lot of humans are simply trying to build up their own moral credit and standing.
They think it's okay.
Two psychologists at Princeton named Benoit Monin and Dale Miller introduced the idea back in 2001. As they write, it "occurs when past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things, without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral."
Later research found that "past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid."
It sounds cute at first.
Research in psychology has discovered that our moral licensing goes deeper and darker than most of us realize. Studies have found that people use energy-efficient appliances more often, wiping out the difference. They're more likely to engage in racism and sexism after hiring a black person or a woman. One study even found that they're more likely to make a racist decision after expressing support or approval for a black politician. They're also more likely to splurge on a luxury good after donating to a charity. As one group of researchers sums it up, "Committing a moral act decreases the propensity of subsequently committing a moral act, and increases the propensity of committing an immoral act."
In other words, people who perceive themselves as good are more likely to do bad things. We always kinda knew, didn't we?
Psychologists reason that modern humans ultimately see morality as transactional. They believe they can build up moral credits and establish a self-perception as a "good person." It tends to work. Once you establish a reputation as a good person, you don't have to work hard to maintain it.
People give you a break.
They defend you.
We interpret present moral behavior through the lens of past behavior. It's also relative. So someone could reset their moral reputation if given the right opportunity. We love redemption stories.
Billionaires and politicians understand all of this on an intuitive level. That's why someone like Jeff Bezos can justify owning the world's biggest yacht as long as he pledges some money to charities. It's why all of our tech overlords have their own nonprofits, to fill up their moral piggy banks. It's why many of them even beg the government to tax them in public but then secretly hide their money in tax shelters. They aren't serious about being good.
All this also explains why a lot of people out there consider themselves green, liberal, or kind when they're doing horrible things.
They're giving themselves a moral license.
Many of us have felt the burn of hypocrisy as affluent and financially comfortable liberals engage in almost all of the same elitism, sexism, ableism, and racism as their political opponents. They seem to think they can get away with it if they're more polite or they did one good thing recently.
They get aggressive when you point it out. Apparently, they don't like hearing that their moral credit card is maxed out.
There's a lesson here.
On the pessimistic side, it sounds like humans aren't really capable of being as good as we want to believe. That's bad news. As a species, we've run out of moral credits. Besides, nature itself doesn't do morality. It doesn't care what's good or bad. It doesn't care about some CEO's electric vehicle. It simply responds to how we treat it, and right now it's killing us.
Diseases don't care if someone wore a mask or used a HEPA filter two years ago. They don't care if someone voted blue.
If there's any hope, it lies in true self-awareness. We don't get to coast on past deeds. We have to make every single decision with attention to our biases. It doesn't matter how much money we have.
It doesn't matter what we already did.
If nothing else, we know why "good people" bug us so much now. We know why it bugs us so much when someone takes up for someone else based on past moral deeds, not their present actions.
They're not making ethical decisions.