I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that attendance has been pretty low in a lot of my classes recently. In most of my lectures over the last week or two, there have been more empty seats than usual.
People have given me plenty of different reasons why they’ve been skipping class lately: it’s almost the end of the semester, the weather is really nice, they don’t feel well and so on. But the reason that struck me the most is that some people say they’re skipping class because they’ve already been to most of their classes this semester anyway.
This is a really common excuse, but it doesn’t really make much sense. This line of reasoning justifies a bad behavior – skipping class now – by appealing to a history of good behaviors (not skipping class earlier in the semester), even though that history does not make that bad behavior any better. It uses a strange kind of self-bargaining to rationalize a decision.
This kind of “reasoning” is called moral licensing, and it applies to way more than just class attendance. It happens in any situation where a person decides to do something bad because they had previously done something good.
For instance, if someone is on a diet and they reward themselves for exercising by eating a donut, or if you choose to throw a plastic bottle in the trash because you usually recycle, that’s moral licensing.
Some of the moral licensing decisions are much worse. When Jim from down the hall makes a racist joke but explains to you that it’s okay because “some of his best friends are black,” that’s big time moral licensing.
Or, hypothetically, if a university were to hire their first ever female chancellor and then fire her soon after with an egregiously belittling termination letter, that’s moral licensing too.
We’re all guilty of it, whether we realize it or not. This method of decision-making is illogical and often harmful, but I think it’s worth pointing out that not all forms of moral licensing are equal.
The examples about skipping class and not recycling feel very different than making racist jokes or being sexist in the workplace, and it’s not just about the consequences. The real distinction lies in the way we rationalize.
In the case of class attendance, we treat moral actions like currency. In a way, good behaviors give us moral currency that we can later “spend” on bad behaviors. If I go to enough classes, eventually I will have built up enough moral currency to justify skipping my next class.
It applies to recycling, too. If I keep recycling plastic bottles, eventually I will have recycled enough to be okay with throwing one away.
We will never know exactly how many bottles someone has to recycle before they reach this point, but that’s not important. The important thing is this: you know throwing that bottle away was wrong, but you decided that you had earned the right to do it anyway.
A popular paper by Stanford researcher Anna Merritt calls this currency “moral credits.” Merritt also says that this is distinct from the other type of moral licensing, in which you build up not moral credits, but “moral credentials.”
In this type, people who do good things believe that it makes them a fundamentally better person. I their minds, these good behaviors show how enlightened, progressive and wise they are. In turn, they may feel comfortable doing something bad (or at least questionable) because they have already proven that they are so wise and compassionate.
Back to the racist joke example. The amateur comedian in question (who we have arbitrarily named Jim) has friends who are minorities, and this serves as his credentials for being a good, high-minded person. Because Jim believes himself to be such a hip guy, he could crack a racist joke here and there. He wouldn’t mean anything by it. The rules about being a racist don’t apply to him because, remember, he has black friends.
Do you see how this is different from the moral credits situations? The person throwing away a bottle knows that it’s wrong, but that’s not the case for Jim. Jim still thinks he’s doing the right thing. He has found a way to do something bad without being able to acknowledge that it’s bad at all.
In the same way, if someone were to hire the first ever woman to be the chancellor of a university, they would understandably feel like they had done a good thing. However, since they have proven themselves to be so progressive, they might feel entitled – empowered, even – to really “speak their mind” about her job performance later on. This could happen without them feeling bad about it, all thanks to their moral credentials.
This type of moral licensing is so dangerous, mostly because we are so oblivious to it. It can be a really hard thing to notice, and it’s even harder to convince someone that it’s happening.
It can happen on a much larger scale, too. Over the last few decades, a lot of marginalized groups – African-Americans, Jews, people in the LGBT+ community – have been slowly welcomed further into society. While this is a good thing, some people have used this to build up their own moral credentials, and they have allowed themselves to speak more openly about these groups.
This may be one reason why some seemingly outdated ideas about minorities have become more prevalent lately. This could be part of why antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, and some think it’s one reason that millions of Obama voters voted for Trump in 2016.
This moral credentials issue is bad news, and the only way to fight it is with self-awareness. We have to be cognizant of what we think and say. We have to be hesitant to drop any “hot takes” without considering them thoroughly.
And, hardest of all, we have to be aware of how our good deeds shape the way we perceive ourselves.
Evan Newell is a senior studying Chemical Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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