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Olly Nelson
Olly Nelson

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How we all 'Morally License'

Moral licensing is the idea that when you do something morally 'good', you subconsciously give yourself a license to do something morally 'bad'. Exploring the idea of morals is difficult for a number of reasons, one being that what many consider to be morally right is often not what they would do in reality. Moral licensing is an example of this, not doing something morally right, although you still do it anyway.

Everyday, we morally license on a small scale. Have you ever enjoyed unhealthy food after working hard? Or justified your unhealthy meal with a 'diet' coke? These are just small, common examples of moral licensing and how we convince ourselves that what we do is okay if we have done something more positive already. It isn't by any means a bad thing all the time, and sometimes can be great for mental health. But how many times have you regretted these things and known deep down you didn't really have a valid justification? 'Guilty pleasures' is one way to describe that feeling of doing something immoral as payment for your previously moral behaviour, you know you shouldn't, but maybe just one as you've worked soooo hard...

It is fascinating seeing how we subconsciously keep score on our morals.

So why does this happen?

One reason is our self image. If we participate in good deeds, we may feel that a few immoral actions won't effect our public image of being a 'good' person. Supermarkets and online shops use this idea all the time. They will show you the eco-friendly, fair-trade, recyclable and healthy products first before showing you the more luxury, expensive and unhealthy products. After your purchase of a 'good' product, you don't feel as bad picking up a 'bad' product.

Other methods of moral licensing can be investigated too. Many people quit a habit and move onto another. Often this means that you amount with two habits at the end.

Habits and addictions can be hard to give up, and when people set goals to try and ease their problem, they tend to fuel their addiction first. This is seen as acceptable as it's their final goodbye to their habit, such as drinking loads on your last week with alcohol. Effectively, you've justified something you know is morally wrong with something you will do in the future.

This means we have two different types of moral licensing:

  • Past affecting present immoral actions
  • Future affecting present immoral actions

Moral licensing is seen all around us, however it has it's dangers too. Many wealthy or powerful people who can afford to do good, can be affected subconsciously to do immoral things. One example is Harvey Weinstein who donated to feminist studies, but is now a convicted sex offender. This is a common theme in movies, the good guy is not so good behind closed doors. All because their public image isn't at stake and they may believe it's justified by all the good they have done. Corruption and abuse of power is often for this reason, or sometimes peoples morals are twisted into believing what they are doing is 'good'.

Cheating in sports may be explained by moral licensing. Feeling like you can't get caught and everyone is rooting for you anyway. The lengths people will go to justify their moral licensing is immense! Often past experiences and behaviours influence our moral licensing too. 'I never donate to the homeless', this example suggests that by that behaviour being typical of you, it is somehow justified. 'I always drink in the evenings', 'I never go outside' etc. Also this means that you mentally 'lock' this trait in place and it is much harder to change that aspect about yourself.

So does this mean being good makes you a bad person?

Well quite simply no. But it can if you aren't careful. It's important to recognise when you've licensed yourself into immoral behaviour. Whether it's that slice of cake tempting you after a workout or spending loads of your money after saving for ages. Try to use your best judgement in all situations, and ask yourself if you would be happy with everyone knowing what you've done. Would it break the standards by which you hold yourself in public?

Having an understanding of your moral licensing can help you break willpower challenges that you previously blamed on your weak and unmotivated character. It can often hold you back and distract you from what you should be doing and lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Question the morality of your actions, if someone asked you if you would do said action for a survey, would you say yes?

I highly recommend everyone checks out this YouTube video on moral licensing where two different moral licensing examples are explored and the responses are fascinating!

Thank you for reading and let me know how you morally license!

Olly Nelson

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The FlowState Team

"Well quite simply no. But it can if you aren't careful. It's important to recognise when you've licensed yourself into immoral behaviour. Whether it's that slice of cake tempting you after a workout or spending loads of your money after saving for ages."

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