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Moral licensing or self-licensing is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person uses their prior "good" behavior to justify later "bad" behavior, often without explicitly using that logic. The effect has been demonstrated in numerous psychological studies. Evidence suggest that, though the effect is present in all sampled cultures, cultural differences explain a substantial amount of the total variation of the effect size of moral licensing. Thus, in contrast to most cognitive biases, it may be possible to actively discourage this bias in oneself.
If performed explicitly or intentionally, moral licensing acts as a fallacious attempt to shield oneself from criticism. The implicit logic operates as follows:
- P1: If my good actions in the past "outweigh" this new bad action, then I am morally allowed to perform it.
- P2: My good actions in the past outweigh this new bad action.
- C1: I am morally allowed to perform this new bad action.
The logic is valid but unsound: the first premise presumes that each person has a sort of "moral balance" or "karma". This can be thought of as a "moral bank account" where one can "deposit" morality-points for new moral actions and "withdraw" morality-points for new immoral actions. Very few people adhere to moralities that would allow this sort of moral balancing act. This is because very few people would be comfortable with excusing (for example) murder committed by somebody who had "saved up" enough moral actions over their life.
As an example of this behavior, alt-right YouTuber No Bullshit attacked Ezra Levant for "acting Jewish" and defended this by saying that "I've called out every other race and creed on this channel". This is a red herring or a whataboutism and does not excuse No Bullshit for his behavior. Instead, it's a deflection from the issue at hand. The person using the moral license is attempting to shift the conversation from a discussion from "this new bad action I did" onto "am I a good person or a bad person", which are separate questions.
- See the Wikipedia article on Self-licensing.
- See the Wikipedia article on Moral credential effect.
- Blanken I, van de Ven N, Zeelenberg M. A meta-analytic review of moral licensing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2015;41(4):540-558. DOI: 10.1177/0146167215572134
- Simbrunner P, Schlegelmilch BB. Moral licensing: a culture-moderated meta-analysis. Management Review Quarterly, 2017;67(4),201-225. DOI: 10.1007/s11301-017-0128-0