current affairs politics race

Moral licensing and extreme politics

Did anyone else listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series earlier this year, Revisionist History? I’ve been thinking about one of the episodes over the past week. It’s the first, The Lady Vanishes. If you haven’t heard it, you can listen to it on the website. In it, Gladwell looks at examples of female achievement and how it should have broken a glass ceiling, but instead they remained a one-off.

I won’t spoil his stories by telling you his examples, but the phenomenon he investigates is called ‘moral licensing’. That occurs when we do something good, and use that as permission to do something wrong. A Stanford study into the concept defined it thus:

“Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.”

In one early experiment, participants were invited to shop online at either a regular store or an eco-store. They were then asked to play a little game where they could anonymously divide a sum of money between themselves and a stranger. Those who had shopped at the green store were more likely to cheat and give themselves more money. Browsing the green products offered a kind of ‘moral offset’, a sort of virtuous credit chip that they could cash in to make it okay to rip off a stranger.

Moral licensing plays a role in the rebound effects that plague the energy efficiency world. I just bought a new washing machine, after ours rattled itself off to the junkyard. It’s got a high energy rating, and I will be keeping an eye on how we use it. Research has shown that when people buy energy efficient appliances, they then use them more than they did before and wipe out any savings. The good deed of getting the more efficient model gives the user permission to be more profligate in other ways.

In his podcast, Gladwell makes passing mention of Hilary Clinton, but doesn’t elaborate. (He has done in interviews, see below.) What I’ve been thinking about is whether moral licensing has played out at a large scale in the last couple of weeks. Psychologists have shown that when people are given an opportunity to prove they aren’t prejudiced, they are more likely to then make a prejudiced choice afterwards. This has been tested in experiments involving hypothetical job applications with black and white candidates.

What if a nation has just had an opportunity to demonstrate on the world stage that it is progressive and unprejudiced, by voting for the first black US president? It proves that Americans aren’t racist, that institutional racism is a thing of the past. Then with that moral credit subconsciously banked, perhaps some people feel able to vote for a president with white nationalist leanings.

I’m not suggesting that moral licensing offers us a comprehensive explanation of what’s happening right now, by any means. There are all kinds of sides to what is going on at the moment, including globalisation and inequality. But perhaps it might go a little way to explaining one element the story – why one of the most progressive and promising moments of US race relations has been so followed by its opposite.


  1. It’s a point I keep making that people who think of themselves as more moral generally aren’t. All that virtue signalling has a cost.

    1. I agree. I’m a hypocrite.

      But then it’s easy to start thinking that we’re better than people who think they’re better than other people, if you catch my drift. So it’s circular, and ultimately hypocrisy is a human trait. The best we can hope for is to be aware of it in ourselves.

      I do think it’s important to remember that underneath virtue signalling there are real matters of right and wrong, and we do have to be able to talk about that. If we just shout ‘virtue signalling’ every time someone raises an issue of morality, then liberalism eats itself.

      1. Virtue signalling is a problem because it encourages more extreme solutions. Virtue signalling is display and all display is competitive so the logic is too further: ‘You only said that professor who made an off-colour joke about women was wrong, well I said he should apologise’. ‘No he should lose his job!’ ‘And never work again!’

        It is the very opposite of classical liberalism. American liberalism, which isn’t liberal anymore, is eating itself, which maybe why the American public rejected it even when the other choice was Trump.

        1. I agree with all of that, which is why I’m puzzled that you keep raising the issue. If it’s because you think that I’m engaging in virtue signalling, I’d genuinely like to know what it is in this post that would count as such.

          1. I raise it since the moment you start phrasing arguments where one side claims the moral high ground you give licence to virtue signalling. It is a strategy you have employed in the past (though not in this case).

            I have found that much of the reaction to Trump’s victory, similarly to Brexit, has been accusations of racism or stupidity at the voters with the clear implication that those discussing it are intellectually and morally superior. Yet conservative movements such as these are reactions against an over-reach which has been promoted by those same ‘superior’ people. Distaining people, many who are weaker than their ‘betters’ and trampling on their views and culture, such that they provoke a backlash is not moral in my book.

            1. Sure, but there is such a thing as a moral high ground. Thinking torture is wrong is better than thinking torture is great. People who think the former will make better leaders than people who think the latter. And people who vote for those better leaders are making a better decision.

              That doesn’t make for superior or inferior people. We’re all equal in the eyes of God, we all have our hypocrisies and blind spots. But there are better or worse opinions, that lead to a better or worse world. We need to find ways of talking about these things in a grown-up fashion.

  2. I think the idea that America felt empowered to vote for Trump because they had moral licence from elect Obama is a false application of the idea of moral licensing. It makes the mistake of treating America as a single unit rather than 350 million individuals which is the level moral licensing works. It overplays how much feelings of personal morality effect how people vote. It also makes too much of Obama’s election. In the UK we get a squewed view of America that is more to the left than that of the actual American centre. We mostly saw the Americans who were proud of the USA for electing it’s first black president but we missed those many who didn’t see it a a big factor and we’re voting to throw the bums out. I doubt few who felt vicarious moral superiority for the election of Obama voted for Trump.

    Elections are generally determined by economic fundamentals along with whether it is time for a change. The economic and political fundamentals in 2008 pointed to a Democrat victory. Similarly the fundamentals in 2016 were saying Republican. We get too fixed on the candidates, exaggerating their good or bad points.

    1. Sure, and I refer you to my final paragraph – I don’t think moral licensing is by any means ‘the explanation’. This post is raising a question rather than giving an answer.

      What I find interesting is that America’s race issues have bubbled to the surface during a black presidency, as one would perhaps expect. But one might also expect that historic moment be a breakthrough for race relations, a step change. Instead, things appear to be moving in the opposite direction. It’s bigger than Trump and voting preferences (yes, in a two party system half the outcome is simply whose turn it is) . There’s a cultural shift in the midst of it, with the broader rise of the alt-right, and the legitimising of extreme views.

      1. My issue with the idea that moral licensing ‘allowed’ people to vote for Trump isn’t that is conjecture with no evidence to back it up (even though it is) but that it has an underlying basis that Trump voters are racists. That makes those on the left feel better but again the evidence isn’t there. I mean what objective evidence is there that America is getting more racist?

        I go back to my point that the candidates aren’t as important as you seem to be thinking. Obama wasn’t elected because he was black but because he politically and economically better placed than McCain. What breakthrough there was that it wasn’t enough of an issue to stop him being elected. But electing a white man next doesn’t mean a return to racism, anymore that voting for a protestant president after JFK didn’t mean a return to mistrust of Catholics.

        Given that Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney if you did want to follow the moral licensing idea it is more that those who voted for Obama felt entitled to abstain and not to vote for Hillary. But that would be insulting people Gladwell likes, not those he doesn’t.

        1. But we have to do better than that – if we never talk about race because we’re afraid of implying people are racist, the minority that are racist profit from the silence and get their way.

          Of course all Trump voters aren’t racists, but if you’ve got alt-right groups raising their fists and chanting ‘hail Trump’, you’ve got a problem. As I said already, it’s not just about one candidate. There’s a cultural shift underway that is profoundly regressive, with Trump both a consequence and a catalyst.

          1. I’m not saying not to discuss racism but I think there is an issue that people like Gladwell are lumping a lot of legitimate things into the term ‘racism’ in order to delegitimate those issues.

            It is not wrong or immoral to want to look live with people who share your values. Nor to hold concerns about affirmative action when you are worse off than the people it benefits. Or wonder what a candidate offers you as a white man when they talk about lots of other minorities but never you.

            I think there is a cultural change taking place. As I say above I think is a reaction against an over-reach of change taking place faster than many people want. Both economic, cultural and in terms of immigration. These issues have not been addressed for too long. Economically ignored on the right (by people like me) and on immigration and cultural on the left. Labelling these people as Luddites or racists doesn’t work anymore and we should never have done so. When I start hearing contrition from people like Gladwell then we can start coming to a new consensus and it will frankly be to the right of where we are now socially.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: