16 Moral Licensing

Moral licensing picks out another kind of ethical mistake that is grounded in inappropriate self-regard. This happens when people who have behaved ethically by some measure in the past feel this good behaviour licenses them to behave badly in the present. There is no reason to think this is a conscious or reasoned decision. Rather, it seems that the good behaviour in the past feeds into a positive self-image that then resists the negative implications of the present behaviour. So, for instance, someone who voted for a Black politician in the past might go on to vote for an overtly racist politician in the present, without thinking that what they are doing is racist. It is as if previous moral behaviour inoculate ourselves against current immoral behavior.

Of course, ethically speaking, such a view is absurd. Moral licencing is best thought of as a cognitive bias. As with other biases, we need to protect ourselves against making this kind of mistake if we are to hope to behave ethically. As with other emotional or subconscious reactions, the best ways to avoid cognitive biases that lead to unethical behaviour are evaluating decisions using the various ethical lenses discussed above, critical engagement with others who have very different perspectives, and careful reasoning.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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