Self-sabotaging…”Moral Licensing”


I stumbled upon an article that was written about one of the youngest professors under 30, talking about his main research – Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Business Ethics. As it seems, CSR in businesses is a ‘good way to impact’, but in one of Dr. Sam Yam’s papers, when he was researching the companies’ forcing the employees to partake in CSR practices (e.g. volunteering, charity donations, social welfare), the ‘good’ and ‘ethical’ motive may not be as well as it is envisioned. He said:

The idea is that when you force employees to be pro-social people, they gain a sense that they’re doing something really good, even though they didn’t really want to.

They aren’t being compensated for it, so they gain that sense of psychological entitlement and they feel freer to engage in unethical behaviour later on.

After I read this article, I really couldn’t believe how this would work. How would doing good entitle anyone to do bad later? I was very confused when I read this article; do humankind really perform in this way? What drives this behavior?

Since I didn’t explicitly believe in the results of Dr. Sam Yan’s research originally, as I couldn’t believe such a twisted behavior appeared within humankind. However, I had realized there’s a more common example that many of us can relate to: going to Church. Many of Hong Kong’s secondary schools are either Christian or a Catholic school – where religious studies are taught and tested, stories are acted, or had church going on every Friday. But after graduation, very little people actually keep the regular practice of going to church.

Moral Licensing

Moral licensing‘ (definition) is a type of social psychology, of a subconscious phenomenon; it occurs where past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying feeling immoral. In simple terms, this means that doing good gives you ‘permission to sin‘.
Some examples: According to the author of the infamous book “The Happiness Project“, Gretchen Rubin, moral licensing works like a ‘loophole‘, that is a seemingly infinite cycle that forces us to break the practice of establishing new habits. As we begin testing and making ourselves form and keep habits, we will eventually find excuses to stop and justify – then excuse ourselves until we reach the same situation again.

  1. I’ve run a lot today. I deserve some ice cream!
  2. I’ve saved so much money on these cheap clothes, I ought to buy a luxury handbag.
  3. I’ve worked a lot today, I deserve not to tidy my room.
  4. I’ve recycled my bottle yesterday. Today it’s fine, I’ll buy a disposable carton.
  5. I haven’t turned on the air conditioner for a few days, I get to blast it tonight!

Doing ‘good’ all day gives us permission to be ‘bad’.

Gretchen Rubin says, “Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.”

The only way to get out of this loophole is to identify keystone habits. Habits that…

  1. you will keep. You have identified it to be something you want to change about yourself.
  2. are actions that make you a part of your identity. A part of your character that you want to have.

In order to start a habit, is easy! It takes about 30 days to form a habit. So for each month, give yourself a MISSION.

  1. Wake up early and drink two cups of water
  2. Pack your things before you go to bed
  3. Pick out your outfit for the next day
  4. Read at least 10 pages of a book a day
  5. Watch a TED Talk every day
  6. Type 1/2 a blog post every day
  7. Not use more than 5 minutes of watering time when you’re in the shower (- switch off the water tap when you’re putting on shampoo, conditioner or body wash!)

All in all, it’s not difficult to start a habit. Get a habit-friend, a person who will report your life progresses with you all the time. Good Luck! I’m in for this too!