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Moral licensing is a phenomenon that occurs as follows:
A person who serves a strong social norm for moral action, e.g. by acting particularly tolerant or environmentally friendly, subsequently loses the desire to continue acting morally. In the worst case, moral behavior even turns into unfair or antisocial behavior.
Science cannot yet provide a precise and unambiguous explanation for this phenomenon, which has been proven many times in studies. Let us therefore take a look at the three most common variants.
1. The “buy yourself free card”
For our next city trip with friends, we would like to travel comfortably and in a time-saving manner from Cologne to Vienna, and so we get on a plane.
One of us has a guilty conscience because this trip will have a negative impact on his carbon footprint. But fortunately, the airline already has the right offer ready and offers him to set his CO2 footprint back to zero in exchange for additional money. Need meets offer. So far so good.
2. The moral account
Some people fill their moral account with certain products from the supermarket, with a donation to a charitable institution or with exceptionally green electricity. And in doing so, they buy the feeling that they don’t have to take morals quite so seriously when it comes to other things in life. Most of the time, we don’t perceive it that way, and I don’t want to deny anyone a deep conviction for good things. From my point of view, it only becomes difficult when it is no longer about the good thing itself, but about one’s own ego.
3. Moral identity
It is often the case that commitment to a good cause is replaced by a pure focus on one’s own moral identity. A company owner who decides to introduce a company-wide, gender-neutral language catalog and to reprimand violators may consider himself a progressive spirit.
However, if it then comes out that the gender pay gap in his company is around 20% across all full-time positions, the question arises as to how much he is concerned here with “progress” and how much with polishing his own moral identity or the externally perceived identity of his company. In my view, this is a practical example of the most unpleasant form of moral licensing.
Finally, my personal tip on how you can filter out honest people from the large soup of campaigns and measures. In this behavior, be it for others or the environment, the focus is on the cause itself and less on their own (external) impact. They do not chastise others for moral banalities or individual missteps, but focus on themselves.
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