We tend to moralize in a self-serving way: we are righteous; others harbor ill will. Through this lens, we readily forgive our ‘bad’ behavior; others, well, they are evil.

This tendency leads to the ‘moral licensing’ effect. We reward our good deeds by self-indulging in ‘bad’ ones, often unconsciously. For example, when we exercise in the morning, we tend to reward us with a fatty lunch: we deserve a treat for our morning sweat and tears on the treadmill, don’t we?

If only our waist size is at stake, moral licensing would not be an issue. But too often moral licensing creeps into other matters. Indeed, hardly there is a week goes by without scandals of  infidelity, corruption, etc.

These falling celebrities, teachers, doctors, priests, politicians, athletes, they are  supposed to  hold higher moral ground. But why cannot they resist the temptation of an intern (Bill Clinton) or an extra-marital affair (Tiger Woods)? They may be drowned by power and fame, thinking they are beyond the law?

But at a deeper level, moral licensing may also play a sinister role:  since they have done sufficient ‘good’ for this world, they believe they deserve a treat, just as we treat ourselves a greasy lunch after morning exercise?

If moral licensing is a sneaky enemy we all face, what are our defenses? For one, moral licensing exists because we are more sympathetic to the self-indulgent self—a more authentic self?

To ward off moral licensing, we may have to toughen up our identity, making self-indulgent  so repugnant. For example, in a modern society, even mentioning of incest will disgust most of us,  although there is no other reason  beyond moral itself.

But for many other issues, subduing self-indulgence remains a never ending struggle.


[Vancouver, Canada, Nov., 2013]

8 thoughts on “WRITING: ON HABITS, 3

  1. Basically, everyone is a hypocrite at times :p One of the most difficult things to do in life is being honest to yourself.

    Celebrities are subject to larger and more public temptations that us “commoners”. It’s the same with super rich people who revert to stealing or who become fraudulent: they don’t need the money, but merely seek the thrill. And maybe they honestly believe they won’t get caught because they think they’re above society (or maybe they subconsciously WANT to get caught – who knows. I bet even they don’t).

    Liked by 2 people

    • “seek the thrill”: good point! I did not think about it.

      “being honest to yourself”:

      We are social animals. Our preferences, behavior, and moral standards depend on the environment/context we live in. As much as we love to think we have autonomy or free will, our mind is actually shaped by our environment in a significant way. Sometimes I even wonder how many ideas are genuinely my own. I suspect many of them either come directly or indirectly from our environment (including the books, movies, TV, etc). This thought is a bit depressing…

      Liked by 1 person

      • About the honesty part, what I meant was the moral licensing you were talking about. It’s easier to say: “it went wrong because…” than admit you made a mistake.

        My father does it all the time, so does my crazy sister. If you hear them, you’d think they were perfect.

        I bet they do :p

        I had a similar struggle as you do, by the way, but regarding my genes (this is so typically me, haha). I keep wondering what makes me “me”, as I am half my father and half my mother (gene-wise), and they were both half theirs, etcetera etcetera. So if I got a little bit of everyone, what part of me is authentic?
        (don’t go down that road, btw. Once you’re on it, you can’t get off).

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s