Aug 14th 2018

How we use good deeds to justify immoral behaviour

by Nishat Babu

 

Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour, Aston University

 

We all like to think of ourselves as morally sound individuals. However in doing so we often assume that morality is static – that we are consistently moral to some extent over time. In reality, research suggests that most of us will behave in contradictory ways and act both morally and immorally from time to time. Interestingly, when we think about our past moral actions, we are likely to engage engage in compensatory behaviour and act immorally going forward.

For instance, if you recently donated to charity, you may donate less money at a future charity event or be less willing to volunteer. This has been termed moral licensing, and describes how previous engagement in moral behaviour provides people with moral “credits” that then affords them with a ticket to subsequently engage in morally questionable behaviour.

The consequences of this can be quite serious, and happens even when people are merely anticipating future engagement. One study showed that people who expected to engage in some future moral action, such as in a fundraiser or donating blood, were more likely to pick a white candidate over a black candidate as being suitable for a job.

Moral licensing has also attracted attention in the area of corporate social responsibility. This term can broadly be thought of as an organisation’s focus beyond the bottom line – how it acts towards its stakeholders, the environment, and society. For example, Kenneth Lay, the former CEO of Enron – a company notoriously known for its accounting fraud which ultimately led to its collapse in 2001 – was noted to be a keen philanthropist. It may well be that he felt that his philanthropic efforts provided him with moral credits, allowing him to subsequently endorse the negative goings on within the company.

This view is in fact reinforced by research. One study that looked at moral licensing within the organisational context showed that prior corporate social responsibility of CEOs was linked to more corporate social irresponsibility later. Interest in moral licensing has even extended to areas such as energy conservation. One study showed that residents reduced their water consumption when exposed to a water conservation programme. However, at the same time their electrical consumption was shown to have increased in comparison to a control group.

Currently we are not sure what the psychological processes underpinning moral licensing are. Does prior moral behaviour really provide credits that can be withdrawn to allow engagement in a questionable act – because we feel we have “earned” the right to do so? Or could it be that prior moral behaviour changes the meaning of the subsequent questionable behaviour? For instance, if we have established through previous actions that we are not racially biased, we may more easily convince ourselves that picking a white candidate over a black candidate was due to some factor other than race.

But are others willing to accept our moral license? One study looked at the reactions of individuals to a white speaker who made a potentially offensive comment directed at African Americans. When this comment was preceded by “I’m not racist or anything, but …”, the white people rated the speaker as slightly less racist, while the black people judged the speaker as more racist. And so, where the targeted group was concerned, they were less likely to license the speaker – causing the speaker’s initial claim of not being racist to backfire.

Moral cleansing

The opposite to moral licensing is also true. We know that when people recall their recent immoral behaviour, they express greater willingness to engage in compensatory moral actions. This is referred to as moral cleansing – demonstrating the dynamic nature of moral behaviour.

For instance, Donald Trump’s quick decision in April 2017 to launch a missile strike in Syria in response to a chemical attack by the Syrian regime, drew praise from his critics as being “the right thing to do”. However, as Hillary Clinton pointed out, “we cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close American doors to them” – referring to a ban on receiving refugees.

It could well be argued that Trump’s morally questionable previous behaviour motivated him to engage in “moral cleansing” by launching the applauded missile strike. But the example clearly shows that while this may have assured him about his own morality, it takes more consistency to be accepted as moral by others.

Finally, there is some evidence to suggest that moral licensing seems to be apparent only for private transgressions, such as donating to charity privately as opposed to doing so publicly. It seems as individuals, we seek to protect, and in some cases even bolster our reputation through public displays of moral actions. And engaging in morally questionable behaviour that we ourselves feel we have earned isn’t something we want to broadcast. Indeed, research has evidenced that those people who are publicly charitable do benefit from reputational enhancement.

Being good isn’t always easy. When it comes to behaving morally, it appears there is a balance we all strive to achieve, so that personally we can remain assured of our own moral goodness.

 

Nishat Babu, Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.
Oct 18th 2018
Leaving a major political body is nothing new for mainland Britain. In 409AD, more than 350 years after the Roman conquest of 43AD, the island slipped from the control of the Roman Empire. Much like the present Brexit, the process of this secession and its practical impacts on Britain’s population in the early years of the 5th century remain ill-defined. As with the UK and Brussels, Britain had always been a mixed blessing for Rome. In around 415AD, St Jerome called the island “fertile in tyrants” (meaning usurpers) and late Roman writers portrayed a succession of rebellions in Britain, usually instigated by the army – many of whom would have been born in the province.
Oct 16th 2018
One of the oldest Greek myths, the story of Pandora was first recorded more than 2,500 years ago, in the time of Homer. In the original telling, Pandora was not some innocent girl who succumbed to the temptation to open a forbidden jar......Pandora was deliberately devised to punish humankind for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus. Essentially a seductive AI fembot, she had no parents, childhood memories, or emotions of any kind, nor would she ever age or die. She was programmed to carry out one malevolent mission: to insinuate herself in an earthly setting and then unseal the jar......With AI/machine learning quickly evolving into a “black box” technology, the symbol of Pandora’s sealed jar has taken on new meaning.
Oct 11th 2018
The Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is currently exhibiting a substantial selection of Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, and prints – focusing on those works that reveal the story of “Britain’s Discovery of the Master.” Exploring the significance of Rembrandt to British collectors, artists, and writers provides us with the occasion to revisit some fifteen major oil paintings.....
Oct 10th 2018
On the fiftieth anniversary of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu’s first coloration, Buenos Aires’ National Museum of Fine Arts pays tribute to the landmark early accomplishment of its native son..........Uriburu’s role as an early environmentalist has never been appreciated outside of his native country. It is sad that this neglect was not remedied in his lifetime, but at least it should be done now; a full-scale retrospective of his pioneering work should be presented in the art world’s capitals, to inspire young artists.
Oct 2nd 2018
The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two immunologists for their revolutionary approaches to treat cancer. James Allison, based in the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, based at Kyoto University in Japan, led exciting and groundbreaking work on developing new types of immunotherapy that help our immune system fight cancer.
Sep 20th 2018
We all want other people to “get us” and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a “real me”. But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple – we are a product of our life experiences, which we can be easily accessed through our memories of the past. Indeed, substantial research has shown that memories shape a person’s identity......................But it turns out that identity is often not a truthful representation of who we are anyway – even if we have an intact memory. Research shows that we don’t actually access and use all available memories when creating personal narratives. It is becoming increasingly clear that, at any given moment, we unawarely tend to choose and pick what to remember.
Sep 20th 2018
The research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, compared how much mothers reported using cleaning products with the rate of obesity in 757 children at the age of three. Faecal samples were taken from the infants at three to four-months-old and the researchers investigated associations between microbial changes and being overweight at age three. The researchers found a link between heavy use of cleaning products, microbial changes and children with a higher body mass index (BMI). However, higher disinfectant usage was also reported among households with infants who received antibiotics around the time of birth; who were exposed to cigarette smoke; or were delivered by caesarean section. The results may therefore reflect several interlinking factors. Obesity was less likely to occur in breastfed children, but breastfeeding was also linked to lower disinfectant usage, which makes it difficult to tease apart these two factors.
Sep 11th 2018
If there’s a story that unites success in Silicon Valley and the new economy that’s given us iPhones and Uber, it’s that geek innovators are rewarded. Engineer the killer app and the cash will roll in. Big brains mean a big pay day. It may be a new economy, but this is a very old mistake. The idea that those at the top of a business are the ones who should be celebrated makes little sense to anyone who actually works in an organisation like Tesla. They might be the ones who make the headlines, but it’s the ordinary employees who do the work and produce the value.