There has been a theme coalescing in what I read about how people approach rationalizing their actions. Essentially, people keep running tallies of their “good” and “bad” deeds and try to balance the books so to speak. I use quotes here because I don’t necessarily mean good and bad in a moral or ethical sense. This system is used by people for far more innocuous things. The behavioral economics term for this behavior is self-licensing or the licensing effect.
You are witnessing the licensing effect whenever you hear someone justify their racist actions by responding with a variation of “I have a black friend!” as if one example of tolerance somehow excuses an expression of intolerance. Scientists have demonstrated this effect in a diverse array of environments. For instance, research showed that publicly endorsing Barack Obama cause his followers to express more racially biased views. It’s been suggested as a reason that energy use increases after one purchases energy efficient appliances. One that I routinely see and hear (and succumb to myself) is when people reward themselves with dessert after having a salad or engaging in a strenuous day of walking.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of this research is how little one must do in order to invoke the licensing effect. All it takes is voicing the intention to do something good (like the Obama example above) and the effect is triggered. In one case scientists elicited self-licensing by merely having the participants imagine doing something charitable. It’s amazing how effortlessly we appropriate evidence that we are good and wholesome to puff up our self-image. It doesn’t take more than just imagining we are compassionate and caring!
Now the ease with which we accrue moral capital might no be so terrible if we didn’t readily spend it on misdeeds grossly out of proportion to our supposed good deeds. That is, human beings seem very bad at this moral tallying system. We chalk up points in the positive column with abandon for the slightest thing and then heavily discount the value of our sins. In fact, my theory, and this shows up in many other domains of human behavior, are that human beings are more enumerators than scales. We don’t typically store the value of our deeds as much as count the number of good deeds and the number of bad deeds and try to keep the sum above zero to maintain our fragile egos. It would explain how CEOs embezzling money can justify their actions by giving a tiny fraction of that money to a charity.
I am also puzzled where this system originated and whether it has become worse in our modern age. I say this because the major religions of the world do not, to my knowledge, endorse this theory of morality. Sure, a numerical scoring that determines who gets in to heaven, ala the TV show The Good Place, is a popular conception, but I don’t recall Jesus actually proposing that you balance your sins and virtue so delicately. Instead he continually called people to not judge (a key component of self-licensing) and always show kindness. As a counterpoint, Catholic practices like indulgences would suggest that entry to heaven is determined by balancing your misdeeds against your donations to the church. So maybe we can once again leave some blame at the feet of the religious institutions that spring up around the core precepts and texts. I remain unconvinced though.
Has this gotten worse? I think the modern segmentation of society into cloistered groups with similar views would likely make this worse. Who is going to challenge your moral accounting if everyone you interact with thinks just like you do? It’s OK to make that racist joke at a party, you all voted for Obama. It doesn’t even require drawing down your moral bank account.
It might not be readily apparent, but the judginess of liberals and even conservatives on social media platforms is symptomatic of rampant self-licensing. I say this because, as I mentioned earlier, self-licensing requires a strong, almost unassailable, confidence in your judgement. If you doubted your ability to tally points in the appropriate column then I think you would at least have a harder time accruing and spending your moral income. The irony of the internet liberal is that tolerance is one of the core precepts of liberalism that they seem continually unable to express and that the self-licensing allowed by their loud pronouncements of virtue on the internet likely enables all kinds of poor behavior in other settings.
In conclusion, I think one should be aware of this poor mode of thinking and avoid it at all costs. The appropriate view is to do good always and do evil never. You can’t go wrong with that.